This Saturday, Leon Edwards takes on Kamaru Usman for the third time. Looking at this matchup, I was excited to finally revisit my old series, Gameplanning for Greatness, in which I prescribe strategies for championship fights. It would have been called something like, How Leon Edwards beats Kamaru Usman. Only one problem: that series was always geared toward challengers vying to take down a dominant champion, whereas Leon Edwards… is the champion.
So why doesn’t it feel like it?
Edwards wrested the welterweight belt from Usman last summer at UFC 278. The fight-ending blow, a perfect head kick set up by a throwaway cross, came with just under a minute left in the bout. Kamaru Usman was far from the only man who didn’t see it coming. The fight up to that point had followed a predictable arc: Edwards had competed early, even banking the first round on the strength of a well-timed takedown that the champion simply wasn’t ready for, but soon found himself pushed out of the fight. Usman pressured him, mauled him up against the fence, took him down five times, controlling him for 10 of the allotted 25 minutes while also nearly doubling his output of strikes. For about 75% of the bout, Edwards looked absolutely miserable, and rightly so.
It was in every way a typical Kamaru Usman fight, another in a series of grinding wins stretching all the way back to 2013–and including a previous win over the challenger himself–except that, this time, Leon Edwards managed to land the only strike that mattered.
So now, approaching the rubber match, I know I am far from alone in feeling that Kamaru Usman is still the mountain Leon Edwards has to climb, and not the other way around.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Leon Edwards. Is a miracle comeback the only way for Edwards to win this fight, or is there a way to make the margins more comfortable? Was the comeback even miraculous, or does Edwards deserve more credit for finding the win when all seemed lost? And why, oh why, is a charming man with the ability to deliver spectacular moments like that so damn frustrating to watch?
What is wrong with Leon Edwards?
First, let’s focus on a straightforward, technical shortcoming that has far-ranging implications for the rest of Edwards’ game and his overall style.
Leon Edwards’ footwork is not very good.
Plenty of people make the mistake of assuming his footwork is good because he’s fast and light on his feet and manages to get out of the way of a great many strikes. But even though it may be very effective in most of his fights, Edwards’ footwork is not very good. In a word, he moves well, but doesn’t move right.
You can see this exposed when you watch him fight a comparable athlete, someone who can match his speed and agility with equally quick and decisive pressure. Someone like… well, Kamaru Usman would be too obvious. Let’s look instead at an example from Edwards’ 2016 fight with Albert Tumenov.
1. After one too many straight-line retreats, Edwards finds himself trapped against the fence.
2. He circles by sidestepping to his left, bringing his feet together in the effort.
3. Still cornered, Edwards reaches out with a long guard, preparing to frame Tumenov and gain enough space to escape the corner.
4. As his frame connects, he awkwardly switches stance, at which point Tumenov touches him with a throwaway left hook.
5. Now in orthodox, Edwards begins sidestepping/backpedaling to the right, while Tumenov pursues him with a straight right hand.
6. The right falls short, but Tumenov’s next punch, a leaping left hook, does not, snapping Edwards’ head back as he turns away from his pursuer.
The sequence starts with Edwards already almost cornered–that is its own issue, which we will discuss in a moment–and Tumenov closing in. You don’t need training to know that, when there’s no more room to back up, you need to go sideways. Leon does it, but his footwork is a mess.
Let’s talk about the difference between a sidestep and a pivot. What Leon is doing here might be called “circling,” but that circle is very wide–approximately the same circumference as that of the Octagon itself, in fact. That’s because he is sidestepping, a lateral movement which takes him away from his opponent. A pivot, on the other hand, draws a much tighter circle around his opponent because, while the back foot moves sideways, the front foot stays in more or less the same place, pivoting. With this maneuver, a fighter can get out of his opponent’s sights without conceding any ground at all, even moving into the opponent while still forcing him to reset before he can do anything about it–a momentary opening into which the pivoting fighter, having maintained effective distance, can pour his own strikes.
In a word, sidesteps give space while pivots gain space.
Because Edwards insists on sidestepping–and what exaggerated, loping sidesteps they are–his back heel continually collides with the fence as he tries to get away. As he circles, his feet get closer and closer together, even crossing at a few points. And once the flurry of sidestepping is done, where does he find himself? Still trapped. All he’s done is relocated to a different corner!
So Edwards decides that he has to move into Tumenov in order to get off the fence. Good thought. He could step in with a punch, but instead he tries to frame Tumenov with a long guard. Nothing wrong with that–except that Edwards awkwardly changes stance in the middle of the movement. The reason for this cumbersome piece of footwork is revealed the moment Leon tries to use the space just gained: now standing in a wide orthodox stance, he starts sidestepping… in the other direction.
The irony here is that Edwards goes orthodox in order to move to the right–which should be the natural way for a southpaw to go! Anyone with an ounce of training will tell you: orthodox fighters find it easy to pivot to the left, clockwise, while southpaws pivot more comfortably counterclockwise, to the right. But again, that fact of nature applies to pivots, and Edwards isn’t comfortable pivoting unless he’s dictating the exchange. Indeed, in switching to orthodox, his rightward sidesteps are more akin to a linear retreat–clearly the mode of defensive footwork with which Edwards is most comfortable.
In fact, that is exactly how he got cornered in the first place.
Because Edwards’ circle is so very wide, it is a simple thing for Tumenov to track him down with a combination. He lines him up with a throwaway left hook, pursues with a right, resets his feet and leads Edwards’ predictable movement into a leaping left hook. The exchange ends, Edwards is the worse for it and… he is still cornered.
There are a few reasons this flaw hasn’t cost Edwards more fights.
For one, there is the aforementioned physicality. Albert Tumenov is a quick, explosive fighter who found it fairly easy to punish Edwards’ mistakes. That is a taller order for unathletic strivers like Belal Muhammad and aging fighters like Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz, two former lightweights who moved up to Leon’s weight class only because they needed the 15 pounds of chewing gum to keep their limbs attached.
But Edwards has also developed a few workarounds to minimize the opportunities granted by his lackluster footwork. The most crucial of these–and the primary reason Edwards has yet to enjoy a comfortable fight with Kamaru Usman–is wrestling.
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For more on Edwards-Usman 3 and the rest of UFC 286—not to mention Merab Dvalishvili’s stunning victory over Petr Yan last weekend—check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching.