Leon Edwards erases doubts in masterful UFC 286 title defense

Some of Leon Edwards’ first words after usurping the welterweight crown last August turned into part-speech, part-bellows.

“Look at me now!” he said that night in Salt Lake City.

As great as his comeback Kamaru Usman headbutt was, Edwards should have warned that what was to come would manage to top him.

In front of a raucous O2 Arena in London, packed to the brim with fans of the Birmingham-based badass, a masterful Edwards did on Saturday night what he failed to do last time out: he won the action all through long from the main event of UFC 286 to successfully defend his title.

Doubters had criticized Edwards’ ability to defend his belt in a third encounter (a rubber match because Usman won his first fight in 2015). The new champion entered as a solid +200 or more underdog for the longtime 170-pound former king.

Who can blame the handicappers and bettors? Apart from the last-minute spot kick that shook Usman to the canvas in August, Edwards was on the wrong end of the final 19 minutes of action. Usman’s struggle knocked Edwards out of his groove that night nearly seven months ago, and the eventual champion looked troubled and, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, “dejected.”

This version of Edwards remained in Utah, replaced by a confident champion who was clearly the better fighter for the entire 25 minute run.

Leon Edwards
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

If it weren’t for several fouls by Edwards (Usman would have gone to the free throw line for a one-and-one had it been part of a March Madness fork) that required a point deduction in the third round, all three judges would have awarded Edwards the victory. With the penalty, he still made it 48-46 on two scorecards and a 47-47 for a majority decision in his favor.

Edwards (21-3, 10 finishes), who at 31 is four years younger than Usman (20-3, 10 finishes), hammered the ex-champ’s recalcitrant knees and vulnerable midsection with jabs feet everywhere. According to UFC stats, he landed 50 significant strikes to Usman’s legs, 36 to the body and 34 to the head. As a testament to his tremendous economy of movement, Edwards connected on 75% of his total strike attempts.

No fight-finishing header materialized this time, but Edwards found a home upstairs with his crushing knee strikes that kept Usman at bay. He later acknowledged in the octagon that he had focused low to set up the high kick again.

“Obviously his coaches worked his defense on that,” Edwards said of the challenger. “I couldn’t live without it. I set him up with body kicks and leg kicks, but fair play for him.

Not to say Usman wasn’t in the running. Between rounds two and four, it was anyone’s fight. Usman’s wrestling wasn’t as effective, with few successful takedowns and none holding Edwards off long enough to take advantage. Only four of 15 shots recorded as official outs, and Usman made just one significant strike on the ground.

Leon Edwards punches Kamaru Usman.
Leon Edwards punches Kamaru Usman.
Action images via Reuters

But the former champion still hits like a truck, and he tagged his rival multiple times while on his feet during the 15-minute thrilling battle.

“I knew I could go out there and take his punches,” Edwards said. “Even when he was pressing, not much happened.”

The lack of an effective takedown game cost Usman dearly. At 35 and fighting in his 10th consecutive five-round match, the former NCAA Division II national champion lacked a blast in several attempts to bring Edwards, who moved from Jamaica to England, when he was a child, on the ground.

If one of those double legs had put Edwards flat on the mat, granting Usman license to plant bombs from above, we might be talking about a double champion.

But we are not.

Edwards clearly won the first and fifth rounds thanks to his overall more hard-hitting strikes, including knees to the chin and an elbow to the dome in the final frame. He nearly repeated the fifth-round headbutt feat after a stinging uppercut, but the challenger managed to block enough of it.

The point lost for grabbing the fence to prevent a takedown by Usman weighed heavily, putting a draw on the line, but the lack of a clear-as-day Usman trick did him a disservice.

“I knew it was a close fight,” Usman, who assured he wasn’t stepping away from MMA, said in the cage. “Great game plan. I always said it from the start, I knew I would see Leon.

It was Edwards’ night, the Englishman basking in the adulation of his British brothers. While clearly festive, it was less lively, not running on the same adrenaline as last summer when a mic came its way. Instead, he’s been there, done this for this champion.

Look at him NOW.


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