By Kieran Cobley
UFC 278 takes place this Saturday, August 20th,in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is headlined by the long awaited rematch between current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (20-1, 9 KO, 1 Sub) and top contender Leon Edwards (19-3, 6 KO, 3 Sub, 1 NC).
“The pair first met in 2015, with “The Nigerian Nightmare” scoring a unanimous decision win over Birmingham native Edwards.
But seven years have passed since then, and both men have evolved during that time.
Usman’s reputation of being “boring” fighter who merely goes for decision wins has been shattered, with the TUF 21 winner utilising his wrestling background to take fighters to the mat and keep them there. That was how Usman successfully navigated his first bout with Edwards, securing six takedowns on his way to getting the nod from the judges.
That Usman is long gone. The Usman of 2022 is regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, a fighter who can slam you, tie you in a tight clinch, or simply beat the brakes off you with his new found love of striking.
In three of his last five fights, Usman has scored knockout victories over the man opposite him in the Octagon, with those men being very notable: former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, former interim welterweight champion Colby Covington, and last but not least, the BMF of the UFC, Jorge Masvidal.
This ferocity in striking, brought on from working with Trever Wittman in fight camp while training in Sanford MMA in Florida for the rest of the year, has made Usman lethal. Stepping into his boxing range is like putting your head in the mouth of a lion; nothing good can come of it.
Psychologically, Usman will feel good coming into this bout after seeing his brother, Mohammed, win the TUF Heavyweight final two weeks ago and coming into this fight on a run of 19 consecutive wins.
Edwards’ rise to the top of the welterweight division is nothing to sneer at. Since losing to Usman, the Team Renegade talisman has won nine bouts, with a no contest with Belal Muhammed in the mix too.
While Usman was regarded as being boring due to his heavy wrestling style, fans were equally unimpressed with Edwards, seeing him as a point fighter who lacked finishing ability in a division full of fighters who could get the win within the distance.
It was perhaps this fan resentment that caused Edwards to have to wait for so long for his shot; after all, he did have a more legitimate shout for a title fight than Covington or Masvidal did, with the pair getting rematches not long after being soundly beaten by Usman. At the same time, Edwards was forced to consistently hold onto his position at the top of the rankings.
There was also the issue of Edwards being removed from the rankings for not accepting a fight with the then un-ranked Khamzat Chimaev, instead opting to wait it out for either a title shot or a fight with a notable ranked contender, for instance, Nate Diaz, who Edwards beat easily.
That has to be put to the back of Edwards’ head now, and he needs to focus on Usman, a new Usman, a more dangerous Usman. If Edwards underestimates Usman and still believes him to be the same fighter he was in their first meeting, he will be in deep trouble.
There is no obvious way for Edwards to win this fight; slipping in an out of range against Usman is an impossible task given the man’s abilities and movement skills.
The bookies are certainly in favour of Usman in this fight, making him a heavy favourite with odds of ¼ to win and 11/5 to win by either submission or KO.
However, miracles can happen in MMA; Derrick Lewis’ come from behind KO against Aleksander Volkov, Matt Serra’s underdog win against George Saint-Pierre, and JuliannPena’s KO win against the double champ, Amanda Nunes.
A win for Edwards would undoubtedly be one of the most significant underdogs wins ever, but this is one hell of an uphill battle.