Leon Edwards clears doubts with masterful UFC 286 title defense

Some of Leon Edwards’ first words after he usurped the welterweight crown last August turned into half-talking, half-hooting.

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

As was his return, a knockout of Kamaru Usman, Edwards should have offered a warning that what was to come would top him.

In front of London’s bustling O2 arena, packed with badass Birmingham-based fans, the slick Edwards did Saturday night what he failed to do last time around: He won the move throughout the UFC 286 main event. to successfully defend his title.

Skeptics questioned Edwards’ ability to defend his belt in a third meeting (a rubber match because Usman won their first fight back in 2015). The new champion entered as a strong underdog +200 or higher to the previous 170-pound king.

Who can blame the handicaps and the bettors? Far from the last-minute high kick that smashed Usman to the canvas in August, Edwards was on the wrong end for the final 19 minutes of action. Wrestling Osman Edwards had knocked him out of his rhythm that night nearly seven months ago, and the soon-to-be champ appeared disoriented and, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, “depressed.”

That version of Edwards stayed in Utah, and was replaced by a confident champ who was clearly the better fighter for the better part of the entire 25-minute run.

Leon Edwards
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

If there weren’t so many Edwards errors (Othman would have gone to the free-throw line for a one-and-one if this were part of the March Madness arc) that necessitated a point deduction in the third round, all three judges would have awarded Edwards the win. With the penalty, he managed 48-46 on two scorecards and 47-47 on a majority decision in his favour.

Edwards (21-3, 10 finishes), who at 31 is four years younger than Usman (20-3, 10 finishes), has hammered the former champion’s weak knees and weak midsection with kicks throughout. According to UFC stats, he landed 50 big blows to Osman’s legs, 36 to the body and 34 to the head. In a testament to his remarkable economy of motion, Edwards connected on 75 percent of his total strikeout attempts.

No head kicks materialized at the end of the fight this time, but Edwards found a home upstairs with his crushing knee strikes that kept Usman at bay. He admitted afterwards in the octagon that he was concentrating low to once again set up the high kick.

“Obviously his coaches worked in his defense,” Edwards said of the opponent. “I couldn’t get over it anymore. I set him up with body kicks and leg kicks, but fair play for him.”

Not to say that Othman was outside the dispute. Between the second and fourth rounds, it was anyone’s fight. Osman’s wrestling was not effective, with few takedowns being successful and none keeping Edwards long enough to capitalize. Only four of the 15 shots were recorded as official takedowns, and Osman landed one big putt while on the floor.

Leon Edwards lands a punch on Osman's Camaro.
Leon Edwards lands a punch on Osman’s Camaro.
Action photos via Reuters

But the former champ still hit like a truck, and he tagged his opponent several times while standing up during the middle of 15 minutes of a grueling fight.

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

The lack of an effective takedown game cost Usman dearly. At 35 years old and fighting in his 10th consecutive five-season tournament, the former NCAA Division II national champion lacked a bang in several attempts to bring Edwards, who moved to wrestling-challenging England from Jamaica as a kid, to the floor.

If one of those double legs had Edwards flat on the mat and Osman license to floor bomb from above, we might be talking about a two-time champ.

But we are not.

Edwards clearly won the first and fifth rounds thanks to his more impactful sweeping strikes, including knees to the chin and an elbow to the dome in the final frame. He almost repeated the header kick in the fifth round after a strong stinging blow, but the opponent managed to block it sufficiently.

The missed point to grab the fence loomed to prevent Osman from falling too far, leading to a draw, but Osman’s lack of a clear run as on the day did it no credit.

“I knew it was a close fight,” Osman, who confirmed that he would not stray from mixed martial arts, said in the cage. “Great game plan. I always said that from the start, I knew I was going to meet Leon.”

It was Edwards’ night, as the Englishman was awash in the sycophancy of his brethren in the UK. While he was obviously festive, he was less energetic, and wasn’t running on the same adrenaline as last summer when the mic came his way. Instead, she was there, and did it for this hero.

look at him now.

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