The UFC completes its 12-event summer on Saturday with UFC 278, which takes place at the Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City. In the main event, welterweight champ and No. 2 ranked pound-for-pound fighter Kamaru Usman puts his title on the line against Leon Edwards in a rematch of a 2015 battle that saw Usman win by unanimous decision. Neither man has lost since that first encounter, with Usman establishing himself as one of the greatest of all time while Edwards has toiled away to etch his name in the history books and bring the belt back to England.
Let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to win this marquee matchup, any X-factors in play, and ultimately what will happen on Saturday night.
Paths to Victory for Kamaru Usman at UFC 278
Usman is undeniably the second-greatest welterweight of all-time, and he’s rapidly climbing the ranks in the GOAT conversation. Thus far, he’s done so on the back of outstanding wrestling, a good jab, and some newfound power on the feet. He’ll need all three against Edwards.
Let’s start with the grappling. Usman was a standout collegiate wrestler before jumping to MMA, and for much of his career, grappling was the centerpiece of his game. “The Nigerian Nightmare” has still never officially been taken down in the UFC, and he’s completed a whopping 50 of his own during his tenure, six of those against Edwards in their first encounter. While Edwards has improved markedly in that area since then, Usman still should have a decided advantage in the clinch, where he can smother Edwards, wear him down, and look for takedowns. While Usman isn’t the most dangerous top-position player in the world, he has exceptional control there, which means one takedown likely banks him the round on the judges’ scorecards.
Lately, though, Usman has moved away from the wrestling, or at least not made it a strategic priority. Instead, the champion has discovered he’s not a bad boxer, using a piston-like jab to knock out Gilbert Burns to tune up Colby Covington in their rematch. The jab is one of the most under-utilized weapons in MMA, and in many ways, Usman’s is the straw that stirs the drink for everything else he does, allowing him to score points at range while opening up bigger shots. It’s those bigger shots which might be his best path to victory against Edwards.
On paper, Edwards is the superior technical striker, and that’s true in reality, but there are two major flaws in his striking. First, he lacks natural power, so while he can outpoint opponents, he rarely has the juice to seriously hurt them on the feet. Normally, that’s not the world’s biggest issue, but his second problem is that for his craft and ability, he is at times shockingly irresponsible with his defense. Everyone remembers Nate Diaz hurting Edwards in the final minute of their fight. But most forget that repeatedly during the bout, Edwards got hit with big counters and right hands because he left himself open. Nate Diaz doesn’t have the one-hitter-quitter power to seriously punish him for it (though he almost did), but Usman does. Moreover, Usman has shown some natural ability to counter during pocket exchanges, which means he may be able to put Edwards out if he’s patient.
Paths to victory for Leon Edwards at UFC 278
While the path to victory for Usman largely boils down to, “do the things you’re good at,” Edwards has the slightly more complicated, “don’t do the things you’re bad at and take away the things he’s good at.” That starts with the aforementioned defensive responsibility. Edwards needs to recognize that his chances of finishing Usman are low, and thus, he has to be prepared to fight near flawlessly for 25 minutes. One mistake is the death knell for his title aspirations.
That also means that footwork needs to be a huge priority for Edwards. For all his athleticism, Usman isn’t much of a shot-wrestler, preferring to cut the cage and initiate a clinch or shoot reactively. It is imperative that Edwards not get backed up to the fence and, if possible, be the one to put Usman on the retreat. The champion is much worse on the back foot, and if Edwards doesn’t lunge in foolishly, Usman has a substantially lower chance of scoring the takedowns he wants.
So, let’s say you’re Leon Edwards and you’ve managed to create a kickboxing fight, in space, where you’re minding your Ps and Qs — how do you win? Jabs, low kicks, and body work, baby.
The old boxing adage is that you shouldn’t hook with a hooker. But you can jab with a jabber, and Edwards needs to do that, at least to keep Usman honest. Edwards has fast hands and a solid jab of his own – he should use it, and even double and triple it up. Give Usman something to think about when he’s in his preferred range, instead of trying to load up on counter shots which will likely get him taken down.
While the jab is a necessity for Edwards, it’s the low kicks and body work that can win him the fight. Usman’s lead leg is a big target, especially as he has somewhat plodding footwork, and against Diaz, Edwards proved he is more than capable of exploiting a target like that. Against Usman, it also has the added benefit of being a weapon outside the range of Usman’s jab, and since Usman rarely kicks, it’s the weapon with the longest range in this particular fight. Chop down the leg and Usman’s movement slows, the power diminishes, and the takedowns become more difficult.
Similarly, in a fight where you probably won’t finish your opponent, investing in body work pays big dividends later. Plus, body work in general disincentivizes takedowns, and one of the more effective ways to counter a jab is using your own to the body. Usman has never shown major cardio flaws, but he’s 35 years old, and he did noticeably fade against Colby Covington. If the explosion drops off from Usman a little bit, then Edwards’ superior technical acumen can really start to separate him from the champion.
As I see it, there are two main wild cards at play for this welterweight title. The first is Usman’s mentality heading into this bout. Over the past year or so, the welterweight champion has called for fights outside the purview of his weight class. First, it was Usman challenging Jake Paul. Then he fruitlessly angled for a boxing match with Canelo Alvarez. And recently, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has even started making overtures toward a shot at the light heavyweight belt.
Usman is, of course, saying all the right things heading into this bout. But the question lingers on if his focus is 100 percent on Edwards. Because if it’s not, we’ve seen far more unlikely upsets take place.
The second, and arguably the more concerning X-factor in this fight is Usman’s age and general wear-and-tear. Usman is 35 years old and has dealt with lingering knee issues for years. On top of that, he’s been rattled in most of his recent fights, with Gilbert Burns coming incredibly close to stopping him. Yes, Usman’s an exceptional athlete, but at some point, the tread runs off the tires, and when that happens, a fighter needs a deep well of tools to fall back on. Usman has those tools in the grappling department, but if he’s dropped a few MPH from his standing fastball, and Edwards can keep it that way, that could be a big issue for the champion.
Leon Edwards has all the tools to win this fight, or at least to make it competitive, but there is one gigantic issue with picking him for the upset: He isn’t a finisher. So he has to pitch a perfect game for 25 minutes against one of the best to ever step in the cage to get his hand raised. That’s an incredibly tall order, especially for someone who has also been known to occasionally have mental lapses. I see Edwards doing well early with his superior technical striking, but since he’s unable to really hurt Usman on the feet, eventually he himself will get caught slipping and Usman will take advantage.
Kamaru Usman def. Leon Edwards by TKO at 3:28 of Round 4.
Who wins the UFC 278 main event?
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