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UFC 278 takeaways: Leon Edwards’ incredible comeback KO is a ‘Rocky’ moment for the ages

Leon Edwards won at UFC 278
Leon Edwards won at UFC 278
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Leon Edwards shook up the world.

At UFC 278, Edwards authored one of the greatest comebacks and greatest knockouts in UFC history, putting Kamaru Usman out cold in the fifth round with a head kick, claiming the welterweight title. Edwards’ stunning KO capped off a card that also saw a Fight of the Year contender, the emergence of a new bantamweight title threat, and perhaps the final performance of a former UFC champion.With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 278.

1. It may not have been as easy or as soon as he would have liked, but Leon Edwards never gave up on himself and now he’s the champion of the world.

Over the past few years, few fighters have faced more doubters than Edwards. Though he was on a 10-fight unbeaten streak, Edwards was treated by many as the red-headed step child of the welterweight division. A two year hiatus from the sport due to injuries and a global pandemic left Edwards as the forgotten man in the division. Even when he did get the title shot, many wrote off his chances. After all, Edwards had already lost to Kamaru Usman once, and since then “The Nigerian Nightmare” had established himself as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport and one of the greatest fighters of all time, while Edwards nearly got upset by Nate Diaz. What chance did he have, really?

Not all were so dismissive, but most were, and despite winning the first round, by the end of the third round of their rematch, Usman had undeniably taken control of the fight and even his staunchest supporters were showing signs of doubt. You could hear it in his corner, Edwards’ coaches pleading with him to not get bullied, to fight back, to come forward instead of back and let his strikes go, but there was no joy for Edwards The fourth was Usman’s best round, an inexorable force bending Edwards’ will to his own, as he had done so many times before. Heading into the final round of the fight, no one in the arena or watching at home believed Edwards could win. He was simply being bested by a better fighter.

But here’s the thing: Edwards didn’t believe that. While at various points in time during the fight, Edwards undeniably looked frustrated, he never looked broken, because Leon Edwards is not a man who is broken by trivial things like taking an ass-kicking. And so, with time running down on his Cinderella story, in need of a finish to win, Edwards did the thing his coaches had been asking for, he came forward, he flashed the hands, and he threw a high kick behind the jab, a kick that Usman ducked directly into, launching his consciousness from him like a shot put. Leon Edwards had done it. He was the welterweight champion of the world.

MMA is the greatest sport in the world because it revels in glorious chaos and as such, delivers some of the most genuinely moving moments in sports. Edwards grew up in poverty, lost his father at an early age, fell into a destructive and dangerous lifestyle, was able to pull himself out of it, overcame numerous career setbacks and ultimately accomplished his life’s ambition. When Alexander Volkanovski talks about proving the haters wrong, it rings hollow, because any doubts the featherweight champion has ever faced are minor, insignificant. But when Leon Edwards, his eyes full of tears, shouts to his mother while holding the belt, “Mum, I love you! I told you I’d do it for you, Mum. I told you I’d change our f****** lives,” that is everything because he shouldn’t have been able to do it. Too many things were stacked against him. The doubters weren’t wrong — until Edwards made them so.

After the belt was wrapped around his waist, Edwards, crying and screaming and celebrating, made the same proclamation over and over again: “Y’all doubted me and said I couldn’t do it. You all said I couldn’t do it. Look at me now!” It was a clarion call of righteous vindication, of proof that he was right all along, that his truth was in fact the truth. Bigger upsets have happened in MMA, but save for his countryman Michael Bisping’s own title win, none have felt more deserved. It’s the type of thing you see in a movie, and now we’re all looking at Leon. Every one of us.

2. Edwards’ title win didn’t just prove that all his doubters were wrong, it also proved something that should have been known long ago: defending a title repeatedly is the most difficult thing you can do in MMA.

For the past year or so, a narrative has been arising that Usman might be the greatest welterweight of all time. With five title defenses, and closing in on Anderson Silva’s record of most consecutive wins in the UFC, some were already anointing him as better than Georges St-Pierre, and heading into this fight, the talk was about whether he would face Khamzat Chimaev next, or whether he would move up to light heavyweight to challenge for a second belt and cement his status as the GOAT.

And then Leon Edwards happened.

Edwards’ left shin should be a brutal reminder to everyone just how difficult defending a title is. Winning is hard enough on its own, but when you’re defending a title, it gets exponentially worse. You are getting every single person’s best shot, every single time. Their BEST shot. Because that’s what a title challenge is, the culmination of a life’s work. Leon Edwards has spent every moment of the past 13 years working towards this fight. He will never get this chance again if he loses. This is the defining moment of his life and he knows it and he’s going to give everything he has. Standing up against THAT, time after time after time is impossible. Especially in a sport where the margins are so slim, where one wrong move is the end. If you have an off night, you lose. If a freak injury occurs, you lose. If the other person catches lightning in a bottle, you lose. Or, as Edwards and Usman just proved, if you have a great night but one momentary lapse, boom. You’re done. Back to the drawing board.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Usman and what he has accomplished, and there’s every possibility that he comes back, wins the trilogy fight, defends his belt for five more years, and truly establishes himself as the GOAT, but until he does it, let’s not disregard the accomplishments of others because they happened in the past and this is happening now. GSP is the GOAT because nine is more than five, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

3. Speaking of GOAT, Luke Rockhold may have had the greatest retirement speech in MMA history.

After losing a Fight of the Night winning battle with Paulo Costa in the co-main event, Rockhold, in tears, retired from the sport, telling Joe Rogan, “I f****** can’t do this s*** anymore. I gave it my all, I just didn’t — I’m f****** old.” It was a moment that was funny, sad, and imminently relatable — made all the more unexpected because those are all things Rockhold has never really been.

Assuming his retirement sticks, Rockhold will leave the sport with one of the more fascinating careers to dissect. A former UFC middleweight champion, there was a time when most believed Rockhold would reign atop the 185-pound division for years to come, or at least have a series of epic battles with Chris Weidman. Neither of those things were to be though as Rockhold’s career plummeted after winning the belt, losing four of his final five fights, and getting brutally knocked out in three of them.

That being said, if this really is the end for Rockhold, it’s a surprisingly good one for him. MMA is particularly unkind to its elder statesmen and heading into this fight, the general belief was that Rockhold was in store for another brutal KO loss. Instead though, the former champion put on a Fight of the Year contender with a top contender, gave nearly as good as he got, and showcased a ton of heart and durability, all done coming off a three-year layoff. That ain’t half bad.

If Rockhold wants to leave, that’s perfectly alright but he certainly doesn’t need to walk away. Which probably means it’s the perfect time to do so.

4. Jose Aldo deserved better.

Heading into UFC 278, Aldo was on a three-fight win streak, all over top bantamweight contenders, including a win over the darling of the division, Marlon Vera. Under normal circumstances, that should have garnered Aldo a shot at Aljamain Sterling and the bantamweight title. Instead, the UFC decided to give T.J. Dillashaw the fight, despite Dillashaw having spend a two-year suspension for EPO, and then eking out a split decision win over Cory Sandhagen in his return, a win that most people felt was a robbery. That left Aldo to either wait and hope he’d get a title shot or to take a fight, so Aldo took on Sterling’s teammate Merab Dvalishvili, and ended up losing a unanimous decision, creating the worst possible outcome.

I won’t get into the scoring because most people seem to believe Dvalishvili should have won (I disagree because I don’t value wall and stall, but c’est la vie), but how in the world the UFC could have thought this was a good idea is beyond me. Aldo is a legitimate star (the crowd was louder for him than for anyone else) and a bona fide legend. He’s one of the five greatest fighters of all time and universally respected, and the UFC should have respected that and given him the title fight. Now, they’ve killed Aldo off as a contender, quite possibly for the final time, and because of the way he won, they didn’t even elevate Dvalishvili. Worse yet, because Dvalishvili and Sterling will never fight one another, what they really did was remove a compelling and beloved contender for Sterling, while gaining absolutely nothing in return.

Great work.

5. While the fifth biggest takeaway from UFC 278 should be the continued failures of judges and referees to be good at their jobs, that is sadly the standard. So instead, the final takeaway has to towards the promotion itself:

Please stop going to places at high altitude.

While UFC 278 was a fairly fun event, the entire evening was a bit wacky, in large part due to the elevation and how that effects fighters. Paulo Costa and Luke Rockhold were GASSED after their first round, and while they were certainly pushing a high pace, they were also doing so at high altitude, which drained them significantly. In his post-fight press conference, Edwards talked about how he prepared for the elevation, but still felt off on fight night, because it’s simply different. And then of course there’s Alexander Romanov, who absolutely dominated Marcin Tybura in the first round, only to barely be able to breath in Round 2.

We get it, you want to take the traveling roadshow all over the place, and by all accounts the fans in Salt Lake City were amazing, but every time you hold an event in Denver, or Mexico City, or somewhere like that, it’s always the weirdest possible outcomes. It’s like playing baseball at Fenway Park. Sure, it’s technically still the same game, but The Green Monster is an absurd perversion of how the sport is is normally contested.

Please, let’s just stick to regular elevations. Or if you must go to the high altitude places, stack the cards with exclusively flyweights. Those guys did not seem to mind.

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