On Saturday, the UFC delivers its second pay-per-view event this month with UFC 286, which features the highly anticipated trilogy fight between Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman. In August, Edwards authored arguably the greatest comeback in UFC history, knocking out Usman with a head-kick in the final minute of a fight he was almost certainly going to lose. The two men are now set to do it again, with Edwards hoping to solidify himself as champion, while Usman wants to reclaim the belt and his status among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
Let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to win on Saturday, any X-factors that might come into play, and ultimately what will happen when the cage door closes.
Paths to Victory for Leon Edwards at UFC 286
If it feels like we were just here, that’s because we were. Six months ago I broke this fight down saying, “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.”
Boy, was I wrong.
In my defense, not many people predicted Edwards would score his first knockout finish since his fight with the vaunted Peter Sobotta (and his first true KO since Seth Baczynski back in 2015!), because that had not been a reliable part of his game in recent years. That raises the question: How does Leon approach this fight?
As many people have noted coming into this trilogy matchup, Edwards was not exactly thriving in their second fight. Usman was comfortably ahead on the scorecards, and the commentary team (save Jon Anik) was functionally writing him off until the greatest head kick in MMA history landed. Will that change Edwards’ approach to the fight?
Kicking remains the crux of a successful Saturday for Edwards. Kicks provide Edwards with his most reliable scoring weapon and, as we saw, his most damaging one. In the second fight, Edwards landed low kicks to the lead leg (something Usman’s stance facilitates) and snap kicks to the body nearly at will. Usman would try to catch the kicks but didn’t have much success countering them, and he instead simply worked through them. Edwards needs to stay committed to that.
In a similar vein, Edwards might consider going to the well more with in-stepping knees. A few times in the rematch, Usman would pursue a clinch, or simply come in a little lazily, and Edwards met him with a counter-knee coming up the middle that would quickly discourage Usman from continuing down that line. It was a good weapon, and one Edwards should make use of, particularly as it relates to the next suggestion.
Never. Back. Up.
For much of the rematch, Edwards lost the footwork battle, and as a result was losing the fight. His corner repeatedly implored him to stop giving ground, and yet, round after round, Usman repeatedly backed Edwards up to the fence, where the fight became very one-sided. Usman would either punch his way into a clinch, or simply tee off of Edwards as shelled up against the cage. At range, the fight was competitive, and in the grappling Edwards showed flashes, but when he was simply backed all the way up, Usman dominated the fight. Edwards simply cannot get put back in those positions with the same frequency and expect to win the fight.
Lastly, and perhaps most difficult, Edwards needs to be dangerous. Heading into the rematch, the expectation was that Usman was more likely to score a finish based on recent performance. But it was Edwards who was the more threatening fight.
Heading into the trilogy, it is Edwards who slept Usman with a head kick. He got to the back and threatened a choke. Usman, meanwhile, piled up points and damage on his way to grinding out a win.
Trying to match Usman in a grind over 25 minutes is a tall order for anyone, so don’t. Edwards now knows he can finish Usman and should be more aggressive in his pursuit of that. Aggression not only ups Edwards’ chances of scoring another finish, it also increases the chances that Usman won’t simply bully him all over the cage like he did in the middle rounds at UFC 278.
Paths to victory for Kamaru Usman at UFC 286
It might be a bit rudimentary, but the key for Usman in this trilogy fight is to simply not get kicked in the head.
Of the 24 minutes Edwards and Usman fought back in August, Usman won 20 of them. “The Nigerian Nightmare” was well on his way to defending his belt, and he was doing it by doing what he always does: putting on a smothering pace with wrestling and a good jab.
After a competitive first round that saw Edwards surprise Usman with a takedown, the then-champion responded by going full Usman mode, relentlessly pushing Edwards back to the fence were, as mentioned above, he would unload punches and/or embrace the grind. Usman won every moment of the fight while he was making this happen and had Din Thomas opining that Edwards was mentally broken. There is absolutely no reason to change this game plan. It worked beautifully, and in fact, part of the reason Edwards was ultimately able to land the fight-ending head kick was because Usman had stopped pressuring with only a minute to go. Whether it was a defensive lapse, fatigue, or hubris, Usman got caught when he wasn’t doing the thing that had gotten him there. Do the thing that got you there.
But just because the broader game plan should and likely will remain the same doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements that can be made. First and foremost, I’d love to see Usman attack the body more. Edwards frequently employs a high guard, particularly when he gets backed up to the cage, where he mostly shells while looking for a chance to counter and exit. A few times in the rematch, Usman used that as an opportunity to rip hooks to the body, but more often he would combo up top, looking to sneak in a big power shot. Prioritize body shots in clinch range a little more, or make more liberal use of elbows to scythe through the guard. Both weapons will be available and pay major dividends when the fight is in close.
Also, I’d like to see a more aggressive ground game from Usman. Historically, Usman prefers a smothering top game, with chipping shots and control, but we saw the potential hazard in that when he didn’t finish “Rocky” on the ground and eventually got finished himself as a result. Edwards was mostly keeping an open guard and trying to create scrambles to stand, while Usman was content to deny as much of that as possible. Being a bit more proactive, either by looking for chokes in scrambles or passing to a more dominant position, could open up more fight-ending offense for the former champion.
Outside of the general questions I have for every contest, there are two angles that weigh particularly heavy for me: how will the KO influence the fight and will the venue make a difference?
The most obvious x-factor is how both men will enter the fight given what happened last time. For Usman, it was the first time he’s ever been knocked out professionally, and possibly even just in life. Ask any fighter, and that sort of thing changes you. Prior to UFC 278, Usman had unshakeable confidence, which fueled some of his relentless fighting style. Will he be the same? We can’t know until they fight. And along the same lines, will Edwards come in differently? Once you put someone to sleep once, you know you have the power to do it again. Will “Rocky” come in with more confidence and more aggression? Again, we just can’t know.
As for venue, UFC 278 was held in Salt Lake City, and much of the talk after the event was how the altitude destroyed many of the fighters on that card. Edwards himself said it affected him and that he couldn’t really get his body to do what his mind wanted. That shouldn’t be an issue in London, so theoretically, Edwards will be in even better form. But, there’s always the question of how fighting in front of a hometown (or home country in this case) crowd will influence a fighter.
Historically, Leon Edwards is in a great position. In trilogy fights, the fighter who won the second fight is overwhelming likely to win the third and in immediate rematches where the challenger took the belt, those fighters are also overwhelmingly likely to defend the belt. But this one might be the exception that proves the rule, because I cannot get past the fact that over 39 total minutes of fighting, Usman has won 35 of them. The head kick was not a lucky kick or a fluke, but it isn’t an outcome I’d would expect to be repeated. I expect to see Usman do the same thing he did for most of the UFC 278, only this time he’ll finish the drill and reclaim the welterweight title.
Kamaru Usman def. Leon Edwards by unanimous decision.