Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman are about to settle one of the more fascinating trilogies in combat sports.
When Edwards and Usman clash in Saturday’s UFC 286 main event, it will have been over seven years since their first fight, a rarely mentioned unanimous decision win for Usman that marked the beginning of his UFC career in earnest. It will only have been seven months since Edwards ended Usman’s incredible welterweight title reign with a fifth-round head kick that not a soul could have seen coming.
It took nine wins for Edwards to make his case for a second fight with Usman, a stretch of success that was dwarfed by Usman’s championship run that established him as, at worst, the second-best welterweight in UFC history. Edwards’ upset sent Usman tumbling down the MMA Fighting Pound-for-Pound chart, but will that win only be remembered as a blip in Usman’s story if “The Nigerian Nightmare” bounces back and wins the series? Is Edwards poised to usher in the next era of the decorated welterweight division or will it return to status quo?
The co-main event has its fair share of questions as well, but the most important one is “my goodness how freaking incredible is this matchup?” That’s right, Rafael Fiziev is getting his shot at a top 5 opponent and it’s arguably the most fun possible option: The inimitable Justin Gaethje.
Gaethje has twice challenged for the undisputed UFC lightweight title and held on to a top spot in the rankings seemingly forever, so this is Fiziev’s chance to truly shake up the division. All he has to do is win a striking battle with one of the scariest punchers to ever step into the octagon.
In other main card action, Gunnar Nelson takes on Bryan Barberena in a battle of welterweight veterans, one-time flyweight title challenger looks to defend her ranking against the returning Casey O’Neill, and Marvin Vettori puts his inhuman durability up against the scorching Roman Dolidze.
What: UFC 286
Where: The O2 in London
When: Saturday, March 18. The card begins with a six-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 1 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPNews and ESPN+ beginning at 3 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 5 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Leon Edwards (1) vs. Kamaru Usman (2)
We all saw the same thing at UFC 278.
Leon Edwards surprised Kamaru Usman with a takedown in the first round. Usman recovered and was in championship form for the next three rounds, racking up 10-9s across the board on the scorecards. He was on his way to a decision win and a sixth consecutive successful title defense until Edwards kicked him hard in the head. Those are the facts.
Objectively speaking, we have a lot of evidence that Usman is a better fighter than Edwards. Subjectively speaking, the Edwards vibes are through the roof and that’s why I’m choosing to view the second fight as a changing of the guard. That’s right, I’ve got Edwards taking this one.
Usman has had great success coming forward and putting pressure on Edwards, something he’s done in several of his standout performances. I buy into the narrative that Edwards didn’t adjust well to the altitude in their first fight, which took place in Salt Lake City, and that the home cooking in London will provide a significant boost to his performance. It’s the little things that can make all the difference in an elite matchup like this.
Edwards’ takedown defense will also have to be on point, which isn’t that much of a concern giving the strides that Edwards has made with his wrestling since he first fought Usman in 2015. I’ll be surprised if Usman manages to ground Edwards for 25 minutes.
The biggest X factor has to be Edwards’ confidence. Not just the confidence that comes with being a good fighter — that surely was never in doubt — but the confidence in knowing that if he lets his hands (and feet) go, he can hurt Usman. That miraculous knockout had to have changed Edwards’ mind set completely and erased any doubt that he should be the aggressor in this third fight.
Edwards won’t be content to let the action come to him, he’ll attack with force, work his way to a decision victory, and silence any doubts as to who is the best welterweight in the world today.
Justin Gaethje (5) vs. Rafael Fiziev (6)
Something has got to give with Justin Gaethje eventually. Is Rafael Fiziev the man to make “The Highlight” look human? He has the tools for it.
Fiziev is an expert and controlling range, an important skill to have when Gaethje is bearing down on you with those ham-hock fists of his. We know Gaethje can get hit too and though he’s capable of competent defense, it’s his granite chin and iron will that have carried him through some of MMA’s most memorable brawls. He can’t be beat blow-for-blow and Fiziev wisely won’t try to do that.
Where Fiziev will run into trouble is when Gaethje starts mixing up his body work and leg kicks. I have concerns about Fiziev’s defense too, so if it comes down to who is going to break first, I can see Gaethje chopping him down through the first half of the fight before pouring on the pressure in Round 3.
Then the fun really starts. With Gaethje cooking, Fiziev will be tested like he never has before and I expect him to answer in kind, catching Gaethje with a counter and then landing the kind of spectacular strike that only he can to send Gaethje to a stunning knockout loss.
Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena
There are paths to victory here for Bryan Barberena, but none of them are particularly convincing.
Barberena is as tough as they come and his punching power is no joke. However, he’s never been known to be a one-shot finisher and that’s an issue when dealing with Nelson, an evasive striker who rarely wades carelessly into danger. He’ll frustrate Barberena into making the first move.
As fun as it is to see Barberena just start throwing hands, it’s unlikely he’ll find much success against Nelson, who will tackle him to the mat as soon as possible. Barberena’s takedown defense is poor and his submission defense will only last for so long as Nelson wears him down.
Nelson by submission is the obvious pick here and I’m going with Nelson finding the finish in Round 2.
Jennifer Maia (11) vs. Casey O’Neill (13)
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
Pressure on Jennifer Maia to prove that she’s still a top 10 flyweight. The 13-year veteran has struggled against the best of the best at 125 pounds if she’s to keep a number next to her name she’s going to have to fend off one of the division’s hungriest challengers.
Pressure on Casey O’Neill to show that she’s the leader of the next generation of flyweight challengers, not Erin Blanchfield or Manon Fiorot. MMA Fighting’s 2021 Rookie of the Year has been out of action since February of last year as she recovered from a torn ACL and there’s no guarantee that the 25-year-old will immediately return to form when she makes her return Saturday.
Pressure is the name of the game for O’Neill to win here and continue her climb to the top. O’Neill prides herself on her relentless pace and if she brings that to the cage tonight, it will be more than Maia can handle. Maia could use her grappling to slow this one down and force O’Neill to show that she can adapt while coming off of an injury, but O’Neill has an athleticism edge that will bail her out of any trouble on the mat.
I’m fully confident that O’Neill takes a decision in her toughest test to date.
Marvin Vettori (5) vs. Roman Dolidze (14)
Roman Dolidze has been on a heck of a run with four straight wins and three straight finishes. There’s one big problem though: I’m not sure Marvin Vettori can be finished.
“The Italian Dream” might be the UFC’s leading zombie at the moment (apologies to Chan Sung Jung) as he’s shown that he can eat shots from the best middleweights in the world and keep on coming forward. That’s not the best formula for winning fights, but it means that Vettori is never out of it as long as there’s time on the clock.
In Dolidze’s favor is the fact that Vettori isn’t exactly a finishing machine himself, with just a pair of submission victories to his name since making his UFC debut in 2016. If Dolidze doesn’t score something spectacular, this could be a classic grind-it-out win for Vettori.
I picked against Dolidze throughout all of 2022 and he shut me and many others up big time, coming through as an underdog in all three of his fights last year. He’ll have to do that again if he hopes to start 2023 by announcing himself as a top 10 contender.
Vettori is just too tough for Dolidze to put away, so I have to go with Vettori on points. But don’t be surprised if Dolidze proves me wrong again.
Jack Shore def. Makwan Amirkhani
Chris Duncan def. Omar Morales
Sam Patterson def. Yanal Ashmoz
Muhammad Mokaev (12) def. Jafel Filho
Lerone Murphy def. Gabriel Santos
Christian Leroy Duncan def. Dusko Todorovic
Jake Hadley def. Malcolm Gordon
Joanne Wood def. Luana Carolina
Jai Herbert def. Ludovit Klein