Some of Leon Edwards’ first words after he usurped the welterweight crown last August morphed into half-speech, half-bellow.
“Look at me now!” he said that night in Salt Lake City.
Great as his comeback, head-kick knockout of Kamaru Usman was, Edwards should have offered a warning that what was to come would manage to top it.
In front of a raucous O2 Arena in London, filled to the brim with fans of the Birmingham-based badass, a masterful Edwards did Saturday night what he failed to do last time: He won the action throughout the UFC 286 main event to successfully defend his title.
Doubters had cast aspersions on Edwards’ ability to defend his belt in a third meeting (a rubber match because Usman had won their first fight in 2015). The new champion entered as a solid +200 or higher underdog to the former longtime 170-pound king.
Who can blame the handicappers and bettors? Outside of the jaw-rattling, last-minute high kick that crumpled Usman to the canvas in August, Edwards was on the wrong end of the last 19 minutes of action. Usman’s wrestling took Edwards out of his rhythm that night nearly seven months ago, and the soon-to-be champ looked flustered and, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, “dejected.”
That version of Edwards stayed behind in Utah, replaced with a confident champion who clearly was the better fighter throughout the bulk of the full 25-minute duration.
If not for several Edwards fouls (Usman would have gone to the free-throw line for a one-and-one had this been part of a March Madness bracket) that necessitated a point deduction in the third round, all three judges would have awarded Edwards the win. With the penalty, he still managed 48-46 on two scorecards and a 47-47 for a majority decision in his favor.
Edwards (21-3, 10 finishes), who at 31 is four years younger than Usman (20-3, 10 finishes), pounded the ex-champ’s balky knees and vulnerable midsection with kicks throughout. Per UFC Stats, he landed significant 50 strikes to Usman’s legs, 36 to the body and 34 to the head. In a testament to his terrific economy of movement, Edwards connected on 75 percent of his total strike attempts.
No fight-finishing head kicks materialized this time, but Edwards found a home upstairs with his crushing knee strikes that kept Usman at bay. He acknowledged afterward in the octagon that he’d been focusing low to once again set up the high kick.
“Clearly, his coaches worked his defense on that,” Edwards said of the challenger. “I couldn’t get it around anymore. I set it up with body kicks and leg kicks, but fair play to him.”
Not to say Usman was out of contention. Between rounds two and four, it was anyone’s fight. Usman’s wrestling wasn’t as effective, with few takedowns succeeding and none keeping Edwards down for long enough to take advantage. Only four of 15 shots recorded as official takedowns, and Usman laded just one significant strike while on the ground.
But the former champion still hits like a truck, and he tagged his rival several times while standing during the middle 15 minutes of a gripping battle.
“I knew I could go out there and take his shots,” Edwards said. “Even when he was pressuring, not much happened.”
The lack of an effective takedown game cost Usman dearly. At 35 years old and fighting in his 10th straight scheduled five-rounder, the ex-NCAA Division II national champion lacked explosion on several attempts to bring Edwards, who moved to wrestling-challenged England from Jamaica as a child, to the floor.
If one of those double-legs had gotten Edwards flat on the mat, granting Usman license to land bombs from above, maybe we would be talking about a two-time champion.
But we are not.
Edwards clearly won the first and fifth rounds thanks to his overall more impactful strikes, including knees to the chin and an elbow to the dome in the final frame. He nearly repeated the fifth-round head kick feat after a stinging uppercut, but the challenger managed to block enough of it.
The lost point for grabbing the fence to prevent an Usman takedown loomed large, putting a draw in play, but the lack of a clear-as-day Usman round did him no favors.
“I knew it was a close fight,” Usman, who assured he isn’t walking away from MMA, said in the cage. “Great game plan. I’ve always said it from the start, I knew I’d see Leon.”
It was Edwards night, with the Englishman soaking in the adulation of his UK brethren. While clearly celebratory, he was less animated, not running on the same adrenaline as last summer by the time a mic came his way. Instead, it’s been there, done that for this champion.
Look at him now.