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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Leon Edwards proves Kamaru Usman win was no fluke

UFC 286 is in the books, and it was a very successful night in London for the leader in mixed martial arts. In the main event, Leon Edwards defended his welterweight title for the first time after outpointing Kamaru Usman over five rounds on home soil. Despite a point deduction in the third round, Edwards still managed to earn the majority decision verdict to put an end to his rivalry with Usman.

In the people’s main event, meanwhile, Justin Gaethje outclassed Rafael Fiziev in their lightweight co-headliner to return to the win column and firmly re-establish himself as a potential title challenger for Islam Makhachev. We learned quite a lot from these two fights alone, so with that said, here are three of the major things we learned following the events of UFC 286.

Leon Edwards proves head kick knockout wasn’t a fluke

Much of the narrative going into the trilogy fight was that Edwards’ knockout win over Usman was a fluke, and there was an argument to be made for that. First round aside, the rematch went the same way as the first fight and that was Usman dominating Edwards on the ground. In fact, it was much more emphatic in the rematch, with Edwards visibly showing signs of losing confidence until he eventually managed to turn things around with a minute remaining in the final round. While calling it a fluke is harsh, a better way of stating it was many observers believed Usman won that matchup nine out of 10 times, and we just happened to see the one time.

However, “Rocky” dispelled those notions by outclassing Usman over five rounds in a hard-fought win. Edwards landed the better shots (even if he did have some illegal blows), utilized his footwork to much greater effect, showed exceptional takedown defense by stopping 11 of Usman’s 15 attempts, and even when he was taken down, he managed to always get back to his feet and separate himself unlike the first two fights. What’s even more impressive is despite the point deduction for grabbing the fence in the third, it didn’t really play a major role as the Birmingham native won on two of the three judges’ scorecards. Edwards noted how the altitude in Salt Lake City affected his gas tank during the rematch, and after his well-rounded performance against Usman, he may have had a point. It will certainly be interesting to see how he fares against another wrestle-heavy opponent in Colby Covington, who appears next in line.

Kamaru Usman loses a step … retirement in the cards?

While it might seem hypocritical to state this after praising Leon Edwards’ performance, at the same time, it did feel like Kamaru Usman showed signs of regression. He didn’t show the same level of intensity that he usually does, and his successful takedown percentage of 26% was his lowest in a fight since 2017 (when attempting at least one takedown). Granted, Edwards’ takedown defense was on point on the night, but it was still odd to see an Usman fight where he couldn’t rely on his wrestling as much as he could in the past.

It’s very possible signs of aging are creeping in; Usman turns 36 in May and already has a history of knee issues. Given his brutal knockout defeat, there were also question marks about his chin and whether it would affect him mentally in the striking department. To his credit, his chin showed no signs of deterioration, and it was a victory in itself that he lasted the full 25 minutes. But all things considered, it’s hard to see Usman remaining in the sport for long — especially when he was already pondering retirement the last couple of years and the chances of another title shot seem slim.

Justin Gaethje ready for one last title push

One of the biggest surprises of the night was not that Justin Gaethje defeated Rafael Fiziev, but the manner in which he did it. Gaethje was coming off his second consecutive lightweight title defeat and was a significant betting underdog against the red-hot Fiziev, who had won six in a row prior. Many observers felt Fiziev was the superior, technical striker. Just given how MMA in general goes, this would be a case of a changing of the guard.

It looked like it would go that way as Fiziev got off to a fast start and arguably won the first round. The second round was much closer as Gaethje’s damage started to wear on Fiziev, who sported a wilt under his eye. However, it was the third round that was the most significant. Fiziev got off to a good start and seemed to have hurt Gaethje, only for “The Highlight” to keep pushing forward and continually land big strikes on a bloodied and battered Fiziev, whether it was an uppercut, hook or stinging jab.

By the end, it was clear that Gaethje had emerged victorious. He did it while reminding everyone that he’s still not only a title contender, but also one of the best strikers in the lightweight division. In his post-fight interview, Gaethje spoke of how he was going for one last title push. With Islam Makhachev currently reigning as the lightweight champion, he should get another title shot with one more win. A rematch with Dustin Poirier certainly sounds enticing.



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