UFC 278: Kamaru Usman-Leon Edwards is a rematch, but this won’t be the same fight

The welterweight championship will be on the line as Kamaru Usman makes his sixth title defense when he takes on Leon Edwards in the main event of UFC 278 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday (ESPN+ PPV at 10 p.m. ET, with prelims on ABC/ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. and early prelims on ESPN/ESPN+ at 6 p.m.).

Usman (20-1), ESPN’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, defeated Edwards via unanimous decision when the two first met inside the Octagon in 2015. But Edwards (19-3, 1 NC) hasn’t lost a fight since then. His last bout was a win over Nate Diaz in June 2021.

Former UFC fighter and current ESPN MMA analyst Megan Anderson breaks down the title fight.

How did we get here?

In the first fight between these two — which was only Usman’s second appearance in the Octagon — Edwards’ takedown defense was the biggest factor. While he wasn’t able to stop all 13 of Usman’s takedown attempts, he did stuff seven of them. But he got taken to the canvas six times, and that affected how he fought.

Edwards looked comfortable fighting on the feet and setting the pace in the first round, but because his takedown defense wasn’t as refined back then, Edwards wasn’t able to open up his striking as much as the fight went on because he had to worry about leaving himself open for Usman’s takedown attempts.

Edwards did a good job of defending takedown attempts while fighting against the cage, using it as a prop to help him stay upright. And he was able to stuff multiple straight double-leg takedown attempts as well.

But once Usman changed his approach to takedown attempts, he had more success. One key to that was his ability to get Edwards’ legs together. The first step of defending takedowns is to have your feet in a wide stance, then getting your hips back. When you take that away and force someone’s legs together, the takedown is much easier to get. So Usman started shooting takedowns in the open mat, away from the cage.

Usman did a good job of negating the space that Edwards needed to open up his striking. His success with the open-mat takedowns and his control when fighting on the ground were enough to get him the unanimous decision win.

The P4P king is still improving

I think Usman’s move to Denver to train with Trevor Wittman ahead of his fight against Gilbert Burns in 2021 was the best move of his career. We all know how good his wrestling is — Usman was an NCAA Division II wrestling champion — but prior to working with Wittman, his striking just wasn’t at the level his wrestling was.

When you watched Usman fight back then, he relied very heavily on his wrestling. He aggressively went for takedowns and would wear his opponents down up against the cage. But now he’s more confident and comfortable on his feet. It seems that at this point he uses his wrestling as the last defense if he doesn’t like how the fight is going on the feet. In the second fight with Colby Covington, Usman mixed in a couple of takedowns as a way to stop Covington’s momentum.

Before making the coaching switch, Usman had power with his striking but was wild when fighting in the pocket. As a result, he got caught by opponents a lot more often than he does now.

Usman is now more patient with his approach as a striker. He picks his shots and he’s not so aggressive with his forward movement. He still does a really good job of cutting off the cage, but he’s not reckless in closing that distance.

Now that he’s working with Wittman, you can see in Usman’s striking some similarities to the striking of fellow Wittman student Rose Namajunas, who uses a lot of in-and-out movement. In addition to Usman’s better movement, the way he uses his jabs and feints has also improved. He’s really piecing together the full package.

Usman will have to be cautious when looking for big power punches against Edwards. Edwards is good at counterstriking, and he’s good at entering the pocket to land his shots and then getting back out of range. As Edwards is leaving the pocket, his opponents generally try to throw combinations back at him. Edwards excels at avoiding those combos and coming back with a counter.

Don’t expect the same Leon Edwards

This version of Edwards will be Usman’s toughest opponent to date. Though Usman has had more appearances in the Octagon than Edwards since their last fight (Usman has fought 13 times, to Edwards’ nine), I think Edwards has made more improvements.

Edwards has become more well-rounded. You can see the progression since that 2015 fight — now Edwards is even looking to wrestle offensively. His striking, which already was good, has improved as well. His hands are faster, he’s always moving and he’s very hard to hit. Though he moves a lot in his fights, he has shown the willingness to stand in the pocket and trade with opponents, if needed. But when he does that, he tends to get hit more.

In the first matchup, Edwards showed that his left hand was his best weapon. Since then, he has progressed with that and added the left elbow to his arsenal. He has gotten really good at throwing elbows off the break from grappling exchanges and when opponents try to close the distance. He dropped Gunnar Nelson with an elbow in their 2019 fight and had success with the technique against Donald Cerrone when they fought in 2018.

To set up the elbow, Edwards hand traps his opponent, or grabs his opponent’s lead hand over the top and pulls it toward him. Ultimately, that brings the body toward him as he is throwing the left elbow, which makes it even more effective. Similar to the impact of a tackle in football, when both people are coming toward each other with force, the elbow has a harder impact.

That strike could be really useful in this fight. If Usman tries to close the range for wrestling opportunities, that elbow is going to be right there for Edwards. And it’s going to be a safe attack for him to use, because he can put himself off the center line as he throws it. Also, Usman has a long guard defensively, with his 76-inch reach, meaning his lead hand could be available for the hand trap.

When you watch Edwards’ style, you notice he doesn’t make many mistakes. He makes smart decisions and seems to be able to blend all of his techniques together well, which could work against Usman.

Though Usman has improved in fighting on his feet, I don’t think he can stand up and bang with Edwards. No matter how much better Usman has gotten, I just don’t think he is going to have the edge there. If you make the fight a scrap and push the pace on Usman, he can get hit and he can lose rounds.

What could swing the fight

Two things can turn the fight in either fighter’s favor. For Usman, I believe it’s going to be the refinement in his striking. For Edwards, it’s his range control and his volume.

If Usman can find ways to feel comfortable in striking exchanges with Edwards, that’s going to boost his confidence in the game plan. That would allow him to avoid getting reckless. The progression of his jab will be huge in this matchup. Look at how straight that punch is for him now. It’s crisp and it’s powerful. If he can set everything up with his jab, all else will follow.

In the first fight, Edwards wasn’t able to maintain a range from which he could throw his combinations. But this time around, Usman’s confidence in his boxing could benefit Edwards. If Edwards can use his ability to control range to pick his shots and keep the pace high, he could have a lot of success as the fight goes on.

How does it play out?

I see Usman looking to prove a point here at the start of the fight by seeing how he fares while standing and striking with Edwards. But if he feels like Edwards is starting to get the upper hand, or he just doesn’t feel like he’s able to get going in the way that he wants, I think Usman will start looking for opportunities to wrestle.

For Edwards, particularly in the first two rounds, he needs to stuff all of the takedown attempts. That will make a statement and give him confidence as the fight progresses. If he knows he can defend Usman’s wrestling and can maintain space in the stand-up, Edwards can get to work.

I think Usman has the upper hand because of how good his wrestling is and his power, but this is the most evenly matched fight he has had in a long time. Although It’s hard to pick against Usman based on his recent performances, if anyone can pull off the upset, I think it’s Edwards.

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