In the wee hours of Sunday, March 19, at the Toyota Centre in Houston, Texas, USA, British fighter Leon Edwards officially ended the Kamaru Usman era as UFC Welterweight champion. It was not entirely unexpected, but it was painful to see Edwards defeat “The Nigerian Nightmare” in back-to-back upsets at UFC 286.
The bout was a closely contested affair, with both fighters landing significant strikes throughout the fight, but the victory went to the British fighter via majority decision at the end of the five rounds.
Edwards, who entered the fight as the underdog, was able to control the pace of the fight and outstrike Usman in the later rounds. His victory was cemented in the fifth and final round, where he landed a significant knee to Usman’s face, leaving him visibly stunned and struggling to regain his footing. To his credit however, Usman did not hit the canvas this time, as difficult as it seemed to remain standing.
This was the third time that Edwards and Usman had faced each other in the Octagon. In their first meeting at UFC on Fox 17 in 2015, Usman won a unanimous decision. Their second fight at UFC 278 in 2019 ended in a stunning knockout victory for Edwards in the fifth round, ending Usman’s long unbeaten streak and his reign as the welterweight champion.
In the build-up to their third fight, there was a lot of anticipation and speculation surrounding the outcome. Many observers felt that Usman would come out on top and reclaim his throne as the champion, while others believed that Edwards had the tools to beat him once again. In the end, it was Edwards who proved his doubters wrong. To his credit, he put on a masterful performance against Usman. He was able to outshine the champion in several key exchanges, landing significant strikes that had Usman on the back foot at times.
One of the key factors in Edwards’ victory was his footwork and movement. He was able to stay light on his feet and move in and out of range effectively, making it difficult for Usman to close the distance and land his typical power shots that have been the Usman trademark over five titles defences. Edwards also showed excellent takedown defence, stuffing most of Usman’s attempts to take the fight to the ground.
Despite his efforts, Usman was not able to impose his will on Edwards and was unable to secure a finish in the later rounds. This was a significant departure from his usual style, as he had finished several of his previous opponents in dominant fashion.
Edwards was awarded a majority decision victory, with two judges scoring the bout 48-47 in his favor, while one judge had it as a draw. With this victory, Edwards cemented his reign as the new champion and secured the number three spot in the pound-for-pound rankings. The 170-pound division is now under the control of the Birmingham, England man, who many fans of the Championship did not believe had it in him to achieve.
Unfortunately for Usman, in the latest rankings, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has plummeted to number nine, leading many fans to question if the end is near for the former pound-for-pound king.
Speaking on the fight, UFC Heavyweight Champion, Francis Ngannou, recently shared insights on Usman’s training issues ahead of UFC 286. According to Ngannou, Usman did not have a proper training camp for the triple bouts due to injuries.
THEWILL recalls that Usman had been battling severe knee problems for some years, causing him significant pain before fight nights. Although he managed to return to the fight, Ngannou observed that Usman was slower than usual and took many steps back, suggesting that his physical setbacks may be catching up with him. Ngannou, who knows the importance of these preparation steps, also claims Usman did not have a proper training camp for the Edwards trilogy bout due to these injuries.
The implications, according to this defence put up by Ngannou, are that Usman ought not to have hurried back into a rematch so soon after losing his title until he had sufficiently dealt with his niggling injury problems. As a professional, it was up to him to be at his most optimum for the challenge, with the right mental and physical fitness levels expected of the fightings in the octagon. Yet, Ngannou’s comments shed some light on the possible reasons for Usman’s defeat to Edwards at UFC 278 and his performance at UFC 286.
After the fight, Edwards was jubilant, proclaiming himself the new welterweight champion and cementing his position as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
After spending almost an hour in the cage with Usman, Edwards had nothing but respect for his opponent. He acknowledged that their rivalry was purely competitive and there was no animosity between them. Edwards said: “I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do next. There was no beef between me and Kamaru. I feel we both just felt we were the better man and that was it.” Edwards added that he respected Usman but did not expect to have to fight him again in the near future.
Usman, on his part, was gracious in defeat, congratulating Edwards and vowing to come back stronger. However, UFC President Dana White confirmed that an Edwards vs. Colby Covington title bout was the next step for the Championship, an announcement that leaves Usman’s future in the UFC in an uncertain terrain. Covington is widely regarded as one of the top welterweights in the world and the American has been vocal about his desire to fight Edwards. It is a matchup that is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated fights in UFC history, with the excitement sure to get fans to quickly forget “The Nigerian Nightmare”.
Still, Usman has a number of options on the table and it remains to be seen who he will face in his next fight. He remains a decorated athlete in combat sports and one that opponents will need to approach with a lot of preparation and dread, in equal parts. He may have seen his five-defence reign at the Welterweight category ended by Edward, still, he is a tough contender on a good day. He has to focus on his next fight and options are already being discussed.
Belal Muhammad, who has not lost in over four years and has an eight-fight win streak, is one of these options. Although Colby Covington is next in line to take on Edwards, Muhammad should at least get a shot at Usman, given his recent performances.
Khamzat Chimaev, who burst on to the scene in 2020 with a pair of weight class wins, is another potential option for the Nigerian. Although his recent inactivity in the Octagon has cooled his initial galloping momentum, he is still a formidable opponent who could provide an entertaining fight for Usman in future.
There is another challenge that fans will relish. Conor McGregor’s comeback against Michael Chandler later this year has also been generating interest and he may follow up with an Usman callout, which could make for a fight that is far bigger than belts. There will be prestige, ego, honour and recognition on the line should the UFC pitch Usman versus McGregor. The combustion that will result will be an explosive hazard.
Without a doubt, and even with Edwards indicating no interest in taking on Usman for a fourth bout, the Nigerian fighter not only remains a top contender but truly deserves another title opportunity.
In fact, he hinted at a future rematch with Edwards after their recent bout, saying he always knew he would see him again. That is also another option for Usman down the line. To get there however, he will have to prove himself worthy by imposing himself on the opponents that will come while clearing the path back to another shot at the title. That is assuming Edwards still holds it when that time comes. With a number of top contenders vying for the title, it remains to be seen how long Edwards can hold on to the throne.
One other option for Usman remains. There comes a point for every athlete when the hunger for competitive conquest fades away. At 35 and coming off two losses to a younger opponent, it is possible that Usman’s best days are behind him. Given Ngannou’s defence of his loss, Usman’s future in the UFC is uncertain and it remains to be seen how he will recover from his injuries and return to form. Yet, he has already achieved great things with 19 consecutive wins and five title defenses.
Retirement may be that option for him to embrace, especially since he has made enough money to sustain his family. While a high-profile opponent could reignite his passion, returning to the rank-and-file contender pool may seem dull for someone who has already reached the top.
The realisation that the rock-solid Usman era has officially ended is all too obvious in the emergence of a new champion in Edwards. Looking ahead, the pound-for-pound conversation now shifts to another fallen member of the Three African Kings era of Usman, Israel Adesanya and Ngannou. The number eight ranked Adesanya seeks to reclaim his UFC middleweight championship in a rematch – or tetralogy – against number seven ranked Alex Pereira.
Although Adesanya has lost three times to Pereira in
kickboxing, only one of those battles took place in MMA. If Adesanya can regain his momentum in the main event of UFC 287 on April 8, a rubber match between the two fighters could follow. Hopefully, Adesanya will redeem himself unlike Usman while the Nigerian audience also prays that there is redemption on the line for Anthony Joshua as well. For now, Usman will do well to look closely at his options and pick the best for himself, his family and his fans.