Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
With Kamaru Usman now defending his welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal this Saturday and Gilbert Burns the possible No. 1 contender for the winner, the often forgotten part of the equation is Leon Edwards.
Edwards certainly has the resume to fight for the belt with an impressive eight-fight winning streak. In his previous fight, “Rocky” dominated Rafael dos Anjos over five rounds in the main event of UFC San Antonio nearly one year ago.
After losing a March headliner spot in London against Tyron Woodley due to the coronavirus pandemic, Edwards was called upon to fight Usman in the UFC 251 headliner when the promotion couldn’t come to terms with Masvidal.
With not enough time to adequately prepare, especially with restrictions placed in Birmingham keeping training facility doors shut, Edwards was forced to turn down his first opportunity at a UFC title.
“They gave me four weeks notice, but I hadn’t trained since March,” Edwards told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “They asked if I’d be ready to fight July 11 against Kamaru, but they wouldn’t tell me where it was at the time. I didn’t know if it was in America or where it was because it was ‘Fight Island.’
“I spoke with my coaches and they said it was basically impossible for me to get in the gym, get training partners to have a short camp. So it was impossible for me to have the fight. It is what it is. They gave Burns the fight and he got ill. This coronavirus is f*cking up everything.”
The last time Edwards tasted defeat was in December 2015, when he suffered a unanimous decision loss to Usman. Of course, Edwards will always be attached to UFC London in March 2019, when the infamous “three piece and a soda” incident took place following Masvidal’s knockout win over Darren Till in the main event.
To say Edwards will be paying close attention to Saturday night’s main event is an understatement.
“I’ll be watching this weekend,” Edwards said. “I would love to fight the winner because I have history with both men. I’d love to fight either, man.”
While Masvidal took the fight on six days notice, in theory, it seemed as if the challenger had much more training under his belt than expected. In a recent interview with MMA Fighting, Luis Pena explained that “Gamebred” was one of the main training partners for he and Dustin Poirier ahead of their recent UFC on ESPN 12 bouts.
Adding to that, the promotion’s original plan was to pair Masvidal with Usman in the main event of UFC 251. Edwards believes his rival will be ready to go on Saturday night.
“He had been preparing for Usman for the last two to three months,” Edwards said. “He was meant to fight Usman in July in the beginning. I think Usman is going in there less prepared probably because he was preparing for two people, [and] Masvidal was preparing for one person. It’ll be an interesting fight to see how it plays out.”
Despite Edwards’ belief that Masvidal didn’t fly to Abu Dhabi straight off the couch, he favors the champion to retain the title this weekend. Of course, all Masvidal needs is one opening to turn the tides.
“He’s got a puncher’s chance,” Edwards explained. “I think the more technical, better fighter is Usman. He’s got better wrestling, is bigger, stronger, better cardio. I think Usman should get it done, but Masvidal has a puncher’s chance. Look what he did to Ben (Askren), even though Usman and Ben are two different people. But you never know.”
The welterweight division is interesting enough as it is when you factor in the contenders involved. UFC president Dana White said on Friday that he expects Burns to get the next shot regardless of who is victorious on Saturday night. In the UFC, anything is possible, especially if one of its biggest superstars is able to pull off the upset.
Although he has his reasons to want to fight either athlete, when it comes to shortening the road to a long-awaited championship opportunity, Edwards’ heart will be with the favored Usman.
“I would probably like Usman to win,” Edwards said. “If Masvidal wins, he’s calling out f*ckin (Nate) Diaz, he’s calling out (Stephen) Thompson, just random people who aren’t even in the top-five. I can’t imagine, if he does win the belt, what he’s gonna do with it.
“If Usman wins, I’ll probably fight him over Burns. With my fight first, we both got held back with the coronavirus. So why not put me in there? We’ve got history, I have the longest winning streak in the division. Let’s slot me in and go from there.”
Edwards believes his time has come for his shot at the 170-pound title and hopes that, somehow, he can find his way to that opportunity sooner rather than later.
Realistically speaking, the 28-year-old believes he may need to get another win before that can happen. As long as certain contingencies are met, Edwards is happy to earn his opportunity the hard way.
“I can see them coming back and saying, ‘You and Gilbert can fight for the No. 1 contender’s spot and then fight for the title,’” Edwards explained. “I can see that happening, or one of us just getting the title shot. What I think they’ll do is probably give me one more before the title shot and go from there. I’d be up for that if it’s a guaranteed title shot next.
“There is no way I’m going nine, 10 fights without fighting for the title. Anyone above me really. Colby, I don’t really like him, I think he is a little weasel, he would be a good fight as well. Anyone above me really. Any of them two above me can get the smoke, either/or.”