History beckons in a rematch almost seven years in the making as pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman puts his welterweight championship on the line against Leon Edwards at UFC 278 in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold returns from a three-year layoff to take on ex-title challenger Paulo Costa in the co-headliner at the Vivint Arena, while all-time great Jose Aldo meets Merab Dvalishvili in a battle of elite bantamweights.
Plus, ranked heavyweights Marcin Tybura and Alexander Romanov rock the Octagon and light heavyweight finishers Tyson Pedro and Harry Hunsucker throw down.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Kamaru Usman (1.25) v Leon Edwards (3.90) (Welterweight Championship)
In December 2015, six months after winning season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter – the UFC’s reality show competition – Usman made his promotional debut in a preliminary bout against Edwards and emerged victorious via unanimous decision.
It was the start of a legendary run. The man known as “The Nigerian Nightmare” is a flawless 15-0 inside the Octagon, an all-time welterweight record, which includes five title defences and sees him stand at the summit as the pound-for-pound best.
Win on Saturday and he’ll tie Anderson Silva’s greatest-ever UFC streak. Overall, the 35-year-old’s riding a 19-fight win streak, with the sole loss of his 21-fight career coming in his second bout as a raw rookie on the regional circuit back in 2013.
Edwards, similarly, hasn’t lost since that maiden meeting with Usman. The UK star’s 10-fight unbeaten surge includes wins over Vicente Luque, Donald Cerrone, former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and most recently, a five-round decision victory over Nate Diaz last June.
Two meteors on a collision course, someone’s extraordinary streak will come to an end in Salt Lake City.
What makes Usman the unstoppable force he’s been since he first stepped foot inside the Octagon is his world-class wrestling, ever-evolving striking, one-punch knockout power, superhuman gas tanks and bulletproof defence. The pace he pushes is overwhelming and he still manages to improve every time out.
Lapping the division, the 170-pound king has become a master of rematches, knocking out Jorge Masvidal in brutal fashion and outworking his other heated rival Colby Covington in his last two fights to set up this third-straight rematch.
Edwards is extremely well-rounded in his own right but doesn’t have the wrestling pedigree or firepower the champion possesses. Both men are tacticians with 10 decision wins apiece. Usman, though, scored back-to-back knockouts last year – over Gilbert Burns and “Gamebred” – to take his KO tally to nine before undergoing hand surgery following the win over “Chaos” in November.
Edwards, who has a record of 19-3, is a point fighter. The 30-year-old’s won his last four on the scorecards with his last KO coming against Peter Sobotta in 2018. Neither headliner engages in much jiu-jitsu, so that won’t be a factor.
What the title tilt comes down to is that Usman’s just that one level above Edwards in every department. He has the knockout power “Rocky” lacks, he’s stronger, the better pure athlete, more explosive and the more decorated wrestler.
His history of excelling in pressure-cooker championship headliners is another big advantage he has over the first-time title challenger as nothing can prepare a fighter for the high-stakes intensity of battling for the belt. It’s an opportunity Edwards has worked towards for 11 years, whereas Usman is fully acclimated to the rarefied air at the top of the mountain.
Edward’s fight IQ and ability to seamlessly mix everything together will make him a tricky customer but he’s not going to knock out Usman or take him down. Aside from Usman, Covington’s the best wrestler in the division and he briefly got the champion down just once in their two wars before he popped right back up.
Diaz, not known for his punching power, rocked Edwards in the fifth round, so a late finish is possible. One has to remember, though, that Edwards put himself in that peril by coasting in the final minutes after banking every round. He’ll be switched on every second here and has never been stopped.
Machine-like in masterfully shifting through the gears round by round, look to Usman to retain by decision.
Paulo Costa (1.25) v Luke Rockhold (3.80) (Middleweight)
In his prime, Rockhold (16-5) was a supremely athletic grappling ace with solid, rangy striking. Now 37, the former middleweight champion returns after three years out of MMA and hasn’t won a fight since his TKO of David Branch in 2017.
A younger, stronger beast, Costa (13-2) is a feared striker with dynamite in his hands. Undefeated with 11 knockouts before running into champion Israel Adesanya and fellow top contender Marvin Vettori, the sixth-ranked Brazilian looks to get back on track.
Rockhold’s kryptonite has always been his fragile chin (all of his losses are by KO). With the size, strength and skill to negate Rockhold’s grappling, “The Eraser” will punish and put away the returning veteran.
Jose Aldo (2.10) v Merab Dvalishvili (1.74) (Bantamweight)
Arguably the greatest featherweight of all time, Aldo (31-7) is still going strong, stringing together a three-fight win streak to sit third in the rankings. Seven wins in a row see rising star Dvalishvili (14-4) three places behind the Brazilian icon.
Known as “The Machine”, Dvalishvili is a powerful wrestler with brutal ground-and-pound. Aldo, however, has legendary takedown defence (90%), perhaps the best ever considering his consistency over an 18-year career.
I see “Junior” keeping the fight standing where, as the superior striker with a two-inch reach advantage, he’ll outgun the Georgian to win on the scorecards.
Marcin Tybura (3.75) v Alexander Romanov (1.26) (Heavyweight)
An unbeaten behemoth, Romanov is a frightening emerging force in the heavyweight division. The Moldovan is the epitome of a monster wrestler, rag-dolling and finishing foes in dominant fashion.
Thirteenth-ranked “King Kong” enters the bout with 16 wins and 15 finishes. Nine are by submission and it’s on the ground where he’ll have a decisive advantage over Tybura (22-7), who’s best known for his hands.
Tyson Pedro (1.11) v Harry Hunsucker (6.00) (Light Heavyweight)
With nothing but stoppage wins on both sides, expect a finish. Pedro (8-3) is the biggest favourite on the main card and for good reason. He’s a proven UFC campaigner whereas Hunsucker (7-5) is yet to taste victory inside the Octagon.
Knocked out in his last three and in all five of his losses, Hunsucker drops down to light heavyweight in a last-ditch effort to stay in the UFC, but he’s doomed to go out on his sword as Pedro’s the better boxer with a four-inch reach advantage.
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