Leon Edwards did it again. The second-ever English UFC champion settled UFC 286’s trilogy by defending his welterweight title with a majority decision over Kamaru Usman in front of his countrymen at London’s O2 Arena. Edwards’ homecoming headlined an action-packed card that also saw Justin Gaethje will himself to victory against Rafael Fiziev, plus a whole lot more. With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 286.
1. In the end, Leon Edwards was right. And really, that’s the only proper way to start this, by giving Birmingham’s finest all of the accolades he deserves, because the man not only did what many long thought to be impossible — he did it twice.
Consider for a moment how far the discourse around the champ has come. Not long ago, any suggestion to the broader MMA community that Leon Edwards, of all people, was going to be the one to end the mighty title run of Kamaru Usman would’ve been laughed out of every comments section in the sport. For the entire length of his 10-fight, six-year undefeated slog to the belt, Edwards was either an afterthought or a punchline. Hell, even as recently as 2020-21, he was eating crap from every possible direction. Whenever fans, pundits, or even his fellow fighters brought up welterweight title contenders, his was the only name either openly disregarded or scoffed at entirely. He was Leon Scott, remember?
Isn’t it funny how that works?
LEON ROCKY EDWARDS!!!!!
He put on a hell of a performance and to do it in front of a home crowd as well!! #UFC286
— Megan Anderson (@MeganAnderson) March 19, 2023
Because here’s the unfair reality of UFC 286’s main event: If he would’ve lost Saturday and the trilogy ended 2-1 in Usman’s favor, everything Edwards accomplished back in August would’ve been forever invalidated in the eyes of that same unforgiving public. His fifth-round miracle at UFC 278? Still etched into history as one of MMA’s great comebacks, but relegated instead to be a footnote in Usman’s story, a hurdle simply for the second greatest welterweight of all-time to overcome. We just watched it happen with Julianna Peña. Most of the cachet from her upset of Amanda Nunes flew out the window the moment Nunes dominated the rematch. It was as if all had been set right in the world.
Just or not, Edwards was staring down a similar fate had Chapter 3 wound up looking a whole lot more like Chapter 1 and the majority of Chapter 2.
Instead, the champ staked his claim as the best welterweight in the world, laid any lingering doubt to rest about the validity of the belt wrapped around his waist, and did so with a true championship-caliber performance. Faced with the most high-pressure homecoming of his life, Edwards was sensational. His takedown defense and get-ups had Usman working overtime all night, and his stand-up precision far outpaced Usman (120 to 87 in significant strikes) at a far more accurate clip (74 percent landed to Usman’s 42 percent).
Without question: Birmingham’s finest is a worthy UFC welterweight champion.
What a road. What a story.
It’s just too bad we had to immediately plunge the division back into chaos.
2. So, let’s dig into that chaos, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Simple question: Is it really too much to ask Colby Covington to beat a single person in the current welterweight top 10 before we keep handing him title shots for losing two close fights a couple years ago to the ex-champ? Yes, in the afterglow of UFC 286, UFC president Dana White wasted little time proclaiming that despite whatever else happens in the welterweight division, Edwards vs. Covington is the next “fight that makes sense.”
“He deserves that fight,” White argued of Covington.
Leon Edwards on Colby Covington getting the next title shot: “I don’t know how that makes sense” #UFC286
“I’m the king now. I’ve earned my way, so I feel like I should decide who’s next.” pic.twitter.com/d79iv51Z5V
— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) March 19, 2023
“Deserves” is doing a hell of a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
Look, I’m no dummy — I get it. Covington has a bigger fan base than a guy like Belal Muhammad, who’s seemingly going to have to win 40 fights in a row to even get a whiff of the title picture. (Congrats on your nine-fight unbeaten streak, Belal! Here’s a fight with Shavkat Rakhmonov to celebrate.) But this treatment of Covington as if he’s some McGregor-style golden goose is bizarre. The reality is we’re talking about a fighter who isn’t an overwhelming pay-per-view draw, who’s never held an undisputed title, and who hasn’t beaten anyone coming off a win since Rafael dos Anjos in 2018. That’s five (yes, five!) years. The only welterweight Covington has even fought in the UFC’s current top-15 crop is No. 11 Jorge Masvidal. At this point, even newcomers like Rakhmonov have better and more relevant wins than anything on Covington’s résumé.
The notion that Covington “deserves that fight” over contenders who have actually been putting in the work is a slap in the face to the loosest possible definition of a UFC meritocracy.
Kudos to the champ for totally no-selling what his promoter is trying to do here.
“I don’t know how that makes sense,” Edwards said of White’s matchmaking. “He hasn’t fought for over a year and a half. Sat out, not injured. I just don’t get how he just slides in for the world title shot when there’s other guys in the division that have been active, been fighting, didn’t sit out.”
Particularly for a guy like Edwards, who had to grind ad nauseam to finally earn his shot, this whole thing must be baffling. And because I already know how these past few paragraphs will be received by Covington’s extraordinarily opinionated fan base — to be clear, no one is suggesting Covington sucks. He’s clearly one of the most talented welterweights in the world — or, at least, he was at one point. I’ll probably favor him to beat Edwards if/when that fight gets booked. Just … is it really so egregious to want him to fight a single person of relevance in the title picture before being spoon-fed more shots when every other 170-pounder has been asked to defend their spot? That’s really not asking for a lot.
The UFC is clearly going to dig its heels into the ground on this one, so good luck to the champ on getting White & Co. to change their minds. It’s just regrettable that Edwards’ career-defining moment had to get partially overshadowed by someone whose claim to fame is losing a few competitive fights to the guy Edwards vanquished twice in a row.
3. Hey, you know who else was right? Justin Freakin’ Gaethje, that’s who.
All those obituaries written for him over the past 10 months were clearly premature. “The Highlight” looked magnificent in his co-headlining war of attrition against Rafael Fiziev. He perfectly toed the line between smashing the chaos button and showcasing some much-needed veteran savvy with a more measured and patient approach. He even scored the first takedown of his UFC career — a fact he couldn’t help but gleefully point out in his post-fight interview. Altogether, it was the most complete and technically impressive performance from Gaethje since his pandemic brilliance over Tony Ferguson in May 2020.
Make no mistake: Gaethje wasn’t lying. He’s the most entertaining fighter alive. The man has 28 bouts to his MMA name and not one of them is remotely disappointing. Frankly, that level of consistency doesn’t even make sense. It’s Gaethje and Robbie Lawler on the All-Action Mt. Rushmore forever; the rest of the sport can battle it out for the other two spots.
But I digress. I’ve been banging the drum for more than a year about the lightweight division being clogged beyond belief in its upper ranks, as its more established veterans refused to give shots to the next generation. Saturday was a nice step toward that unclogging, and Gaethje looked better than ever in defending his spot. In my ideal world, he gets Mateusz Gamrot next and we keep this unclogging train a-chugging.
Realistically, though, the UFC will probably do Poirier-Gaethje 2 next — and you know what? Considering how their beautiful first collision wound up being MMA Fighting’s 2018 Fight of the Year, I’m certainly not going to complain if those two violent gentlemen run it back.
4. Saturday’s main-card opener wasn’t a robbery by any stretch. I scored Marvin Vettori’s decision over Roman Dolidze a 29-28 for Dolidze, favoring his power and the damage he inflicted in the first and third rounds over Vettori’s volume and low kicks, but it was a close, competitive scrap, and hey, a 29-28 Vettori scorecard is perfectly understandable.
I just would love to ask judge Paul Sutherland a few pointed questions about his 30-27 Vettori scorecard (plus a few other ditties from him last night), because a professional judge seeing that fight as a clean sweep for Vettori is certainly a choice.
The NBA is far from a beacon of officiating competency, but the league at least allows for a pool reporter to ask post-game questions to its referees after questionable or controversial calls. If only MMA had even that base level of accountability, blips like these could at least get some kind of justification or explanation rather than Sutherland escaping into the London ether unscathed after his no good, very bad night.
But alas, that’s obviously too much to ask.
Dolidze winning would’ve been a fun wrinkle to reshuffle the top of the middleweight deck, but what’s done is done. Vettori vs. Jared Cannonier next?
5. As a man with a forever bum knee from jiu-jitsu, the scenes Muhammad Mokaev survived through on Saturday were nightmare fuel. For real, just look at this Looney Tunes ish.
Mokaev said post-fight that he felt his knee cracking, which is the worst word anyone could possibly associate with knees or knee-related sequences. Add in the fact that it was Mokaev — not Jafel Filho — who coaxed a fight-ending tapout less than two minutes after that horror show? Impressive. Say whatever you want, but there is no quit in that man.
I was initially a bit critical of Mokaev’s slow escalation up the flyweight ranks, if only because he arrived to the UFC with such fervor that it felt like a foregone conclusion to slot him alongside the elite in a hurry. But UFC matchmaker extraordinaire Mick Maynard knew what he was doing here. Mokaev may dream of surpassing Jon Jones as the youngest UFC champion ever, but many a young prospect has been ruined by rushing up the ladder before they were ready. His most recent few outings have shown the patient road to be the correct road for the 22-year-old. Mokaev will be a UFC champion before his career is done — that, I’m sure of — but with his first 12 months in the octagon officially in the books, it’s a helpful reminder of the value of giving a blue-chipper time to put it all together first.
Book the Jake Hadley fight that has long been brewing (or at least someone else of that stature if Mokaev doesn’t want to play ball) and let’s afford the Dagestani a little more seasoning before we throw him to the wolves of the flyweight elite.