Across the pond, we head to this week’s UFC 286 from the O2 arena in London, England for the welterweight championship trilogy bout between the Nigerian former champion Kamaru Usman and current champion Leon Edwards, of Jamaican heritage living in England.
They head a scheduled fifteen-fight slate that takes a similar theme as other events the organization is offering in venues other than Las Vegas in that twelve of the bouts feature combatants from England or immediate surrounding countries.
This event features the larger octagon. A fully-libated English crowd may translate into a potential advantage for the local fighters who may also be aided by the fact that they don’t have to endure the complications of travel.
Early prelim bouts begin at 1:00 p.m. ET with five preliminaries kicking off at 3 p.m. PT. Finally, at 5 p.m. ET, the five-bout main card drops.
Leon Edwards +200 vs. Kamaru Usman -240
Welterweight (170 pounds) Championship | Main Event
Finocchiaro: In their first fight, both athletes were young and still developing, but from the start of that bout until the end, all viewing the fight as well as Englishman Leon Edwards were aware that Edwards was being dominated by Usman’s wrestling prowess. Even during the bout, Leon knew that if he was ever going to compete for the UFC welterweight title he’d need to drastically improve his wrestling for Usman. Then he showed how effective his fight arsenal was.
It took six-plus years for these cats to engage again, and in that second fight, it appeared that little had changed. Usman’s wrestling dominated the Brit in rounds two, three, and four, and he was on his way to victory when Edwards struck lightning and finished the champion with a head kick KO.
Edwards came in as a substantial +280 underdog in that second fight while the total was lined 4.5 Rounds over -160.
It was my take before the second bout that Edwards had enough time to effectively compete against Usman in wrestling, and over time, his striking and movement would wear the champion down. Then Edwards would be in the dominant position late in the fight.
The fact is that Usman was dominating Edwards in both striking/wrestling that night. The effect it had on Edwards emotionally must be handicapped. While my prediction that Edwards could defeat the champion in the late rounds was correct, the fact is, Edwards’ KO was an unusual, freak occurrence (see Big John Tate vs. Mike Weaver 1980).
From the last fight, I have two thoughts. First, world-class dominant wrestlers like Usman, Jon Jones, Henry Cejudo, and a few others that possess world-class wrestling skills offer pressure that other athletes can’t effectively defend nor learn to defend. Second, Edwards’ demeanor clearly displayed to the world that his ‘will’ was sucked from him in that last fight before he landed what will go down as the most electric late-fight finish in some time.
He won that fight, but on Saturday night in front of his hometown crowd, Edwards will need to find a way to capture lightning twice, because if he is unable to take Usman out with some form of similar power punch, kick, elbow, or knee, what we will witness is a complete rerun of Usman’s mental and physical dominance.
Edwards and camp are quick to point out that the altitude of Salt Lake affected Edwards in that fight. They claim that now, in front of his hometown fans, he’ll hold an advantage over Usman who is still smarting from the effects of that KO just seven months ago. Time will tell.
Edwards may perceive an advantage over their last bout because he’s competing in London, in a climate/environment he’s used to, and in a cage that suits his ability to move, but pressure and distraction also come with fighting in one’s backyard.
On the Usman side, I wonder how Edwards will address the unrelenting forward wrestling pressure from Usman who is certain to respect Edwards' finishing abilities more and adjust by smothering him like a wet blanket for twenty-five grimy minutes, thus not allowing him to breathe let alone compete on the feet.
I can’t remove the image of Edwards' face, emotionless from being dominated for some twenty-plus minutes during their last bout. Edwards’ wrestling, though vastly improved, was still fractionally as effective as Usman’s.
In my view, Edwards again will need to find a way to catch Usman sometime in this bout, because if he can’t, Usman has the ability to dominate the Brit in a similar fashion to seven months ago but with a much different result.
Total in this fight: 4.5 Rds. Over -195
Kuhn: Kamaru Usman was up 3-1 on the scorecards in their last meeting, before getting dropped cold and losing in the final minute of a fight he would have won per the judges. So, the question here is whether Edwards is capable of a repeat performance, or if he at least has improved enough to win more than just two rounds.
On paper, Usman has clear advantages on the mat, where his dominant wrestling tallied five takedowns and over 10 minutes of control time in the last fight. The standup matchup is much closer, with both men boasting accurate and dangerous striking.
Having never seen Usman knocked out until his title defense against Edwards, it’s hard to predict if lightning can strike twice. Usman is a deserving favorite, despite the high-altitude loss, but at what price? Edwards does have a path to victory, perhaps boosted by the confidence of having done it once already. At two-to-one odds, a small play on Edwards is reasonable, but we also now know he can survive competitive rounds against Usman and force a close fight.
Pick: Slight Lean Edwards to win at +200 or more. Over 2.5 for parlays.
Rafael Fiziev -220 vs. Justin Gaethje +190
Lightweight (155 pounds) co-Main Event
Finocchiaro: Two aggressive, forward-pressing alphas, each with abundant pride in their striking acumen, are going to meet in the middle of the cage and determine who has the more effective fighting skills when determined by the rules of the UFC.
Third-ranked Lightweight Gaethje is the larger man who trains with Kamaru Usman in Colorado at Elevation fight team. He’s got a wrestling base but rarely utilizes it, for Gaethje’s game is to walk opponents down and beat them bloody with roundhouse punches, bludgeoning leg kicks, knees to the torso and outright aggressive determination.
The thirty-four-year-old Gaethje relies on his blunt force power for quickness and fleet footedness left him many major battles ago.
Sixth-ranked Fiziev is a Kyrgyzstani fighter with a wrestling base and dynamic Muay Thai striking acumen, evidenced by the fact that he’s the striking coach at the world-famous ‘Tiger Muay Thai’ gym in Phuket, Thailand. Fiziev enters this fight with tremendous momentum.
This fighter’s skills are more refined than Gaethje’s. He’s younger, quicker, displays effective footwork, and is patient/premeditated with his attack. Fiziev’s strikes, while they carry effectiveness, are more precise and are delivered from varying angles than those of his opponent.
Fiziev’s likely to finish opponents via volume, utilizing his diverse striking/kicking and sniping at them until they succumb, while Gaethje’s looking to end the bout with one dynamic blast from his fist, shin or elbow.
Fiziev’s youth and the fact that he’s ‘firing fresh’ supplemented by his speed, quickness, and precision attack are great advantages in this bout against a more experienced, deliberate, less defensive-minded assassin in Gaethje, who will come straight at him to engage.
Fiziev opened -275, which seems the fair price as I handicap this bout, so to catch him with what I perceive to be a fifty-cent discount is worthy of investment.
Pick: Fiziev -220
Total in this fight: 1.5 Over -180
Gunnar Nelson -370 vs. Bryan Barberena +295
Welterweight (170 pounds)
Kuhn: Barberena has come through as a legend-slayer before, but stylistically this matchup isn’t as favorable as the brawls he won against Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown. Expect this one to go more like his fight with Rafael dos Anjos, where ground control and ultimately a submission ended the fight.
Nelson hasn’t always looked great on the feet, but he has seemingly effortless ground control. He has spent a quarter of all fight time on the ground in a dominant position. Barberena’s below-average takedown defense may not hold up for long, and when he’s on the mat, he’s been on defense for the vast majority of the time.
Add in Nelson’s finishing instinct from back control, and he can win rounds as a human backpack, or by locking in a submission.
Pick: Gunnar Nelson -370.