Nicknames in martial arts are usually given on the basis of extraordinary achievements – you show something impressive and get a corresponding nickname. But sometimes the timeline turns around, and then the name and the reasoning come later. That’s the case of Leon “Rocky” Edwards, a long-lost Brit who spent years proving his worth in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s largest mixed martial arts league; but never really caught the eye with anything big – like a Conor McGregor or a Khabib Nurmagomedov. Until a single kick at the end of a fight that had already been lost last summer made him world champion. A classic “Rocky” story.
On Saturday he will defend this title (Saturday from 10 p.m. on DAZN) – against the man from whom he took it in August 2022. Who had clearly defeated him before. This third fight is not only significant for Edwards’ own career, but also for the state of his sport in Europe.
Flashing back to last summer, with 56 seconds remaining in the fifth and final round, commentators were speculating that Edwards may have reconciled himself to losing a points decision in his welterweight title fight to Kamaru Usman, the reigning champ who is here with wanted to break the record for most consecutive wins with another triumph. Then Edwards faked a jab just before the end. And factored in the evasive movement of his opponent’s head. With a precisely executed kick to Usman’s head, he sent the seemingly invincible champion onto the boards. Salt Lake City exploded.
The result was a sensation because Edwards had previously been dominated by Usman for long stretches. In addition, he had already lost to him at the end of 2015, when both were still unknown newcomers. After this clear defeat on points, Edwards turned up the heat, defeated popular fan favorites Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz, stopped the winning streak of German Peter Sobotta in 2018 and clearly beat a former world champion with Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos.
After years of working hard again, he got his second chance against Usman, who had meanwhile become world champion. And soon seemed to get the short end of the stick again. “Rocky” managed a takedown himself in the first round, which surprised the spectators and probably Usman himself. At 1,300 meters above sea level, however, the Brit quickly ran out of breath. Usman, who lives in Denver, Colorado at 1600 meters above sea level, trains and is therefore used to the thin air, turned it up. Edward’s coach had to yell at him during the breaks in a round – “Stop fucking feeling sorry for yourself!” – and at first didn’t seem to have any success. Until Edwards launched his life-changing kick. “We had already written his obituary!” one of the commentators kept shouting into the microphone. “Look at me!” yelled an incredulous Edwards. “No one believed in me!”
Now the two compete again – this time in Edward’s native England. In the past few days, the two opponents shot verbal tips against each other, but that’s show to sell their fight. The two respect each other – because they have each defeated one another, but also because, as rather quiet and less polarizing athletes, they both had to fight for their laurels harder than others. That connects. While glamor factor stars like Conor McGregor race up the fast lane towards the prestigious bouts, low-key workers like Edwards and Usman must earn victory after victory. Until the promoter has no choice but to give them a title shot – unless some loud-mouthed fan-favorite with a couple of strong wins steals their chance again.
Whether the third fight between Edwards and Usman will be spectacular from a fan point of view remains questionable. It wasn’t the first fight, the second only selectively, when Edwards was able to surprise Usman with a takedown at the beginning and then brutally knocked him out shortly before the end. It would not be surprising – and understandable – if Usman fought all the more cautiously as a lesson from the defeat this weekend.
Therefore, for the “oho” and “wow” moments, the UFC put Usman’s training partner Justin Gaethje in the co-main fight, which takes on Kazakh Rafael Fiziev. Gaethje reliably gets drawn into a material battle every time. Fiziev is a former Thai boxer who dodges kicks to the head with Matrix-style ducking moves. You are in charge of the action. They are joined by European-born stars such as Icelander Gunnar Nelson, Italian Marvin Vettori and Scotland’s Joanne Wood. Edwards is there to win.
Because just because he was able to win a title, the league came back to Europe with such a big event. The league comes to England, Sweden or France from time to time for smaller fight nights. UFC 286 this Saturday is the first UFC event on European soil to be shown on pay TV in the USA since 2016. Germany was last a guest in 2018, of course without a title fight. And so the outcome of the fight on Saturday also has indirect significance for the German MMA scene – even if none of the six Germans currently in the league squad climbs into the Octagon in London on Saturday. The more successful the Europeans are, the more the league’s focus swings back to the continent.
But that’s mixed martial arts: unpredictable, with high stakes. What happens next depends on the millimeters that sometimes decide between victory and defeat – and thus the careers of individuals as well as the development of the sport as a whole.