By the start of March, Gilbert Burns was 2-0 at welterweight whereas Leon Edwards was on an eight-fight win streak and about to face Tyron Woodley, one of the division’s best ever, in his home country of England. Fast forward three months and Burns has snatched a title shot from the Brit after wins over Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley. Edwards, who hasn’t fought in a year, is left inactive and quarantined in England.
Indeed, as Burns prepares to challenge his Sanford MMA gymmate and friend Kamaru Usman for the welterweight belt on July 11 at UFC 251, his story is a reminder to fighters to grab opportunities when they come. Undeterred by the prospect of traveling from his training base in Florida during a pandemic to fight behind closed doors, Burns knocked out Maia in Brazil in March and schooled Woodley on the feet in Las Vegas in June, becoming the division’s hottest property after moving from lightweight in August 2019.
If his arrival has been sudden and explosive, many feel Edwards, ranked #5, should be traveling to Yas Island to face Usman. The 28-year-old boasts a sky-high fight IQ and longevity to boot, having defeated all-comers such as Rafael dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone, and Vicente Luque. The only issue is that despite his surge to prominence, his record still doesn’t stack up to Burns’.
In Edwards’ last four fights, he’s taken out Dos Anjos (then-ranked #4), Gunnar Nelson (then-ranked #13), Donald Cerrone (then-ranked #11) and Peter Sobotta (then-unranked). A pretty handy ledger, then, but not when you compare it to the number one contender. In Burns’ last fought outings, he’s overturned Woodley (then-ranked #1), Maia (then-ranked #5), Nelson (then-unranked), and Alexey Kunchenko (then-unranked).
That said, Burns has leapfrogged Edwards quite fairly and justifiably by defeating two athletes in the top five. He’s relevant, he’s exciting, and he’s based in America, all of which stand in his favor over his British counterpart. His run to a title shot shows everyone how much the UFC values momentum in a title challenger, and the fact that he has a close bond with Usman makes the match-up all the more enticing.
It’s easy to sympathize with Edwards. Normally shy and retiring, he has to his credit hammered Usman on social media during the lockdown in order to goad him into the cage. He stands alongside Raphael Assuncao as one of the finest fighters in the UFC to never contest a world title but perhaps his lack of name-value has held him back.
Edwards, speaking on BT Sport’s Open Mat in England on Saturday, mentioned the UFC was keen to hand him a title shot in August but it’s unclear how far these discussions went. Sure enough, Adam Catterall, presenting the show, challenged “Rocky” by stating that it looked like Burns would get the shot. Usman’s manager Ali Abdelaziz hinted that the Birmingham man would in fact face the winner from UFC 251, but Edwards is once again left waiting.
His loss is to the benefit of Burns, who has come along at a time when bigger names such as Colby Covington, Stephen Thompson, and Jorge Masvidal are out of the title picture for one reason or another. It’s no stretch to call “Durinho” the best fighter of 2020 thus far. Against Woodley he poured on the output, banging to the body and legs and not letting up for a moment. It was a classic underdog performance, full of grit and determination, and one which will make Usman take him seriously.
Although the belt-holder is one of the smartest, most self-assured fighters in the UFC with a record of 16-1, Burns is perhaps more well-rounded. His striking is more versatile and he will look to thrive on tackling a front-foot wrestler over five rounds. He deserves his crack at the belt but Edwards must feel it should have him challenging Usman, attempting to avenge a defeat from December 2015. The Englishman may be the quiet man at 170 pounds but it would be a shame if he didn’t get a fair shake of opportunities in 2020.
Alistair Hendrie is a freelance writer for The Body Lock MMA. He has previously written for Mirror.co.uk and Fighters Only. Check out his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more.