This weekend’s UFC 278 main event is a highly-anticipated showdown between two fighters with incredible winning streaks.
UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will defend his title against Leon Edwards in the five-round main event this Saturday night in Salt Lake City, Utah. Usman steps in on an impressive 19-fight win streak that dates all the way back to 2013. He’ll be aiming for his sixth successful title defense this weekend.
Leon Edwards, too, will enter after being undefeated in his last ten fights when including the no-contest bout against Belal Muhammad. Edwards’ last defeat was to Usman, the first time they fought back in 2015. On that night, Usman was the winner by unanimous decision. Edwards now has the opportunity to turn the tables and, this time, claim a UFC title when doing so.
As always, continue reading for our staff predictions, picks, full fight breakdown, and the latest betting odds before this weekend’s UFC main event.
Kamaru Usman opened as a moderate favorite, and money seems to be coming in support of the champion at this stage as his odds have moved from -300 at open to -380 now at BetUS. The value on Edwards is growing now as he can now be found as a +280 underdog after beginning at odds of +250.
This is an important fight not just because it’s for the belt, but it’s the best stage the two men can truly showcase their improvements since their first fight in 2015. A lot of the discussion over the last few years in MMA has surrounded the leaps and bounds that Usman has made in his striking since then when he was essentially just a wrestler. Leon Edwards, however, has also massively improved his wrestling, on top of his top-notch kickboxing; this just hasn’t been the center of the discussion in the same way without a title. The two men will now essentially be coming to show how small the gap in these areas has become, although I expect both men to still hold the advantage in their respective root styles.
Leon Edwards is a fantastic kickboxer. He is rangy and slick, and better than almost anyone is his switching stance. Primarily he tends to stand southpaw and has a wicked left straight and leg kicks. He is also extremely good at gauging range and moving in and out just barely enough to avoid getting hit but landing counters without overextending. It will be a tall task to keep Kamaru Usman at kicking range, where Edwards will most definitely be at his biggest advantage, but once he settles into being more comfortable at close range, we tend to see him start to find his elbows when exchanges are broken. This usually happens after a bit of a settling period, however, and he will have to focus on stuffing the takedowns and defending the clinches against the cage before he can worry about countering on the breaks.
In terms of his grappling, the greatest improvements we have seen have come in his wrestling game, he likes trips and sweeps from the clinch on the fence. He tends to go chest to chest and sucks out the legs with his own in order to drag his opponents down while maintaining control upstairs. His top control is light; he will even often squat over them and float while looking to land ground and pound, which could make him more susceptible to butterfly hooks and other sweep positions, although it’s unlikely we see Kamaru Usman go this route. Instead, when Usman looks to wrestle up, the floating approach may allow Edwards the chance to swing to the back or move away and land strikes.
That being said, the chances of Edwards establishing position on top is lower than the opposite. Usman still holds the wrestling advantage. Usman likes to reach for the single leg and drive it to the fence before sucking in the hips and elevating. Edwards has a great base and balance, so it will be difficult to finish his takedowns by trying to turn the corner, but getting deep and elevating him is likely Usman’s best bet. On top, Usman is suffocating, but even more impressive is his ability to maintain control as his opponents wall walk, and his ability to drag them down, follow them but always stay relentless in his control. While his wrestling style is not necessarily the most offensive in damage, just as Edward’s opportunities to strike inside come off the breaks, so will Usman’s, and he tends to have a bit more on them.
One of the biggest advantages Usman has been able to create for himself as of late is his power. He is not as light on his feet striking as Edwards, and the kicking game isn’t as clean, but his boxing is true to the fundamentals; it’s sharp, and there’s much more rigid power behind his punches. Especially his straight right hand, which he has more than Edwards, he sits into his stance to execute. His other shots, hooks, and uppercuts also come a bit more linear, allowing him to tee off at a further range. While Edwards is the taller fighter and will use this to lean in and out of range, Usman does have the two-inch reach advantage, and because his best punches are his jab and cross, this will be largely helpful.
Ultimately both men will have great skills to showcase against one another. Edwards has a wider variety in his striking, but Usman sticks to his bread and butter, and it lands with more behind it. Regardless he should look to utilize this threat to mix in everything and test Edward’s grappling improvements. Whoever is able to take advantage in the moments between the striking and the grappling and land in close will have a big advantage, but I see Usman able to control more of the sequences and thus able to capitalize a bit more.
Pick: Kamaru Usman to win (-380 odds at BetUS)
The long-anticipated rematch between Usman and Edwards is finally scheduled to take place Saturday night at UFC 278. Unlike many other rematches, this one is not intriguing because of bad blood, a narrow win, or even an increasingly common “run-it-back” title fight. This rematch is so anticipated because of how Usman and Edwards match up together.
Usman is the ultimate champion and ranked #1 in the world in the pound-for-pound rankings. I personally have him at #2 behind Volkanovski, but the important point to note is that for any fighter to crack into the P4P rankings, let alone sit atop them, means they are an elite mixed martial artist. Usman’s background outside of the UFC and early success in the UFC centered around fundamental and controlling wrestling. Usman was an NCAA DII wrestler and quickly transitioned his skills from the mat to the canvas. Where many collegiate wrestlers struggle early in their careers because MMA wrestling involves considering strikes, submissions, and the tricky cage, Usman quickly found success in combining those common pitfalls for wrestlers into weapons in his arsenal.
Specifically, “The Nigerian Nightmare” quickly realized and maximized his ability to drop levels, drive his opponent backward like a prolonged football tackle, and pin them against the cage. From here, Usman’s head position, strong foundation, and wrestling knowledge translated into several decision wins where he racked up a significant amount of clinch control time. After first joining the UFC, Usman won eight of his first ten fights via decision, most of which came following the above game plan. This approach was clearly successful but garnered criticism from fans, and Usman was labeled as “boring.”
Usman had always been athletically gifted, naturally strong, and a basic but intelligent striker. However, he rarely stood and went for the knockout finish. Recently though, Usman has let his hands go, and his striking, while still average at best, has provided knockouts in three of his last five fights. It’s impressive that a UFC champion, P4P #1, and undefeated fighter in a competitive division evolved his game to the degree that Usman did. His wrestling is still elite, but now his striking poses another threat for contenders to consider.
Leon “Rocky” Edwards is such an exciting matchup against Usman because of his size, defensive wrestling, and truly elite striking. Edwards’ skillset has been on full display since he joined the UFC in 2014, where he dropped a split decision in his debut. Edwards stands only 6’1 tall, nothing extraordinary for a welterweight, but his length is the first thing many notice when he steps in the octagon. He has long arms and uses his length expertly when striking. Edwards often fights behind a strategic jab that he can use to keep range, dictate pace and space, and accumulate damage. He might have the best jab in the division. What follows behind his jab is what makes him so dangerous, though.
Edwards, who fights with a similar pressure counter style as Adesanya, often will frustrate opponents by keeping them at range. Then, when they hurriedly rush forward, Edwards proficiently cuts an angle and pieces them up with a crisp, accurate, and snapping combination. Even though his striking numbers suggest low volume, Edwards is always feinting and moving with a purpose, so when he lets his hands go, he lands with precision and impact.
The other aspect of Edwards’ game that makes this fight so interesting is his defensive wrestling. Edwards, like many other tall and long fighters, is challenging to take down, especially against the cage. He is adept at spreading his legs wide to avoid a trip and create a dense base. From here, Edwards is skilled at staying calm while hand fighting and can dig in underhooks or a wizard very well. He might lose some time with his back against the cage, but he has proven incredibly difficult to get down to the mat. If Edwards can keep the fight standing and off the cage, he should have the edge on the feet. That might be enough to topple the champion.
Edwards is a truly great striker. Usman has been getting some well-earned shine around his striking, but Saturday Edwards should be able to showcase the difference between good and great striking. That being said, Usman’s wrestling was the reason for his win back in 2015 against Edwards, and I feel it will be the difference maker again on Saturday. I’m anticipating Usman standing with Edwards early to prove he can; then, if Edwards starts to pull ahead, Usman will go back to his roots and wrestle. Because of both men’s durability and a likely wrestle-heavy fight, I also like the fight to go to a decision.
Pick: Kamaru Usman to win by decision (-120 odds at BetUS)
Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman is one of the best fighters in the UFC, with some believing he is the men’s pound-for-pound number 1.
Being now 35 years old, Kamaru Usman has evolved himself as a fighter while still holding true to what made him who he is today. Perhaps the greatest evolutionary tool is what is coined to be the Trevor Wittman Jab. This jab, being taught by his now head coach, Trevor Wittman, allows Usman to fight with confidence on the feet. Moreover, throwing a continual jab, with proper MMA footwork, allows Usman to find his range and set up alternate punches, his straight right hand being most lethal. Lastly, this jab is such a problematic weapon for Usman’s opponents because he is able to successfully throw it without telegraphing the punch while also having sound technique – aids in his striking defense.
Being a technical striker with underrated threats, both in terms of effectiveness and damage, is the evaluation behind Usman’s fight game. The aspect of him which has always been prevalent throughout is his elite wrestling. Being a former collegiate wrestling standout – winning the NCAA DII title in 2010 – has translated seamlessly to MMA for him. While this is to be somewhat expected, we have seen fighters who have had strong wrestling careers fail to reach an elite level in MMA, whether its failure to establish any sort of striking game and/or failure to understand MMA wrestling differs from that of traditional wrestling. But for Usman, his ability to transfer his strong wrestling ability to MMA has made him a problem for many years. And now, when you add talented striking to the mix, you begin to rationalize why he is touted in the regard he is.
The talent of Usman justifies ample positives being thrown his way, but there are potential hiccups that may be seen in this bout that has not been seen for quite some time. The most notable of said hiccups is Usman fighting a predominant striker. While Usman is talented on the feet, he has not faced a fighter who is considered to be an “exclusive striker” in nearly five years not named Jorge Masvidal. So, while Usman is indeed talented on the feet, it would likely prove beneficial for him to wrestle more than he has in previous affairs; if he elects not to do so, he may find himself to be in a very close fight.
Leon “Rocky” Edwards is still somehow one of the best-kept secrets in the UFC. Being that he is on a 10-fight win streak accompanied by being at the top of the division for a while now, Leon Edwards is rarely discussed or even mentioned among the MMA community. The likely reason for this is not due to his skill-set, rather, he has not fought more than twice in a calendar year since 2015.
Given Edwards rarely gets the respect that he deserves, I will begin his analysis from a positive lens. On the feet, Edwards is a very talented southpaw boxer who is one of the more technically skilled strikers across the larger weight classes – welterweight and above. I want to emphasize how technical he is because each time he fights, I find myself writing the same note: extremely clean and crisp striking. The reason why his striking is so crisp is not solely because of elite technique, instead, an ability to understand how hands are used to set up kicks, kicks to set up hands, and how elbows/knees are used in between. Having a full arsenal at his disposal accompanied by being cerebral in the octagon makes Edwards a difficult opponent to contend with on the feet.
Given Edwards’ talent and comfort on the feet, his opponent often attempts to wrestle him. But, counter to many of the public perceptions, Edwards is an underrated grappler in his own regard. Maintaining a 70% takedown rate coupled with landing an average of 1.5 takedowns per 15 minutes in his own regard justifies his ability as a grappler; when you had he out grappled the likes of Rafael Dos Anjos, Nate Diaz, and countless others, and you begin to believe Edwards is not merely underrated in the grappling department, instead, quite good.
While Edwards is indeed a worthy title challenger, he does have some flaws within his fight game. The two most notable, which are linked to the other, are that he lacks significant power on the feet and lacks the ability to significantly separate himself from his opponent on the stat sheet – SLpM 2.62, SApM 2.15. So, to take down the champ, Edwards will need to either ramp up his activity – while maintaining his impressive striking defense – or land with greater damage with his strikes.
While I am a believer that Leon Edwards deserves this title shot and is a legitimate threat to Kamaru Usman, I expect Usman to continue his title reign over the welterweight division.
On the feet, both Usman and Edwards should find success, but the damage threat is on Usman’s side. In the grappling department, while Edwards is quite talented, I fully expect Usman to get it to the mat if he so desires. Given I slightly favor Usman on the feet – due to damage – and greatly favor his grappling, I am backing him in this matchup. But, given Edwards’ well-rounded ability, I expect Usman to win a convincing decision.
Pick: Kamaru Usman to win by decision (-120 odds at BetUS)
Braeden Arbour is an aspiring journalist out of Ontario, Canada. He is a recent graduate of Trent University, with a black belt in Karate and a blue belt in Judo. He has also been an avid fan of MMA for the last decade.
Michael Pounders is a high school English Teacher, a boxer himself, and is a fan who loves, gambles on, and nerds out about all things MMA.