With the title change at UFC 235, Leon Edwards is in an unfortunate position; the new champion, Kamaru Usman, had already defeated Edwards earlier in both of their careers, and while Edwards has since burst into contention with a great win over Donald Cerrone, it will take him a great effort to gain another crack at “The Nigerian Nightmare.” In a sense, a fight against Nelson is a lateral step; Nelson isn’t ranked markedly higher than Cerrone was at the time, he doesn’t bring a whole lot of name value, and beating him won’t necessarily take “Rocky” out of dark horse territory. Nevertheless, he’s the man in front of Edwards in his home country, and the Brummie can make a statement if he can dominate Nelson.
Gunnar Nelson made a triumphant (if shaky) return at UFC 231; after a series of eye pokes and a first-round knockout from Santiago Ponzinibbio, Nelson sliced up Alex Oliveira and submitted him in impressive fashion. A win over Leon Edwards would be the biggest of Nelson’s career, and perhaps a sign that he’s ready to move up to the next echelon of welterweight.
Leon Edwards has flown under the radar a bit, likely because he’s a jack-of-all-trades; he started his UFC career as a defined striker, but his time at AKA has turned him into one of the craftier clincher/wrestlers at 170-pounds. Edwards showed his excellence in his breakout performance in his main event in Singapore, as he smartly beat the brakes off a well-esteemed contender in Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone to reveal himself as a possible challenge for the elite.
Edwards has a reasonably developed game on the feet. At his best, as defined by the Cerrone fight, Edwards is a potshotter at range; he generally looks to use the threat of his good straight left hand to open up a rear leg round-kicking game, aimed at the head or the body for the most part (Edwards’ dedicated body kicking was what led to his win over the excellent Vicente Luque). If his opponent rushes him, Edwards can fire the left as a simultaneous counter (straight or as a rear hook), or give ground to fire the same; he can move his head to set up counters to an extent, but his defense is mostly getting out of range. Edwards doesn’t have a bad lead hand, but it isn’t nearly as well-developed as his rear hand; he used a fairly pronounced jab to bust Cerrone up, but it didn’t do a whole lot in terms of his overall game.
While he’s definitely capable in the open, Edwards’ game arguably really opens up when he’s in contact with his opponent. That’s what ties Edwards’ overall game together, in fact; Cerrone could get past the counterpunching of Edwards at times, only to get into the clinch and be beaten there. Even past Edwards just out-positioning Cerrone in the clinch and kneeing him in the gut, what marked the chest-to-chest battles in that bout were the strikes on the break; each time Cerrone or Edwards looked to get back to distance, Edwards’ elbow was there to deal some damage in the transition. It was an uncommonly measured performance (even as it bordered into Masvidal-esque complacency, as Cerrone fought his way back into a competitive fight).
Edwards’ top game also looked unexpectedly strong against Bryan Barberena and Peter Sobotta; it isn’t a skillset usually expected of Brits, but Edwards showed a good riding game to keep Barberena down against the fence (often with the same sort of head-positioning fundamentals he uses so well in the clinch) and battered a crafty black belt in Sobotta from on top to a late third-round stoppage. Edwards is talented everywhere in the fight; he isn’t a world-beater in any single phase, especially in a weight class like welterweight, but he has real potential to be a solid contender.
Gunnar Nelson is a somewhat peculiarly regarded fighter; there was a point where a good deal of people expected him to be a top contender, and in that sense, he’s underperformed, but he’s also proven to be a formidable test for most fighters in the division. Nelson is a solid top 15 contender, but his bouts with Maia and Ponzinibbio seemed to show a hard ceiling; with a good win over a well-regarded fighter such as Edwards, Nelson can start to make the case that he can do more than he’s already shown among the elite.
Nelson’s strongest asset is definitely his top game; Nelson is one of the strongest grapplers at 170, and his wrestling is improving enough to make his primary game actionable. On top, Nelson is a strong guard-passer and is excellent at preserving strong positions (such as mount against Jouban and Oliveira), but he’s also willing to turn it on and gun for the finish; this was clearest in his last fight against Alex Oliveira, where after some time of Oliveira stalling from the bottom of mount, Nelson drove all of his weight behind an elbow across Oliveira’s face that sliced his head open and drew a submission before Gunnar had even locked in a choke. Nelson is fond of the club-and-sub in general; the same sort of philosophy gave Nelson his submission over Alan Jouban, who had been put on wobbly legs on the feet before getting snapped down into a guillotine. Nelson’s strong grappling has proven to be a threat in most of his fights, and is the most developed skill of either participant in this fight.
Nelson’s striking is more of a mixed bag; he can function in the open, but he’s not quite an elite striker at welterweight. Nelson has power for sure, and he’s mechanically very crisp; his straight punches are fast and accurate, and he has some of the sharper distancing in the division (which enables him to blitz very effectively, as seen in the Thatch fight, and turn that striking threat into effective takedowns). What causes issues for Nelson has always been his defense; especially when he gets his distancing incorrect, Nelson is nearly defenseless in the pocket. Nelson’s bursts are hard to time, but if his opponent can key on it, Nelson doesn’t have defensive mechanisms in place beyond jumping backward; Rick Story cracked him hard with a left hook on Gunnar’s entry (bouncing into range in no position for any defensive motion), and Ponzinibbio feinted into range and found a right hand the first time he tried. Gunnar’s striking is mostly an effective vehicle for his grappling, but not a perfect one.
Conclusions and Capping
Leon Edwards is a wholly unforgiving opponent for Gunnar Nelson; this isn’t just a function of Edwards being a legitimately excellent fighter who could be a top contender in waiting, but also of Edwards bringing a few skills that should trouble the Icelander.
The first is solid wrestling and a brutal clinch; this will likely do a great deal to keep Nelson from accessing his most likely win condition (his top game). Nelson’s wrestling is improving, but his last fight was against someone who got taken down by Carlos Condit; while Alex Oliveira is an excellent athlete, he wasn’t as great a test for Gunnar’s process as Edwards will likely be. Edwards got into some dicey positions against Peter Sobotta, but his wrestling is mostly very sound; if this carries over to takedown defense (as it usually does), Nelson will have trouble finding openings to get on top without a tactical error on Edwards’ part (especially considering that Edwards will likely be the more imposing athlete; Nelson cuts virtually no weight and is usually the smaller fighter). If Edwards can consistently defend takedowns, his clinch game opens up, where he’s shown much deeper skill than Nelson has.
Edwards has also shown to be a more consistent range striker than Nelson; his counterpunching looked solid against Cerrone as Cerrone tried to enter (which means that Edwards can take advantage of Nelson’s weaker pocket defense), and he can chip away at Nelson on the outside as well. The Luque fight is a great example of the latter; Edwards swayed the fight against a generally crisper striker with body kicking to take the latter two rounds, and that could pay dividends against a fighter as defensively porous as Nelson (Rick Story found success working the body of Nelson, and it visibly slowed his movement). Gunnar has a decent chance on the feet, but Edwards seems to have the skills to make him look unimpressive, and as the fight goes on, Nelson’s bursts will likely get less dangerous and more predictable.
Above all, Edwards has shown to be a smart and disciplined fighter with the ability to push an advantage. He was tactically almost perfect against Cerrone to beat him over the distance, and while there’s less tape on how to beat Nelson than on how to beat Cerrone, Nelson presents holes that fit about as neatly into Edwards’ existing skillset. Edwards can be trusted not to make tactical errors as much as any welterweight on the roster, and that means a great deal against a fighter with the finishing potential that Nelson has at every point. That finishing power gives Nelson a fighting chance in London, but the more likely outcome is Edwards methodically ripping him apart.
Prediction: Leon Edwards via TKO (Round 3). This writer caps Edwards at -250.