A Tale of Two Welterweight

With UFC 286 came the trilogy of Usman vs. Edwards, a rivalry that shook up the welterweight division, as the two fighters fought for their legacies to be cemented in UFC history.

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Over eight years, through 13 rounds, and for about an hour in the octagon, the MMA world has witnessed greatness in the UFC’s welterweight division; Leon “Rocky” Edwards and Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman have given fans three unforgettable fights, the last of which took place in March. Over the past few years, their fights have featured jaw-dropping moments, nonstop action, and storylines to remember. Coming from similar backgrounds yet being on opposite sides of the world, the two have fought for more than world titles. With their pride, the welterweight belt, and a chance to cement their legacies in UFC history on the line, the culmination of their rivalry and the end of the trilogy was nothing short of what fight fans expected: a truly spectacular showdown between born rivals, both at the peak of their careers, looking to achieve greatness. Ultimately, the two men have become forever linked and their rivalry has given fans a trilogy worthy of the UFC Hall of Fame.

December 19, 2015: Usman vs. Edwards 1

At the beginning of their famous rivalry, Usman and Edwards were both young fighters looking to build their reputations; with their names on the prelims of the UFC on FOX 17 fight card, the opportunity rose for each fighter to hit it big. Usman and Edwards both saw MMA as the ticket out of their troubled lifestyles, as both grew up with absent fathers and poor families. Usman’s father was incarcerated when Usman was only 25 years old, leaving him to carve a path for his family without paternal guidance. Similarly, Edwards’s father was shot dead in London when he was only 13 years old, leading him to a troubled life of gang violence and crime. It was no coincidence the two had been pitted against each other, both looking to finally make it into the spotlight.

Coming in as a slight underdog, 24-year-old Edwards (10-2) looked to take down 28-year-old Usman (6-1), who had been tearing through prospects in The Ultimate Fighter, and thus earning his spot in the UFC. A grueling three-round fight proved Edwards’s fighting style to be too reserved for Usman’s aggressive wrestling and ground-and-pound style, ultimately ending in a unanimous decision for “The Nigerian Nightmare.” This fight marked the beginning of Usman’s rampage through the division, which culminated in his first UFC welterweight championship. He also topped the pound-for-pound rankings in 2021. Though Usman stole the spotlight, Edwards put together a storybook-esque redemption arc. As he witnessed Usman achieve glory on his historic 15-fight win streak—the most consecutive wins in UFC welterweight history—Edwards sought revenge, accumulating a reputable win streak himself. Seven years later, with both fighters in their prime, the two prepared for their second matchup in the octagon.

August 20, 2022: Usman vs. Edwards 2

Leading up to UFC 278, the tension between Usman and Edwards was palpable. Their last fight had been when the two stars were just starting out, and both fighters knew what was at stake this time: the welterweight championship. Usman (20-1) put his belt up for grabs against Edwards (19-3) after wiping out all the other top contenders in the division. With hopes to take down Edwards, who entered as a +280 underdog, Usman, the -380 favorite, wanted to get the job done and move up to the next division. The challenger, Edwards, kept this in mind, using it as fuel for his vengeance, which paid off later on. Come the week of the fight, fans had speculated that Usman would make easy work of the British fighter, defending his belt and breaking records in the process. What fans did not expect was for Edwards to have isolated and targeted all of his weaknesses from their previous fight in training sessions, entering the octagon as an expert grappler and one of the most talented kickboxers in the UFC. With tensions soaring high, the two finally met in the octagon at UFC 278, ready for war.

Through four rounds, Usman dominated Edwards, showing why he was the highest-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC. Before the bell rang for the final round, Edwards’s head coach Dave Lovell gave his fighter an unforgettable speech: “Don’t let him bully you, son,” Lovell said. Now fired up more than ever, Edwards shocked the world, landing a kick square onto Usman’s jaw in the final minute of the fifth round and knocking him out cold. “Pound-for-pound, headshot, dead,” Edwards said after the fight. With this win, a rift was created in the Usman vs. Edwards rivalry, creating the perfect setup for their third––and potentially final––fight, where Edwards would defend his belt in his hometown against a new and improved Kamaru Usman.

March 18, 2023: Usman vs. Edwards 3

Usman vs. Edwards 3: the main event of a stacked UFC 286 fight card. Once upon a time, the two headliners had fought in the prelims of a similarly stacked card, but now, the story was different. Both men, at the peak of their careers, wanted to hash out their rivalry for good, with the result of the fight deciding the best welterweight in the world. Fans would see how Usman (20-2) would differ as a challenger compared to when he was the pound-for-pound king and if Edwards (20-3) could handle the weight of his hometown on his shoulders.

The fighting world could not wait to see what UFC 286 had in store, especially after weeks of heated press conferences and months of media build-up. With a sold out O2 Arena, the born rivals finally faced off, with a packed, noisy London crowd surrounding the octagon. As fans chanted “Headshot, dead,” Edwards piled leg kicks and body kicks onto Usman, whose several attempts at taking his opponent down were stuffed by the champion. Edwards made major improvements to his signature kickboxing and advanced takedown defense, which proved much too efficient for Usman’s wrestling in the culmination of their trilogy. Despite this, the fight went for five rounds, and it appeared close the entire time, leaving the decision up to the judges; as Bruce Buffer announced the scorecards from the three judges, the crowd went silent. “And still, the UFC undisputed welterweight champion of the world, Leon ‘Rocky’ Edwards,” Buffer said. The London crowd lit up and Edwards celebrated his majority decision victory over Usman after what he proclaimed was the toughest fight of his career. In the post-fight interview with Daniel Cormier, Usman declared that he would not quit MMA, showing his respect for the champion and wishing him luck on his new reign over the welterweight division. “You know I’ve always [given] him props for everything he’s been able to accomplish…you know he’s a brother like myself and much respect…London, you’ve got yourself a hell of a guy [and a] great champion,” Usman said. With both fighters embracing each other after their octagon interviews, the rivalry had finally come to an end. After a trilogy that hauled in millions of dollars over the course of eight years, the UFC welterweight division has its new king: Leon “Rocky” Edwards.