For an athlete coming off an unexpected and potentially soul-crushing defeat, perspective is critically important. Kamaru Usman could look at his knockout defeat to Leon Edwards, which happened in the waning seconds of the final round of a bout he was poised to win by wide decision at UFC 278 on Aug. 20 in multiple ways.
He’s closing in on 36 years old and has been fighting professional for 10 years. He’s been competing in combat sports for most of his life. The loss could be the natural passage of time and could signify the inevitable decline that nearly every MMA fighter experiences at some point.
Usman, of course, doesn’t view it anything like that. The bout at UFC 278 was the rematch of a fight between them in 2015, when Usman controlled it from start to finish and won it with his wrestling. And though he lost his championship belt, as well as his 19-bout winning streak and recognition as the pound-for-pound best in the world, Usman mostly remembers UFC 278 in a positive light.
“The thing is, what people are failing to realize is that that wasn’t the first time I fought Leon Edwards,” Usman told Yahoo Sports. “I fought him before, and that first fight looked a lot like that second fight.”
Edwards won the first round at UFC 278 — a rarity for anyone in the UFC — but Usman took control in Round 2. He won Rounds 2, 3 and 4 convincingly. Between the fourth and the fifth, Edwards coach Dave Lovell was pleading with him to fight with more urgency.
“You’ve got to pull this s*** out of the fire,” Lovell said at one point in the break before the dramatic final round.
Usman was in command throughout the final round. He pushed and was clearly going for the finish, trying to put an exclamation point on top of what had been for the most part an exceptional finish. Had he stayed away, just kept Edwards to the outside and didn’t try to engage in the final 90 seconds or so, he would have won a decision and still been champion.
Most importantly, he wouldn’t be facing Edwards in a rubber match on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London in the main event of UFC 286.
None of Usman’s coaches, from Trevor Wittman on down, urged him to play it safe because they, more than anyone, understand what makes the man tick. And Usman isn’t one to play it cautiously.
“The thing is, my coaches and my corner, they know who I am, they know what I do and they know how hard I train, how much I put my body through,” Usman said. “Early on in my career, there were a couple of fights where I played it a little bit safe. I felt terrible after those. The amount of work I had put in, the amount of trauma I put on my body, I didn’t feel I represented that [in those early fights where I played it safe].
“That’s the fun thing and the crazy thing about what we do. When you put in as much work as we put in in the gym, you want to leave it all out there. And so I always want to leave it all out there.”
Usman is eager for the opportunity to fight Edwards a third time in order to, in his mind, make things right.
Edwards has a few psychological advantages in the fight, including that the kick wasn’t just some random, out-of-the-blue Hail Mary that happened to land. Much like new women’s flyweight champion Alexa Grasso practiced the back take that she used to upset superstar Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285, video has hit the internet showing that Edwards had been practicing the kick.
It was, then, no fluke.
Plus, Usman was taken down by Edwards for the first time in his career. While Edwards is a striker — and one of the best in the business — the fact that he was able to take Usman down has to give the former champion pause.
Usman, though, isn’t concerned in the least by Edwards’ ability to wrestle.
“Being honest, he cannot take me down. He cannot,” Usman said. “That one happened and it was kind of a freak thing, and it was because of me being lazy. I was lazy in that position. I wasn’t as stingy as I was when I was going up against a guy like Gilbert Burns or a guy like Colby Covington. When I’m going up against guys like that that I know want to take me down, you know, I’m stingy there. It’s stingy and it’s a shutout. That’s how I get in those fights.
“I guess you could say that’s where I made a little bit of a mistake because I didn’t respect [his ability to take me down]. When he did hook my leg, I kind of twisted my leg. I was trying to roll him over the top. I didn’t account for his leverage. I give him props for that. Leon Edwards is not going to shoot a shot and get to my leg and get me down. Impossible.”
Of course, the wise viewers of MMA have learned over time to expect the unexpected. And it was certainly unexpected to see Kamaru Usman on the floor as Leon Edwards paraded around with the newly won welterweight championship belt.
Usman is as shrewd as they come in this sport, but he’s utterly convinced the rubber match will most closely resemble the first two bouts, without the spectacular, life-altering head kick at the end.