The score will be settled once and for all when local favourite Leon Edwards makes the first defence of his welterweight title against the man he dethroned Kamaru Usman in a titanic trilogy tilt at UFC 286 in London on Saturday night, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Two of the best and most explosive lightweights in the world, Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev, will fight fire with fire in a co-headlining clash that could blow the roof off the iconic O2 Arena.
Plus, undefeated Casey O’Neill meets Jennifer Maia at flyweight, Gunnar Nelson battles Bryan Barberena at welterweight and top-10 middleweights Marvin Vettori and Roman Dolidze face off.
MAIN CARD (from 11 PM Saturday SA time):
Leon Edwards (3.05) v Kamaru Usman (1.40) (Welterweight Championship
It’s a rivalry that spans over seven years. In December 2015, Usman translated his triumph in season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter – the UFC’s reality show competition – into a successful promotional debut by defeating Edwards by decision in a preliminary bout.
The pair would go on to become titans of the 170-pound division, each beating everyone that was put in front of them until just the two of them remained at the top of the mountain.
They seemed destined to collide again and when they finally did in August 2022, dominant champion Usman dictated terms and looked on course to make it 2-0 against “Rocky.” A minute away from losing a clear-cut decision, Edwards lived up to his nickname when he starched the then-pound-for-pound king with a left head kick to seize the title.
With his jaw-dropping crowning moment, he’d become The Nigerian Nightmare’s nightmare, ending his 15-fight unbeaten streak inside the Octagon, 19-fight win streak overall and reign of terror in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
It was especially shocking as Edwards isn’t known for his finishing ability. The UK star only has a 50% stoppage rate and hadn’t scored a knockout since his win over Peter Sobotta in 2018. With the series squared at 1-1, Usman heads into enemy territory for the biggest mixed martial arts fight ever on English soil.
The headshot heard around the world was no fluke. It was something Edwards and his team had drilled and was masterfully set up. With that element of surprise now out of the window, they’ll have to come up with something special again if he’s to retain the title.
Edwards, who has a record of 20-3, is a striking tactician whose intelligence, footwork and angles make him a point-fighter extraordinaire. With solid grappling and takedown defence to boot, he’s an efficient if not explosive winner of 11 straight.
Now 20-2, Usman’s world-class wrestling is unrivalled and allows him to control contests, as he did for the majority of both meetings with Edwards. He’s a powerhouse and exceptional athlete whose one-punch knockout power is yet another advantage he has over Edwards. He remains the favourite although not quite as heavily as he was in the second bout when he was tipped at 1.25.
Usman undoubtedly learned his lesson in the last fight, that being you can’t switch off for a second inside the Octagon or it’ll cost you everything. He’ll be extra vigilant from start to finish and lead the dance once more to reclaim the crown by decision.
Justin Gaethje (2.95) v Rafael Fiziev (1.43) (Lightweight)
Don’t blink in what promises to be an epic fire-fight that could end at any moment and is destined to finish inside the distance. It’s a co-main event clash between elite lightweight knockout artists with Gaethje (23-4) boasting 19 KOs and Fiziev (12-1) eight.
A staple in the top five at 155 pounds, Gaethje is a vessel of violence. Arguably the most exciting fighter to ever grace the Octagon, “The Highlight” throws everything with bad intentions and is willing to absorb damage to inflict it.
The former interim champion is the hardest hitter in the division, a boxing-centric brawler with wicked leg kicks. He’s also a former Division I wrestler, but most of his fights are bonus-winning striking wars. He’s looking to bounce back from a submission loss to Charles Oliveira last May, his second unsuccessful shot at undisputed gold.
In Fiziev, he faces the division’s fiercest rising star, a young and hungry Muay Thai savage riding a six-fight win streak that’s rocketed him up to sixth in the rankings, three places below Gaethje. Coming off the biggest win of his career, a fifth-round knockout of former champion Rafael dos Santos last July, he’s in for his toughest test yet.
The Kyrgyzstan ace has good hands, a wide range of kicks and excellent elusiveness. He also has a combat sambo background but like Gaethje, he prefers to stand and bang.
The younger fighter by four years at 30, his speed advantage and more varied attack make Fiziev the favourite, but with his unrivalled death touch and track record, the value lies in Gaethje to get it done like he has so many times in the past.
Jennifer Maia (2.45) v Casey O’Neill (1.58) (Flyweight)
Scotland-born O’Neill puts her perfect 9-0 record (4-0 in the UFC) on the line in a compelling clash against Brazilian veteran Maia (20-9-1).
Maia has fought the best of the best including challenging Valentina Shevchenko for the title in 2020 and is still eighth in the rankings, so she serves as the acid test for one of the division’s surging prospects. She’s good in all areas without being great and with most of her wins coming by decision, she doesn’t strike fear into an opponent.
Twelfth-ranked O’Neill is a sensational grappler with a heavy top game. At 25, “King” will have a significant advantage in speed and athleticism against her 34-year-old opponent, who’s in the twilight of her career.
O’Neill’s pressure, pace and power will put her in the driver’s seat and see her come away with the win, most likely by decision.
Gunnar Nelson (1.27) v Bryan Barberena (3.95) (Welterweight)
Styles make fights and this is a throwback to the early days of the sport as Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Nelson (18-5-1) takes on bloodthirsty brawler Barberena (18-9).
“Gunni” is one of the best grapplers in the UFC. His six submission wins are the joint-most in welterweight history and he boasts 12 tap out victories in all. His striking has improved, most importantly on the defensive side, which saw him go the distance with Gilbert Burns and headlining titleholder Edwards.
Barberena’s a slugger through and through with 11 knockouts, including a signature win over former champion Robbie Lawler. This is a serious stylistic misstep for him, though, especially after Rafael dos Santos exposed his ordinary takedown defence and submitted him in his last fight.
Expect the Icelander to follow suit and force “Bam Bam” to tap.
Marvin Vettori (1.36) v Roman Dolidze (3.30) (Middleweight)
Members of the middleweight top 10 kick off the main card. Whether the lively London crowd get into this one remains to be seen as fourth-ranked Vettori (18-5-1) is a grinder of note. “The Italian Dream” only has two finishes in 13 UFC fights – submission wins over Alberto Uda and Karl Roberson in 2016 and 2020 respectively.
Eighth-ranked Dolidze (12-1) is the more dangerous fighter with 10 finishes to his name (seven knockouts and three submissions). A hard-hitting striker, he’s on a four-fight win streak and won his last three by KO.
“The Caucasian” has never fought the cream of the crop like Vettori, a former title challenger with little to no holes in his game. Dolidze needs a knockout if he’s to pull off the upset, which is something no one, including former champions Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, have been able to do.
With a granite chin, relentless pressure and a gift of generalship, Vettori will control the fight en route to a decision victory.