Will lightning strike twice for Leon Edwards in London?
The may depend on whether or not you believe lightning struck for a first time when “Rocky” planished long-time rival Kamaru Usman in Salt Lake City, a stunning fifth-round finish that turned the welterweight division on its head (watch it). An argument can be made that Team Edwards out-coached and out-maneuvered Team Usman in the championship rounds, just as you can make a case for “The Nigerian Nightmare” coasting comfortably in cruise control, knowing he was ahead on the judges’ scorecards, which left him open and vulnerable to an Edwards “Hail Mary.”
Expect those questions to be answered in the UFC 286 pay-per-view (PPV) main event, headlined by the third and perhaps final fight between Edwards and Usman. “Rocky” makes his first defense of the welterweight title in front his hometown fans this Sat. night (March 18, 2023) inside The O2 in London, England, a five-fight PPV main card that also features a compelling 155-pound clash between all-action lightweights Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev. Their three-round contest could establish “Ataman” as a legitimate title contender — or send him to the back of the line in defeat.
Before we get to the finer details, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 286 “Prelims” undercard action on ESPN2 and ESPN+ by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 286 odds and a complete betting guide for the entire “Edwards vs. Usman 3” PPV event can be located here.
Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s fight card (get one here), but you’ll also get complete access to all the subsequent “Fight Night” events in 2023 and beyond.
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170 lbs.: UFC Welterweight Champion Leon “Rocky” Edwards vs. Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman
I didn’t give Leon Edwards much chance of beating Kamaru Usman when they rematched for the welterweight title last August in Salt Lake City and for most of their five-round fight, “The Nigerian Nightmare” was comfortably in command. He’s the superior fighter and demonstrated that on fight night, but being superior does not always equate to being victorious in a sport where one mistake (or one head kick) can spoil an entire body of work. The question heading into their rubber match (Usman decisioned Edwards at UFC on FOX 17) is less about how well Edwards performed and more about how well Usman will recover from the first knockout of his career. As we’ve seen in the past, going limp on the big stage can damage a fighter’s confidence and permanently change how he or she competes. Georges St-Pierre had 10 welterweight finishes before he got creamed by Matt Serra and just three in the six years that followed. It’s also been said that a fighter’s chin gets less durable with each knockout, which is why Chuck Liddell went from wrecking ball to retirement hall in the span of six fights.
I’m not sure that’s the case for an athlete like Usman, who is second only to St-Pierre when it comes to the welterweight record for control time and total strikes landed. Simply put, “The Nigerian Nightmare” doesn’t spend a lot of time on his feet banging it out in the phone booth, so even with his extended tenure at the top, he’s taken far less damage than some of the other big names in the division. You can make a similar argument for Edwards, who manages to keep himself out of the red zone for most of his fights. I know Nate Diaz fans like to brag about that late scare in their UFC 263 showdown but only Diaz fans are dumb enough to celebrate a loss (which happened to be his second straight). I don’t think you needed the hot mic from his coach to realize Edwards was mentally defeated at UFC 278 and pretty much resigned to losing, he was wearing it on his face late in the fight. The confidence he gained from his comeback victory is likely to keep him from falling back into that psychological trap, because “Rocky” is living proof that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
Edwards is claiming hometown advantage and likes to tout the fact that he never lost in the United Kingdom. He also never faced a fighter the caliber of Usman in the United Kingdom either, so that certainly helped his cause. I’m picking Usman in the rematch because he’s been able demonstrate consistency at the championship level against the best 170-pound fighters in the world. A lot of combatants are up and down, hot and cold, but Usman is always a well-oiled machine with a world-class team behind him. I also think he’s got something to prove this weekend across the pond and I’m not sure Edwards, for all his might, is going to be able to handle the freight train headed his way.
Prediction: Usman def. Edwards by unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (23-4) vs. Rafael “Ataman” Fiziev (12-1)
Justin Gaethje has 10 fights in UFC and 10 performance bonuses, including six “Fight of the Night” honors. A “Highlight” fight is essentially MMA porn and his balls-to-the-wall style has earned him 20 finishes in 23 wins, 19 by way of knockout. It’s also cost him four stoppages in all four of his defeats, because of his “live by the sword” mentality. Great for fans, even better for stockholders with significant shares in Depends diapers or Gerber baby food, because Gaethje could be a vegetable by age 40 if he keep this up. Submission losses to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira are probably hard to swallow for Gaethje but I think fans (and pundits) have been more forgiving since we’re talking about two of the best lightweights in history. I also believe his three-round war against Michael Chandler disproved theories that Gaethje was on bad terms with his chin, especially when you consider “Iron” landed over 100 significant strikes in their three-round slug-a-thon. Gaethje is an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler with a hall of fame induction at the University of Northern Colorado but has never scored a takedown in his UFC career, which is kind of hard to process, mentally, in a sport that starts with the word “mixed.”
To be fair, you won’t see many takedowns from opponent Rafael Fiziev, a decorated Muay Thai striker with big wins against world-class competition in top tournaments like Toyota Cup Marathon. Similar to Gaethje, the 30 year-old Fiziev has racked up five performance bonuses in seven trips to the Octagon and bagged “Fight of the Night” on two separate occasions. “Ataman” has also proven to be as dangerous with his legs as he is with his fists, smoking Brad Liddell with a spinning wheel kick before flattening Rafael dos Anjos with two brutal punches. Whether or not he wins this fight may depend on how successful he is at sticking to his gameplan, which I’m sure includes specific instructions from his coaches to not get seduced by the oohs and ahhs of the London faithful when the fists start flying. A bar fight with Gaethje is a dangerous place to be for any lightweight, including Fiziev, and a complete waste of talent for a switch-stance fighter with more technical striking. Gaethje has come a long way under striking coach Trevor Wittman but remains wild, leaving him open for Fiziev’s counterpunches. Whether or not the Azerbaijan striker can land them remains to be seen, I just can’t shake those painful memories of “The Highlight” reeling against Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez.
Prediction: Fiziev def. Gaethje by knockout
170 lbs.: Gunnar “Gunni” Nelson (18-5-1) vs. Bryan “Bam Bam” Barberena (18-9)
I recently messaged a friend to ask if they were taking Gunnar Nelson this weekend to which they replied, “lol, didn’t he retire?” That should give you an idea of how often “Gunni” has competed over the last few years and we can blame a lot of that inactivity on his dumb idea to grapple with “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones, who came crashing down on the Icelander and crushed his insides. Nelson missed more than two years of action but probably welcomed the time off after dropping consecutive losses to Leon Edwards and Gilbert Burns, part of a dreadful 1-3 run that included a knockout defeat to Santiago Ponzinibbio in summer 2017. Upon his return, “Gunni” managed to outpoint former Pancrase hero Takashi Sato, though I’m not sure that’s anything to brag about considering “Ten” went 2-5 for UFC and got finished in every loss except for the one against Nelson. There’s no question Nelson is a talented grappler and his karate has made him a competent striker, I just wonder what he’s got left in the tank with his 35th birthday creeping around the corner.
Nelson is also facing a tough opponent, stylistically speaking, because Bryan Barberena is one of those hard-headed welterweights who just doesn’t give a f—k. “Bam Bam” was able to defeat two of the most violent fighters in the history of the 170-pound division courtesy of a split nod over Matt Brown, followed by a technical knockout drubbing of ex-champion Robbie Lawler. The party came to an end against the more patient and calculated Rafael dos Anjos, which should have Barberena fans worried about the Nelson fight. There is a chance that “Bam Bam” could take a page from the Rick Story playbook and just keep Nelson flustered for the better part of three rounds, or back him into the fence and drown him in chaotic punches. The more likely scenario is that “Gunni” weathers an early storm and waits for Barberena to expose his neck, or perhaps a dangling limb. There’s not a whole lot I can say about Barberna from a technical standpoint because ... well, he’s not a very technical fighter. That doesn’t make him any less dangerous than some of the more well-rounded tacticians at welterweight and this is by no means a “gimme” fight for Nelson. I just think Barberena has terrible defense and will be facing an opponent who is adept at capitalizing on mistakes.
Prediction: Nelson def. Barberena by submission
125 lbs.: Jennifer Maia (20-9-1) vs. “King” Casey O’Neill (9-0)
Note: the following prediction was made by “Prelims” expert Patrick Stumberg before the main card was finalized.
Jennifer Maia’s upset submission of Joanne Wood gave way to a 1-3 skid at the hands of Valentina Shevchenko, Katlyn Chookagian, and Manon Fiorot. Undaunted, she proved she was still a factor at 125 pounds with a dominant decision over Maryna Moroz in Nov. 2022. Nine of her pro victories have come by way of stoppage, including six submissions.
Casey O’Neill cut her teeth in Eternal MMA and UAE Warriors before joining the world’s largest fight promotion in 2021. She’s yet to taste defeat in the Octagon, racking up three stoppage wins before earning a split decision over Roxanne Modafferi her last time out. She stands two inches taller than Maia and boasts a five-inch reach advantage.
This is a trial by fire for “King” Casey. Maia looked better than ever against Moroz, showing off the power and boxing technique necessary to meet O’Neill’s high-volume striking head-on. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see this go sideways for O’Neill if it turns into a protracted standup battle.
What swings it O’Neill’s way is her grappling, as Maia has consistently failed to keep fights standing against determined takedown artists. Plus, given O’Neill’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) credentials, it’s unlikely that Maia’s bottom game will give her too much trouble. Expect her to blunt the Brazilian’s aggression with output and takedowns to win a decision.
Prediction: O’Neill by unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (18-6-1) vs. Roman “The Caucasian” Dolidze (12-1)
Marvin Vettori doesn’t get taken very seriously by most MMA fans and I see a lot of media members writing him off, but keep in mind that over the last five years across a span of 10 fights only two fighters have beaten him: Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, two of the best middleweights on the planet. It’s also worth pointing out “The Italian Dream” has never been finished in his professional MMA career and will keep coming forward for all three (or five) rounds, partly because he’s just 29 years old and still has a full tank of gas but mostly because he’s a unrelenting savage who won’t rest until the final bell is rung. Working against him is the fact that he doesn’t have any power and holds just two knockouts in 18 wins, neither of which occurred under the UFC banner. Vettori is also an underrated grappler — probably because he fell in love with his striking — but the former Venator FC standout has registered taps by way of toe hold, guillotine choke, and triangle choke, so clearly he knows how to compete on the ground.
I’m not sure that’s a place he wants to go with opponent Roman Dolidze, who’s been a pleasant surprise at 185 pounds. “The Caucasian” — which is a horrible nickname — is coming off three straight knockout wins over increasingly difficult competition. Dolidze will enter this contest with a two-inch advantage in both height and reach to counter Vettori’s southpaw stance. I don’t want to get too crazy when it comes to the stats because Dolidze also had a size advantage over Trevin Giles and lost that fight by decision — which was just one fight removed from his split nod over John Allan. That’s why I’m not jumping the gun when it comes to his recent success. Dolidze has certainly looked great but he’s also 34 and let’s face it, his resume doesn’t come anywhere near Vettori’s when comparing strength of schedule. When “The Caucasian” was knocking around Laureano Staropoli and Phil Hawes, the granite-chinned “Dream” was going five rounds against Adesanya and Whittaker while sandwiching a Paulo Costa victory in between. Dolidze may have his moments early, but when he fails to close the show, he’s likely to find himself being out-muscled and out-hustled in the second and third rounds.
Prediction: Vettori def. Dolidze by decision
Remember to get UFC 286 “Prelims” predictions by clicking here and here.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 286 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN2/ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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