England’s best Welterweight, Leon Edwards, will finally return to action opposite veteran grinder, Belal Muhammad, this Saturday (March 13, 2021) at UFC Vegas 21 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Edwards last competed in July 2019, scoring a comfortable decision against Rafael dos Anjos in the biggest win of his career to extend his winning streak to eight. Since then, however, he’s been unable to make it to the Octagon for a variety of reasons, often COVID-19 related. Meanwhile, that big win has slowly lost value, and none of the men ranked near Edwards are willing to fight him. Khamzat Chimaev was a dangerous unranked opponent for “Rocky,” but at least the Chechen talent had serious momentum behind him — people would care if Edwards knocked him from the ranks of the unbeaten. His replacement, Belal Muhammad, is another difficult foe, but one unlikely to move Edwards forward. The Englishman needs a dominating, head-turning performance in order to make this return bout a positive.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Edwards has a great frame for 170 pounds, long and strong. He makes the most of that range, pummeling his opponents with distance work then really doing big damage if they try to push forward.
The first thing to note about Edwards’ game is that he jabs more often than most Southpaws (GIF). When faced with an opposite stance opponent, Edwards definitely still hand-fights and parries with his lead hand — Southpaws almost have to — but he’s far more willing to slap down his foe’s lead hand and step into a jab. He’ll commonly follow up with the left afterward, and it lands with better accuracy since he’s already found his way into range with both the hand-fighting and previous jab.
Edwards also makes use of the Southpaw double threat: forcing his opponents to quickly determine whether a left cross or left kick is coming their way. This strategy is a staple of Edwards’ offense. Again, it tends to come after the jab, as Edwards snaps his foe’s head back and uses that moment to gain a bit of an outside angle before firing a hard cross or kick. Edwards’ left body kick is notably snappy and well-placed, a considerable weapon (GIF).
On the whole, much of Edwards’ offense comes on the counter. He’s willing to lead and will often do so in a close fight to push the pace, but he does a lot of damage answering his opponent’s strikes (GIF).
For example, Edwards did a great job of countering Peter Sobotta, a fellow Southpaw. Since the two men were in the same stance, the jab’s importance grew. That favored Edwards since he already throws a lot of jabs usually, but he built upon that advantage by looking to counter Sobotta’s jab frequently. Early on, a looping cross counter over the jab found its home on Sobotta’s jaw a few times. Once the German athlete adjusted, Edwards switched his counter punch of choice to the uppercut (GIF).
In addition, Edwards is quite good at kicking from his back foot, a risky technique that a lot of fighters do poorly. As his opponent advances, Edwards will feint with his lead hand, set his feet and stop moving away, and blast a left kick into the mid-section. It’s simple enough on paper, but the timing has to be precise to avoid a counter or stuffed kick.
The last note on Edwards’ kickboxing habits is that he likes to following the left high kick with a lunging left hand. It’s both sudden and effective, and it again takes advantage of the Southpaw double threat by forcibly moving his opponent’s hands out of position to block the kick.
Edwards’ last two fights have proven him to be an excellent clinch striker (GIF). Much of the time, it’s as simple as throwing something, anything when breaking away from the clinch, when fighters tend to drop their hands. However, Edwards also does a phenomenal job initiating the left elbow from the clinch.
It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes Edwards’ elbow so much more effective than his peers. After all, controlling a collar tie with one hand and elbowing with the other is hardly a new tactic in mixed martial arts (MMA). Yet, Edwards consistently lands left elbow on the break with devastating force. Perhaps the most notable difference is that Edwards really tends to gain an angle before throwing the elbow, stepping across his opponent’s body and trying to convince him to turn into the strike.
Against dos Anjos, Edwards did a really nice job of interrupting his foe’s combinations with clinches that turned into elbows. “RDA” is a monster if his foe lets him get going, but Edwards routinely stymied him with this tactic.
Edwards has spent some camps at American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), and the results are obvious: he’s very difficult to takedown, and his approach to top control is very much the same as AKA’s other top fighters, like Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Even the best converted non-wrestlers tend to have average shots, but that isn’t the case for Edwards. Not only does he duck down into the double leg with good speed, but he takes an angle immediately upon hitting his foe’s hips. From there, Edwards stands a better chance at driving through the shot or hitting the fence and finishing from there.
In addition, Edwards shows good transitional wrestling by switching from a double-leg to body lock. For example, he showed some great transitional wrestling in one exchange with Bryan Barberena. Afters Edwards gets in deep on a double-leg, he is stopped by Barberena’s hips, so he attempts to finish the shot with an outside trip. Barberena’s balance holds, but the trip attempt allows Edwards to lock his hands in a body lock. The Englishman stands up and tries to circle to the back, a transition which is stopped by Barberna’s overhook. However, Edwards still has the hold and a decent angle, allowing him to finish with an inside trip.
Edwards goes from trips quite a bit from the clinch, and they generally serve him quite well. He has a great frame from that style of takedown. However, Edwards does occasionally get a bit overzealous looking for the trip, which can open up reversals.
Defensively, Edwards does a lot of things right. First and foremost, his immediate defense to just about any shot is to get his back to the fence and widen his stance. With his legs too far apart to be double-legged, Edwards mostly just has to focus on fighting hands. If his opponent switches to a single leg, Edwards will look to stuff the head to the outside or down to the mat, opening up opportunities to reverse.
One thing Edwards does very well is maintain head position. When opponents drive forward into the clinch, Edwards will get his hips back, helping prevent the shot and allowing him to lower his own head. The head is often looked at as the first line of defense in wrestling, and Edwards often proves that notion true, pressing his forehead into his opponents jaw and negating forward pressure. After getting good head position, Edwards is usually able to angle off soon after or return to those hard elbows.
The only man to find consistent success in wrestling Edwards in recent years was Kamaru Usman, and even then, Edwards’ defensive technique held up wonderfully. It was more a matter of strength and conditioning, as Usman just kept grinding until the momentum shifted in his favor. Frankly, Usman has done that to most everyone he’s faced, but a 23-year-old Edwards defended far better than most.
Edwards’ control game from top position revolves around taking the back, so it should not be a surprise that two of his three career submission victories are rear-naked choke wins. He’s attempted the hold multiple times inside the Octagon and did manage to secure it against Albert Tumenov.
In that bout, Edwards won the first two rounds via top control. In the third, both men were a bit fatigued, leading to a more desperate scramble from both. Edwards managed to drag Tumenov to the mat with a seat belt grip from the back, but he was perilously close to falling off the back. Tumenov worked to loosen the hooks as Edwards tried to move back and pull him deeper into the back mount, but “Rocky” flipped the script by going submission over position and simply attacking the neck.
His arm found its way under the chin, forcing Tumenov to focus on the choke rather than the escape. By that point, though, it was too late, and Edwards was able to secure his first submission victory inside the Octagon.
In general, Edwards is very willing to hang on the two-on-one wrist control and beat his opponents up. If they try to force a stand up, he’ll move to take the back, and it can be very difficult to break this chain of transitions.
Edwards is real, real good. Confident and skilled in just about every position and situation, fighters do not come much smoother than “Rocky.” Despite his success, Edwards has yet to secure a title eliminator, and that only changes with a huge victory here.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 21 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.