An old adage in combat sports says that someone is not truly the champion until they defend the title.
Well, if that is indeed the case, Leon Edwards cemented himself as the top man at welterweight on Saturday at UFC 286 in London, beating Kamaru Usman for a second straight time with the belt on the line.
Usman’s 15-fight winning streak and three-year reign over the division are now in the rearview mirror. The Edwards era is upon us and he reminded everyone of that on Saturday night, referring to himself as the “king” of the division.
All of that is true, but the thing about being king is there is an endless wave of challengers looking to take the throne. Edwards has one title defense under his belt now. The next one could come later this year against Colby Covington. But there is no shortage of names on the shortlist, like Belal Muhammad or the winner of an upcoming fight between Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal. Beyond that, there are prospects like Shavkat Rakhmonov and even big names who have made their hay in other divisions, like Islam Makhachev and Conor McGregor, seemingly interested in welterweight title fights.
Usman had an incredible run at the top of 170 pounds, but with him now dethroned, things are now much more interesting. The reset button has been hit at welterweight, so let’s take a look at what the coming year could look like in one of the UFC’s premier divisions.
What does Edwards bring to the table as UFC welterweight champion?
Edwards is a technically proficient, well-rounded fighter. He showed a different level of confidence in the rematch against Usman. The Jamaican-born fighter living in Birmingham, England, is pretty reserved. He doesn’t often show his emotions, and rarely talks trash. But you could see a change in him this past fight week.
Leon Edwards the champion has a much different vibe than Leon Edwards the challenger. He’s not quite cocky, but there’s a quiet confidence there.
Because of how good Edwards is everywhere during a fight, he’ll be a tough matchup for any contender coming his way. His kicks from the southpaw stance are lightning-quick, his striking offense is strong and he’s hard to take down. From the UFC’s perspective, Edwards might not be the biggest pay-per-view draw, but he’s a champion who represents England, and the United Kingdom has been a red-hot market for the promotion of late. UFC 286 was a big box-office success and the UFC clearly won’t mind having a UK-based champion.
Who is the most worthy title challenger to Edwards’ throne?
That’s not an easy question. UFC president Dana White said in the postfight news conference Saturday that he believes it’s Covington and that he will get the next title shot. Edwards didn’t seem to be into that idea, saying he’s not sure Covington makes sense and the champion should decide. Certainly, from a résumé perspective, it’s hard to discredit Muhammad, who is undefeated in nine straight fights. The only non-victory in that stretch? A no-contest against Edwards in 2021 due to an accidental Edwards eye poke. So, there’s a story there, too.
There would also be one heck of a story if Masvidal were the next opponent for Edwards. In 2019, Masvidal and Edwards got into a physical altercation after an event in England. Afterward, Masvidal coined what has become an iconic line in MMA parlance. Masvidal said he hit Edwards with a “three piece and a soda,” referring to a punching combination, and it went viral. Of course, Masvidal is on a three-fight losing streak and has a fight against a tough opponent in Burns at UFC 287 on April 8. Burns, a former title challenger against Usman, would also be right there in the mix for a title shot if he beats Masvidal.
The reason Covington and Masvidal are in the title conversation is simple. The UFC is a business. It’s a promotion. It’s not a merit-based sports league. That’s something worth remembering when White takes the news conference dais and says that Covington is most deserving. What he really means is Covington stands to make the UFC the most money as the next title challenger. And that’s fine. This is just the reality of the sport. Though you can understand why someone like Muhammad might feel shafted. He’s done everything they say you’re supposed to do as a fighter to get a title shot.
Which fighter is set to emerge as a contender in 2023?
With a nod to March Madness, this answer is a slam dunk: Rakhmonov. He’s already a contender in a sense, but he’s certainly a tier behind the top guys right now at welterweight. White said Saturday that the UFC is working on a fight between Rakhmonov and Muhammad next. A win there could arguably make Rakhmonov the No. 1 contender. The thing is, he’s likely to suffer a similar situation to what Muhammad is going through right now. There are simply bigger names — fighters that draw more money — ahead of him in the pecking order.
Rakhmonov is an excellent fighter and he’s only 28 years old. Hopefully, the Uzbek-born Kazakh fighter catches on as a fan favorite like Gennady “GGG” Golovkin in boxing did before him.
The importance of being a star also explains why there’s another name that should be mentioned here, as much as the hardcore fans might flip out at the notion. Yes, if McGregor were to beat Michael Chandler when that 170-pound fight happens at some time later this year, then McGregor would immediately vault into contendership. Would he “deserve” that? Would it make sense? No. But again, the UFC is a business as much as it is a sport, and McGregor puts butts in seats at a greater clip than anyone in the history of the industry.
What does the next year look like at welterweight?
It should be very intriguing. White wants Covington next for the title shot, while Edwards disagrees. We know who usually wins those battles, so Covington does seem likely. All eyes will be on Burns vs. Masvidal in Miami next month, because the winner of that will be in the mix, along with Muhammad who might have the unenviable task of welcoming Rakhmonov to the world of the 170-pound elite. If you look at the next group, there are some very talented fighters like Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, Kevin Holland, Geoff Neal, Neil Magny, Sean Brady and Vicente Luque (among others) who are a win or two away from being right there, too.
Welterweight remains an outstanding division. The UFC lightweight champion Makhachev even threw his hat in the ring for a fight against Edwards on Saturday, though I assume the UFC will want him to defend his own title against an actual lightweight first. We also can’t forget Usman himself, if he does indeed choose to work his way back to a title shot.
Another name worth watching out for over the next 12 months? Jack Della Maddalena, the 26-year-old Aussie with electric boxing skills and knockout power. There is a layer or two of fighters ahead of him right now. But in the next year, don’t be surprised if he’s in the spot that Rakhmonov is in now — just on the cusp of being a real contender. Also, if we’re talking about 170 pounds, he might not be in the UFC, but Bellator welterweight champion Yaroslav Amosov is 27-0 and the absolute real deal. He’s every bit as good as anyone on the UFC roster at welterweight and worth checking out. Amosov just returned from fighting for his country of Ukraine to a dominant title defense over Logan Storley last month.
Where does Kamaru Usman go from here?
Usman fans should be very encouraged by his postfight interview Saturday. He seemed motivated and ready to get right back into the gym (after a break, of course) to work back toward the title. ESPN’s Brett Okamoto suggested a matchup between Usman and Thompson next and that’s an interesting clash of styles. It would make a lot of sense. There is no shortage of possible opponents for him in a deep division.
And depending on what happens with Edwards as the champion, Usman could be thrust back into a title shot pretty quickly. What if Edwards fights Covington next and Covington wins? Usman already owns two wins over Covington. He would have an easy case to make that he should be next. Usman’s dominant winning streak and title reign might be over, but his career is not and Edwards’ win was far from dominant. Usman could very well be back.