Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte sits down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
For UFC 286, Kyte called upon Colorado-based independent striking coach Sean Madden and Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick to provide their thoughts on four key points heading into the welterweight championship main event and trilogy fight between Leon Edwards and former titleholder Kamaru Usman.
Best Trait of Each Fighter
Kyte: At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?
Nicksick: I rewatched the last fight and I really like what he did as far as his movement, mainly because it helped with Kamaru not really knowing what stance he wanted to be in and what side he wanted to shoot off of, and that fits with what Leon needs to do not to get caught up in the middle of the floor and taken down.
His lateral movement and switching stances where his best traits in that last fight, and it really worked out well, especially in the very end there.
Madden: For Leon, I think it’s his resiliency, which makes sense because he’s got the nickname “Rocky.”
His last fight was obviously the embodiment of being resilient and staying in it until the last second — literally the last minute — but his career has been somewhat along those lines too with how long he had to wait to finally get the big shot and everything that goes with that. For him, I think it’s his ability to stay in the fight and pull it out at the last minute like that, and it’s not the first time he’s done that — he did it with Peter Sobotta when he fought him a while back, too; a buzz-beater right at the end.
Nicksick: Usman’s best trait is his ability to occupy the eye-level and defense, and he does a good job blending his strikes into his fit-ins and level changes. When you look back, the big difference in the last fight was the geography.
When Edwards was in the middle of the floor, he did his best work and he felt his most comfortable, but when he got his back to the barrier, that’s where all the takedowns occurred for Usman. If you go back and watch Usman, he does a very good job gobbling up space quietly — his footwork and feints have a rhythm to them, but his back leg is always gobbling up space, and before you know it, you’re on that red zone track, and that’s where he wants you.
It’s like (Vasiliy) Lomachenko — he’ll put these little combinations out there where he’s not really throwing anything, but meanwhile his feet are moving, and next thing you know, he’s pitter-pattered his way into the space. It’s a weird answer, but his ability to occupy space without having to force his way in is his best trait, if that makes sense.
Madden: With Usman, it’s his discipline, and ironically, it’s that discipline and maybe a small mental lapse in the last fight cost him everything he had. But if you look at his whole body of work — what it’s taken to stay at the top as long as he did — you can’t do that without supreme discipline.
He has such an elite championship mindset. I think the way he fights, the way he approaches things in terms of his training, his fight camps, his discipline and his championship mindset are his best traits.
Path to Victory for Each Fighter
Kyte: Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.
So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?
Nicksick: The beauty of this sport and why we love this sport is you can be winning the fight all the way up until you’re not, and at the championship level, guys are resilient and fighting on emotion.
I wouldn’t say Usman had a mental lapse: Leon did a good job setting that same-side head kick up the entire night — he placed the cross at the body, made him parry, and a couple of reads there in the fight, Usman over-parried a couple times. Whether it was a Hail Mary or not, it looks set up to me throughout the fight and that he got a read on it.
For Usman, he has to match stance at times. The last fight, he primarily stayed orthodox, and while he’s good out of both stances, I think he needs to match Leon’s stance to take away some of that same-side head kick stuff, as long as his defense is sound out of southpaw.
The other thing is to lean heavy on your wrestling right away — get in there, stay heavy on this guy. The path to victory was there and to me, he just let off the gas in Round 5.
Madden: It’s so weird talking about this fight because we have so much footage of these guys fighting each other already and the odds are set for this next fight where Kamaru showed his path to victory already.
He was winning the large majority of that fight and I don’t think he needs to make any drastic changes; the blueprint is there. When you describe it, it’s using his wrestling, keeping the fight close — and by close, I mean jam Leon’s kicks a little bit and get inside of that range. Continue to clinch, continue to work along the fence, continue to wrestle — the blueprint is there to beat Leon and I don’t think he has to make many changes from the last fight.
Nicksick: For Edwards, it’s going to be so important for him to know his geography and understand where he’s at. He’s really got to mind his geography because all of his offense came from owning the center of the Octagon; that’s where he’s his best. He needs to keep this at kick range — stay long, stay lengthy — and once Usman starts to gobble that space away, he’s got to circle all the way out to stay off that barrier.
Not as much as Carlos Condit didn’t against Nick Diaz, but reset in the Octagon so you’re always keeping the center of the cage because if you go back and watch the last fight, where Usman really got off was when he had him on the barrier.
Madden: For Leon, although he did get the takedown and end up in mount in the first round, I don’t necessarily see that being a path to victory for him in this fight.
I think he needs to keep his space — it’s really the opposite of Usman, and I really agree with Eric: I’d love to see him fight in the middle of the cage a little more, take advantage of when they’re in the center of the cage, and just like the last one, try to circle Usman towards the power side and use those power-side weapons.
I’d love to see him make more of an effort to keep his butt off the fence because he has less paths to victory than Usman does. He still has one, but it’s more specific and he’s going to have to work harder to make this fight more competitive through all these rounds.
Kyte: If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?
Madden: (laughs) It’s the same for both of them, but from different sides of it — that knockout last time.
Obviously, Edwards has lost to Usman already, but he didn’t lose in the same fashion. A rematch is a lot easier mentally for these guys if they’ve lost via decision versus if they’ve lost via a brutal knockout. He has a massive advantage, and whatever Kamaru chooses to say — admits it, doesn’t admit it — that happened, and he had to deal with that and we won’t really know until he gets back into the cage with Leon and is standing in front of him how he’s going to respond to getting knocked out and coming right back.
We don’t know for certain what that is going to look like until this Saturday.
Nothing has happened in between. There is nothing that has gotten the taste of that out of his mouth yet in terms of competition to erase that and get the feeling of winning back, so for it to be so close to the last event is massive.
Getting knocked out is one thing, but getting knocked out when you’re one of the pound-for-pound greats, at the peak of your career, losing in a fashion like that makes that knockout all the more devastating and that fall a lot further than someone getting knocked out when they’re 1-0.
And he’s 35 now, and we all know in terms of the age of a fighter that we’re not on the young side anymore. He’s been in this game for a long time, accomplished everything, and he was already starting to tap into other ventures outside of the cage, so when you get knocked out, it could lead some people that were halfway out the door to be more than halfway out the door now.
I don’t think that is the case with Usman because of what a consummate competitor he is, but it is the case with some people, and we’re going to find out on Saturday how he responds to the knockout and coming back from it.
Nicksick: Honestly, I would be very curious to see how Leon handles fighting at home with whatever distractions he’s going to have to have dealt with.
Everyone is coming out of the woodwork for tickets, are you not as dialed in for fight week, whereas the last fight, if you watch Embedded and Countdown, he was in Salt Lake a month ahead of time. I’m not saying he’s not focused, I just wonder with it being in London — is it going to cause more harm than good.
So my X factor are the outside distractions leading up to and throughout fight week because I think that plays into the backstory of this fight.
One Coaching Curiosity
Kyte: Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.
Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.
So what is that one thing in this matchup?
Nicksick: I really wonder — Usman has kind of gone dark. He went on Rogan right away, said, “Hey man, I got beat” and that was really kind of it.
Spence, you and I have talked about this in the past with Usman about the outside of the Octagon distractions — the cars, the this, the that. The things that didn’t seem to be important early on in his career kind of overtook his lifestyle, so I think him going dark — not being on social media, not saying too much, and maybe getting back to his craft, back to where he came from, what got him there in the first place, is the most intriguing thing.
I feel like he’s a man on fire right now, and I’m almost willing to bet that he’s going to try to go out there and get that finish so there isn’t any same-side head kick Hail Mary opportunities. I think he’s a scorned fighter and there will be a mad Kamaru Usman coming at Edwards on Saturday.
Madden: With Usman being in Colorado for his training camp, I hear and see things because of proximity; I know for certain he’s been working like an absolute madman and training like he’s still champion. So when I see the lack of presence online, to me, that’s him coming back like a madman to show the last one was a fluke and to cement his legacy.
I’m definitely going to be interested to see what this radio silence and time off produces, but my hunch is he’s been working like he’s still champion, but with something massive to prove to the world.
For Leon, I think there are two things for me: first, what changes can he make in this short amount of time to make this fight more competitive?
I know first-hand working with athletes, seven months is nothing — it’s not a lot of time to put new things into someone’s game, to drill them, to implement them into sparring, and then be confident enough to pull them off in a fight. His path to victory is relatively narrow — Kamaru has a lot more options than he does in terms of how he decides to win this fight, so I’m going to be really interested to see what Leon and his team bring to the cage on Saturday that can help him win a couple more rounds because that last fight wasn’t necessarily competitive through that middle stretch.
The other thing is that Leon is the one wearing the crown now, and we’ve heard athletes talk time and time again that the crown is very heavy when you’re on top, especially in a spot like this, where you knocked off the pound-for-pound top guy. The expectations for your follow-up performance against the same guy are massive.
Can he live up to that? Can he do it in his home country, in front of his fans? There is a lot of pressure on Leon, and I’ll be interested to see how the pressure of being champion now and fighting Usman for the third time impacts his performance.