UFC 286: Usman prepares to redeem himself against Edwards

NEW YORK (AP): It was a crosshead kick that ended Kamaru Usman’s long reign as champion and made Leon Edwards a UFC star.

Edwards certainly will never forget it.

And he believes Usman might never get over it.

“He’s what now, 35, 36 years old?” Edwards said of his storied welterweight rival. “Coming off a knockout and fighting the same guy who’s just knocked him out. Let’s see how he comes back.”

We’re about to find out.

The two are meeting again Saturday — for the third time, and more than seven years after their first fight — as the headliners at UFC 286 at the O2 Arena in London.

It’s a homecoming for Edwards, the champion.

It’s a shot at redemption for Usman, in the rare position as the challenger.

Dropped by a kick to the head and neck in the fifth round in Salt Lake City in August, Usman — otherwise known as the “Nigerian Nightmare” — saw his run of 15 straight victories come to an end. One more win would have tied an all-time UFC record for a guy seen at the time as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

The big question now, seven months later, is what has he got? It’s one that Edwards is asking out loud.

“What does he change?” the Jamaican-born Brit said in an interview with BT Sport, which is broadcasting the fight in Britain. “The way he fought me last is the way he fights.

 “I can’t see him in the space of five, six months now being a totally different fighter. I just can’t see it happening.”

Usman is aware his ability to recover from a first loss in nine years is being questioned by Edwards.

His response?

“It’s warranted when you speak about ordinary things and ordinary people,” Usman said this week in London. “When something like that — that trauma — happens, most people are going to be disturbed about it. But that’s when you’re speaking about ordinary people.

“Leon Edwards and I both know that I am not ordinary. I’m extraordinary.”

Indeed, underestimating Usman is a dangerous game. Especially since he beat Edwards in the first fight of this trilogy in 2015 and was controlling the second — in UFC 278 — before the unexpected knockout blow from his rival, who become Britain’s second UFC champion and extended a winning run that stretches to May 2016.

That’s some strong pedigree on show Saturday, wrapping up a card that includes a fight between Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev in the lightweight category.

It promises to be an emotional night for Edwards, who will be fighting almost three years to the day since a contest against Tyron Woodley in the same venue had to be called off amid the onset on the coronavirus pandemic.

Now he returns as a champion, hungry for only his second bout in nearly two years and believing Usman won’t be able to deal with a first fight in someone else’s back yard.

“This is my hometown show,” Edwards said. “I’ve never lost in the U.K. I use the crowd as energy. I just can’t see how he goes out there and defeats me.”

Unsurprisingly, Usman feels differently.

“Yes of course I could have waited and said let’s do it in Vegas or something like that but it was the perfect opportunity to come here,” he said. “It just adds to the story.”

And he feels energized being the challenger for a change.

“When you start to just defend, defend, defend, it does kind of make you get lackadaisical,” Edwards said. “It just gets repetitive. But this one, immediately I found it on the ride to that hospital after (UFC) 278.

“I got presented with the opportunity to be able to fall as a champion and rise again. And I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”