What is wrong with Leon Edwards?
BE’s Connor Ruebusch takes a close look at Leon Edwards’ MMA game, and the mindset that shaped it.
This Saturday, Leon Edwards takes on Kamaru Usman for the third time. Looking at this matchup, I was excited to finally revisit my old series, Gameplanning for Greatness, in which I prescribe strategies for championship fights. It would have been called something like, How Leon Edwards beats Kamaru Usman. Only one problem: that series was always geared toward challengers vying to take down a dominant champion, whereas Leon Edwards… is the champion.
So why doesn’t it feel like it?
Edwards wrested the welterweight belt from Usman last summer at UFC 278. The fight-ending blow, a perfect head kick set up by a throwaway cross, came with just under a minute left in the bout. Kamaru Usman was far from the only man who didn’t see it coming. The fight up to that point had followed a predictable arc: Edwards had competed early, even banking the first round on the strength of a well-timed takedown that the champion simply wasn’t ready for, but soon found himself pushed out of the fight. Usman pressured him, mauled him up against the fence, took him down five times, controlling him for 10 of the allotted 25 minutes while also nearly doubling his output of strikes. For about 75% of the bout, Edwards looked absolutely miserable, and rightly so.
It was in every way a typical Kamaru Usman fight, another in a series of grinding wins stretching all the way back to 2013–and including a previous win over the challenger himself–except that, this time, Leon Edwards managed to land the only strike that mattered.
So now, approaching the rubber match, I know I am far from alone in feeling that Kamaru Usman is still the mountain Leon Edwards has to climb, and not the other way around.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Leon Edwards. Is a miracle comeback the only way for Edwards to win this fight, or is there a way to make the margins more comfortable? Was the comeback even miraculous, or does Edwards deserve more credit for finding the win when all seemed lost? And why, oh why, is a charming man with the ability to deliver spectacular moments like that so damn frustrating to watch?
What is wrong with Leon Edwards?
First, let’s focus on a straightforward, technical shortcoming that has far-ranging implications for the rest of Edwards’ game and his overall style.
Leon Edwards’ footwork is not very good.
Plenty of people make the mistake of assuming his footwork is good because he’s fast and light on his feet and manages to get out of the way of a great many strikes. But even though it may be very effective in most of his fights, Edwards’ footwork is not very good. In a word, he moves well, but doesn’t move right.
You can see this exposed when you watch him fight a comparable athlete, someone who can match his speed and agility with equally quick and decisive pressure. Someone like… well, Kamaru Usman would be too obvious. Let’s look instead at an example from Edwards’ 2016 fight with Albert Tumenov.
1. After one too many straight-line retreats, Edwards finds himself trapped against the fence.
2. He circles by sidestepping to his left, bringing his feet together in the effort.
3. Still cornered, Edwards reaches out with a long guard, preparing to frame Tumenov and gain enough space to escape the corner.
4. As his frame connects, he awkwardly switches stance, at which point Tumenov touches him with a throwaway left hook.
5. Now in orthodox, Edwards begins sidestepping/backpedaling to the right, while Tumenov pursues him with a straight right hand.
6. The right falls short, but Tumenov’s next punch, a leaping left hook, does not, snapping Edwards’ head back as he turns away from his pursuer.
The sequence starts with Edwards already almost cornered–that is its own issue, which we will discuss in a moment–and Tumenov closing in. You don’t need training to know that, when there’s no more room to back up, you need to go sideways. Leon does it, but his footwork is a mess.
Let’s talk about the difference between a sidestep and a pivot. What Leon is doing here might be called “circling,” but that circle is very wide–approximately the same circumference as that of the Octagon itself, in fact. That’s because he is sidestepping, a lateral movement which takes him away from his opponent. A pivot, on the other hand, draws a much tighter circle around his opponent because, while the back foot moves sideways, the front foot stays in more or less the same place, pivoting. With this maneuver, a fighter can get out of his opponent’s sights without conceding any ground at all, even moving into the opponent while still forcing him to reset before he can do anything about it–a momentary opening into which the pivoting fighter, having maintained effective distance, can pour his own strikes.
In a word, sidesteps give space while pivots gain space.
Because Edwards insists on sidestepping–and what exaggerated, loping sidesteps they are–his back heel continually collides with the fence as he tries to get away. As he circles, his feet get closer and closer together, even crossing at a few points. And once the flurry of sidestepping is done, where does he find himself? Still trapped. All he’s done is relocated to a different corner!
So Edwards decides that he has to move into Tumenov in order to get off the fence. Good thought. He could step in with a punch, but instead he tries to frame Tumenov with a long guard. Nothing wrong with that–except that Edwards awkwardly changes stance in the middle of the movement. The reason for this cumbersome piece of footwork is revealed the moment Leon tries to use the space just gained: now standing in a wide orthodox stance, he starts sidestepping… in the other direction.
The irony here is that Edwards goes orthodox in order to move to the right–which should be the natural way for a southpaw to go! Anyone with an ounce of training will tell you: orthodox fighters find it easy to pivot to the left, clockwise, while southpaws pivot more comfortably counterclockwise, to the right. But again, that fact of nature applies to pivots, and Edwards isn’t comfortable pivoting unless he’s dictating the exchange. Indeed, in switching to orthodox, his rightward sidesteps are more akin to a linear retreat–clearly the mode of defensive footwork with which Edwards is most comfortable.
In fact, that is exactly how he got cornered in the first place.
Because Edwards’ circle is so very wide, it is a simple thing for Tumenov to track him down with a combination. He lines him up with a throwaway left hook, pursues with a right, resets his feet and leads Edwards’ predictable movement into a leaping left hook. The exchange ends, Edwards is the worse for it and… he is still cornered.
There are a few reasons this flaw hasn’t cost Edwards more fights.
For one, there is the aforementioned physicality. Albert Tumenov is a quick, explosive fighter who found it fairly easy to punish Edwards’ mistakes. That is a taller order for unathletic strivers like Belal Muhammad and aging fighters like Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz, two former lightweights who moved up to Leon’s weight class only because they needed the 15 pounds of chewing gum to keep their limbs attached.
But Edwards has also developed a few workarounds to minimize the opportunities granted by his lackluster footwork. The most crucial of these–and the primary reason Edwards has yet to enjoy a comfortable fight with Kamaru Usman–is wrestling.
Edwards has always enjoyed the relative safety of a ground exchange, but he made his UFC debut primarily as an explosive, low-output striker. Since then, he has invested a lot of time and effort into his wrestling and grappling, most notably the clinch, which has proven to be his most effective way of getting out of the corners he keeps trapping himself in.
Let’s take a look at a sequence from his fight with power-punching pressure fighter Vicente Luque.
1. A minute into the fight, Edwards finds himself already backed into a corner.
2. As against Tumenov, he circles along the fence, gathering and crossing his feet multiple times but not gaining any ground.
3. Relocated but still trapped, Edwards waits for Luque to commit...
4. ...which he does, stepping in behind a feint.
5. That triggers a counter left hand from Edwards, which goes wide but does succeed in jamming Luque’s own right hand.
6. Just as quickly as it appeared, the pocket collapses. Edwards and Luque crash together into a clinch, Leon’s overswung left joining his right in overhooking Luque’s arms.
7. Gaining good head position, Edwards rushes to outside trip Luque...
8. ...but Luque has already shifted his weight away from the entangled leg, and thrusts back into Edwards to off-balance him...
9. ...ultimately taking him down against the cage.
Help Bloody Elbow go independent.
The sequence starts off in familiar territory. Luque is not an athlete quite as fast or explosive as Edwards, but he is a strong, hard-hitting fighter who is absolutely committed to pressuring his opponents. Given that kind of style matchup, it is no surprise that Edwards found himself skirting the perimeter of the Octagon within the first minute of the bout. The footwork he uses to navigate that territory is still a mess: he crosses his feet, brings them close together, and jams himself further and further back against the wall.
This time, though, he has a more assertive way of getting himself out of there. As Luque moves in and sets his feet to throw, Leon meets him with a powerful left hand–too powerful, as it turns out. The punch goes well wide of the mark, and Leon lunges into it with his head down and his eyes on the floor, a clear mark of his general discomfort in pocket exchanges. He is ready, however, for the resulting collision. That bad boxer’s head position swiftly turns into a good wrestler’s head position. The overswung left hand becomes a tight overhook. Edwards drives into Luque, inserts his left leg behind Luque’s right, and goes for an outside trip.
It doesn’t work, but then this is only one fight removed from that anxious struggle with Albert Tumenov. Edwards was still developing the particulars of his offensive wrestling game at this point in his career, and the failed takedown has more to do with his panicked entry than anything else. What stands out is just how much more willing Edwards was to pursue the clinch than in the fight with Tumenov. It is clear that this is what he learned from that fight: an aggressive puncher wants nothing more than to eat up all that space you’re giving him, it’s better to close the distance on your own terms and tie him up. At least then he can’t keep punching you.
As Edwards’ career went on, his clinch entries improved, as did the clinches themselves. Take a look at his fight with Gunnar Nelson, two years after the clash with Luque, and you will see him not only stepping confidently into the clinch, but smashing Nelson to pieces with elbows and knees once he gets there (I have compiled a few of the best entries and attacks into a GIF).
Leon has continued along this path to the point that the clinch has arguably become his strongest phase, the mode of fight in which he is the most comfortable, and the solution to his footwork woes.
And this is why Edwards struggled so mightily to gain a lasting advantage over Kamaru Usman. Usman at his best is a pressure fighter, like Tumenov and Luque, but if your primary method of escaping pressure is to close distance and enter the clinch, then Usman presents a serious stylistic problem that the others don’t.
And that is how we will wrap up this little analysis: let’s talk about style.
The Roots of Style
It is all too easy to find yourself treating fighters like video game characters, acting as if new tools and methods of fighting can be swapped in and out as easily as inventory items. The reality is that fighters are people, and people are limited in their choices by a number of innate factors. Physicality is one of these, but psychology plays an equal if not greater role.
Something I have long believed (and waste few opportunities to espouse) is that fighting style is first and foremost a product of personality. Why does a tall, rangy fighter like Shavkat Rakhmonov show little interest in using his length to keep his opponents at bay? Why does the miniscule John Makdessi fight like his arms are each three feet long?
Training influences the style a fighter adopts, for better or worse, and physical attributes like frame and speed play their part–but what really separates the pressure fighters from the flighty boxers is mentality. Rakhmonov steps into the clinch and mauls people from close range because he likes to; Makdessi flits around popping jabs because it suits his mind, not his body.
Again, fighters are people, not machines. More than that, they are people who regularly put themselves in extremely stressful situations. And people facing the kind of pressure fighters face every time they step into the cage are going to fall back on what feels natural. They will do whatever it takes to retain what comfort is available to them. And altering those comfort zones is a long and painful process that, often, proves impossible.
Reason would suggest that mental blockades should be easier to overcome than those of the purely physical variety, but evidence shows that the opposite is true. Personality, by the time it has developed, is often every bit as innate as physicality. Your who-you-are has an inertia that is very difficult to resist.
And this explains the way that Edwards fights, and the path along which he has chosen to develop. He fights as if he needs distance. When he cain’t maintain that distance, then he closes it up as quickly as possible. The scampering footwork and the need for clinch dominance are both safety valves. They indicate that Leon simply does not like being in the pocket. That middle distance, where both fighters enjoy nominally equal chances of hitting one another, is a chaotic place that takes a certain kind of chin, a certain level of technique, a certain personality to survive. And, instead of cultivating the tools of a pocket fighter, Edwards has chosen a game that takes the pocket entirely out of the equation. All the way in or all the way out: that is how Leon Edwards fights.
Now, this can be a chicken-and-egg situation. Which came first: Leon’s overreactive footwork, his need for clinches, and his lack of mid-range defense–or the fear? Does Edwards avoid the pocket because he doesn’t have the tools to be safe there, or has he failed to develop those tools because he can’t handle the organized chaos of pocket fighting? Does he flinch because he’s ill-equipped, or is he ill-eqipped because he flinches?
Now, obviously fighters can and do gameplan around their weaknesses, both physical and mental. And Leon Edwards is more than capable of making the requisite adjustments to afford himself a little more momentum through the middle rounds of this third fight with Usman.
So here it is: the Big Adjustment, the key change Edwards would need to make to squeeze open the gap between that head kick he landed and the 20-odd minutes of torture he had to endure beforehand.
He needs (brace yourself)... to stand his ground. That’s it.
Yes, that’s right. The Big Adjustment is, in fact, rather small. But then again, it may not be. Because while it is a single, straightforward tactic, it directly challenges who Edwards is as a fighter.
But it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Edwards certainly didn’t struggle to land clean shots on Usman whenever they were fighting at distance. Usman is a chronically stiff boxer, whose defensive adjustments usually take several rounds to set in. Usman has also become less committed to pressure over the course of his tutelage under Trevor Wittman. In the fifth round of their rematch, Usman appeared to give up completely on the pressure that had been winning him the fight. Why? Because Edwards’ corner berated him into standing firm, to choosing the discomfort of middle distance over the close range clinches he kept inviting Usman into by constantly ceding space and running himself into the fence.
And all Edwards needs to do to get more rounds like that is make that decision from the jump. Sure, Usman will win some wrestling exchanges. Usman will hit him with some powerful strikes. But he won’t spend the entirety of the middle rounds getting squished, and that would be a good thing.
The thing is, Edwards has kept his foot on the gas before. He has never been a high output fighter, and likely never will be, but he has insisted on coming forward on more than one occasion, or at least gotten a firm handle on his worst defensive tendencies. He bullied Peter Sobotta, met Bryan Barberena in the center of the cage, and walked Belal Muhammad down like the man owed him money.
All of these men have two, related things in common: 1) Edwards has distinct physical advantages over every one, and 2) he was able to outwrestle them (or at least not get outwrestled by them).
Neither of these traits, unfortunately, is shared by Kamaru Usman. The man is a gigantic welterweight–the same height as Leon but longer in the arms and significantly broader in the back–and, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest fighters in the sport. He is also, of course, a fantastic, multi-faceted wrestler, whose style takes full advantage of that daunting physicality.
The fact remains: the usual safety valves simply don’t work against Usman. They are not safe. Trying to get away only invites him in, and forcing him to clinch gives him an advantage that few other welterweights enjoy. The game Leon Edwards has spent his rise through the ranks cultivating does not work against Usman.
But kicking him in the head obviously does. Leon should try that again, earlier and a lot more often. Edwards can beat Usman again, but if he wants more than a miracle chance, he’ll have to be willing to challenge who he is at his core. The fight is Leon Edwards vs Kamaru Usman, but it is also Leon Edwards vs Leon Edwards.
For more on Edwards-Usman 3 and the rest of UFC 286—not to mention Merab Dvalishvili’s stunning victory over Petr Yan last weekend—check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching.
I really enjoyed reading this on Saturday in the build up to fights. Leon's footwork is indeed average, and he did his usual backing and then crabbing along close to the cage. The difference this time seemed to be the well targeted kicks to the body and head, an improved take down defence (fence grab apart) and frankly Usman looking like a well worn 35 year old fighter who wanted to lay and pray. Usman was blowing out of his ass after 15 minutes. A good performance from Rocky and a sub par one from Usman.