The UFC’s welterweight division is a mess.
Undisputed champion Kamaru Usman continued his annihilation of welterweight contenders last month, knocking out longtime training partner Gilbert Burns. Without a truly deserving contender on deck, the title picture at 170 pounds is uncertain. Jorge Masvidal hasn’t won a fight in over a year, Colby Covington is still one win away from an Usman rematch, so how does this division move forward?
Looking to provide some clarity a month removed from his win at UFC 258, #13 ranked contender Belal Muhammad headlines UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs. Muhammad, welcoming Leon “Rocky” Edwards to the octagon for the first time in nearly 2 years. With the originally scheduled prospect Khamzat Chimaev unable to compete due to complications with COVID-19, Muhammad steps up on short notice looking to snap Edwards’ 8 fight win streak.
Nobody’s career has been affected by COVID-19 quite like Leon Edwards. Going on a year since the beginning of the pandemic, Edwards has endured a slew of cancellations and opponent fallouts, leaving the eager southpaw on the outskirts.
Despite the inactivity, Leon has maintained relevance among the welterweight’s elite with a #3 ranking next to his name, and justifiably so. Prior to the hiatus, Edwards was considered one of the most worthy contenders at 170 pounds, winning 10 of his 12 fights in the UFC. Undefeated since 2015, his highly anticipated return comes at a time when the champion is seeking a new challenge. With an impressive performance Saturday night, Edwards may be next.
Coming off a grueling unanimous decision win over Dhiego Lima, Belal Muhammad looks to capatalize on a significant opportunity. With the title picture uncertain, a short notice win over a top-5 opponent would propel Muhammad straight into the title conversation.
The Chicago native has amassed 8 wins in his last 10, solidifying himself as a formidable threat to the top-15. Muhammad landed a career high 129 significant strikes against Lima, relentlessly pushing the pace. He lands just under 24.3 significant strikes per round (SSL/R), showcasing his high output and constant pressure.
I loved the intensity I saw from Muhammad against Lima. Despite absorbing 26 leg kicks, he walked the dangerous striker down with no fear of exchanging in the pocket. The 32-year-old showcases an urgency through adversity, and possesses the versatility to compete with the upper echelon of the division. Don’t sleep on “Main Event Muhammad.”
Inside Z’s Corner
Belal Muhammad finds himself in a win-win situation, regardless of the outcome of this fight. Should he win, we’re looking at a scenario that involves a big paycheck and possible title shot later this year. A loss doesn’t deplete his stock too significantly, as this is a tough short-notice ask for a guy who has never fought inside the top-5. Either way, he’ll receive a hero’s badge and some nice leverage with the company for saving this main event.
Don’t get it twisted; this isn’t an opportunity Muhammad has taken lightly. Accepting this challenge highlights his eagerness to climb atop the welterweight ladder. That eagerness will shine bright come Saturday night. The Palestinian thrives off his jab and changes levels beautifully, a skill he’ll most certainly use to close the distance against the lengthier fighter in Edwards.
The last time we saw Leon Edwards compete was July of 2019, when he convincingly defeated former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. Extended inactivity can prove detrimental in big moments, just ask Conor McGregor. However, the skillset Edwards showcased prior to the time off makes his comeback fight captivating. He’s dominated his opponents with a deep arsenal that combines measured striking and seasoned grappling.
While not a lethal finisher, Edwards personifies the will to win in the purist form. 6 of his 8 straight wins have come by decision, which has provoked criticism for lackluster performances. But let’s not forget; consistency is the golden ticket to success.
In this classic southpaw versus orthodox matchup, Edwards’ advantages lie at range. He’s the taller, lengthier man who reads entries well with the ability to manage distance at his desired pace. Leon has no problem out point-fighting you for 25 minutes, and will take a reserved approach if it means getting his hand raised. That being said, I expect to a ferocious Belal Muhammad from the get-go. In a smaller octagon at a reach disadvantage, it’s imperative for him to cut angles and pressure Edwards against the cage. But, the Brit is elusive in his striking defense, having never been finished.
Leon Edwards steps into this fight with a chip on his shoulder. Having not competed in so long, my crystal ball sees a statement win for the Jamaican-born Edwards. Muhammad took some leg damage in the Lima fight, and Leon will exploit that vulnerability. Look for him to use the stance difference to his advantage by attacking the body to drain Belal’s gas tank. He’ll be dragged into deeper waters he’s never tread.
Prediction: Edwards by late stoppage.