After the fallout of UFC 251, there has been much speculation as to who will face Kamaru Usman next.
An argument could be made for several of the top welterweight contenders to have their opportunity to fight for the title next. However, UFC president Dana White has stated that Gilbert Burns will be next. After having an active 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic, beating both Damien Maia and Tyron Woodley in impressive fashion, Burns is undoubtedly in good form. Throw in the added narrative that both Burns and Usman were former teammates, there would not be many that would oppose the decision.
However, there will most likely be a disgruntled welterweight currently riding an eight-fight win streak, hailing from Birmingham, England that would strongly disagree. Leon' Rocky’ Edwards, who has waited patiently, steadily tallying fights in the win column since May of 2016 believes he should be next for the title. Interestingly his fight prior to the streak was a unanimous decision loss to the current champ Usman. While on the surface the result was unanimous two of the three judges scored the bout 29-28, so it was not a one-sided affair.
In many respects, Edwards could be considered an unfortunate victim to the global impacts of COVID-19, with his stock undoubtedly about to rise as he was set to face Woodley in a sold-out O2 arena in London, England. He was finally given the recognition to headline a UFC event, and he was even marketed in arguably one of the most creative fight night campaigns in recent times, as it detailed his troubled upbringing both in the UK and in Jamaica. As a cruel twist of fate, the event was cancelled and rescheduled in America, providing Edwards with an unrealistic opportunity to fight.
As a result, Burns stepped in, decisively beat Woodley and entered his name into title contention.
The rollercoaster of UFC 251 then began with Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal and the UFC unable to make terms on a fight contract. The title fight on Fight Island was offered to Leon Edwards with little over four weeks to prepare. Governmental restrictions were still firmly in place within the UK, with gyms unable to open to even professional athletes at the time, Edwards understandably declined the biggest fight of his career, as he would be unable to prepare for the fight effectively. You most likely know the rest, Burns was offered the fight, to which he accepted before testing positive for Covid-19 and Masvidal stepping back into the fray on six days notice happier with the terms of his fight contract.
The buzz and social media attention that Fight Island received in the days leading up to UFC 251 reached exponential levels, and they hit their peak when it was revealed Masvidal would step in. It has often been likened to UFC 196 when Nate Diaz stepped into face Conor Mcgregor at short notice. Levels of excitement and increased PPV buys saw UFC 251 rival the hysteria that surrounds a Mcgregor fight, levels that would have undoubtedly been reached had Masvidal not been on the card.
That brings us to the present day, Usman’s victory while dominant, winning four out of the five rounds, drew critics from those fans that were expecting a bout that matched the excitement of the build-up. Kamaru Usman implemented his game plan and made adjustments as required, utilising his clinch and foot stomps to good effect. His approach in all but the first round neutralised Jorge Masvidals exciting fight style and has lead Usman to continue on his winning streak and taking it to 16.
Masvidal however, is on the road to the title once more, yet his stock has not dropped. The fans still want to see Jorge Masvidal fight, and many would conclude that they can not say the same for Kamaru Usman. Masvidal's reveal as a cover athlete for EA Sports UFC 4 alongside Israel Adesanya will see his popularity continue to grow, particularly when a key feature of the new title relates to the grassroots of his career.
His fighting style, new found stardom and BMF title see him as one of the money makers in the UFC business.
While Edwards actively speaks about wanting the next shot at the title, would a better option be to pursue a fight with Masvidal? While it may not be the title shot he desires, it could prove to make financial sense. Yes, it may not achieve his career aspiration of having Dana wrap the gold around his waist, but as the UFC president says “this is an opportunity, not a career”. Not only would the bout draw numbers, undoubtedly due to the draw of Masvidal, but it does raise Edwards profile particularly if he were to win emphatically. Then there would be no disputes as to the number one contender.
We can not forget the now staple phrase of “3 piece and a soda” that originated in March 2019 at UFC London, when Jorge Masvidal described his actions following an altercation with Leon Edwards backstage. So the narrative is there to build upon. So for Leon Edwards, there is a big paycheck, substantial PPV numbers, increased exposure and a receipt for the chicken he certainly did not order. All of which can not be achieved at the same level if he were to face the champion Usman and if the fans reaction from this weekend is anything to go by, it would fair much better than Usman vs Burns.
Go get your chicken ‘Rocky’.