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Leon Edwards defies critics with head-kick stunner for UFC title

Leon Edwards was done, they said.

Just fighting to make to the bell, they said.

He’s broken, they said.

Edwards said otherwise.

“Head shot, bang! Done!” declared the exuberant new UFC welterweight champion, just moments before his hand was raised and the belt was his.

Well, yes, it was a head shot — a last-minute left high kick, specifically — that went “bang” on the chin of Kamaru Usman, the now former pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter in the world. And he was most definitely done. Like, done for real; not the way they said.

But, come on, Champ. Let’s not oversimplify it. What happened at UFC 278 in Salt Lake City was one of the most unexpected turns of events this young sport has given us.

See, there were so many reasons for the masses to write off Edwards — in the midst of what he told reporters later was one of his worst performances — by the time that punishing head kick went shin to chin on the longtime king of the 170-pound division. How about the three consecutive rounds of Usman scoring takedown after takedown? Or all those wide hooks to the body the now-unseated champ was landing at the cage?

There was a time when Usman vs. Edwards was competitive — dramatic, even. Before that gorgeous out-of-the-blue kick, Edwards turned plenty of heads by landing the first takedown Usman has given up during his UFC career, which began with winning “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2015 just five months before Edwards lost the first meeting between the two and had left his promotional record flawless — until now.

Much like that “beautiful” kick — Edwards’ description, when given the chance to admire his handiwork with Joe Rogan in the octagon afterward — the takedown came out of nowhere. Spectacularly, Edwards found himself in mount on the champ, a compromised position from which we’d yet to see Usman work at this level.

Leon Edwards connects on the fight-ending head kick to knock out Kamaru Usman and win the UFC welterweight championship on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Leon Edwards connects on the fight-ending head kick to knock out Kamaru Usman and win the UFC welterweight championship on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Zuffa LLC

A back take, a little fishing for a rear-naked choke, and some powerful elbows and punches punctuated a clear round for a challenger who had received little buzz, this despite being on the cusp of this championship opportunity dating back to the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic. Don’t forget: Edwards was to fight former champ Tyron Woodley — way before the whole Jake Paul debacle dulled his shine — and could have earned a crack at Usman with a win two years ago

We’ll never know how that version of Edwards would have fared. But we saw what he was capable of as he banked the first frame. And the man nicknamed “Rocky,” — whose cornermen, as Hall of Famer and commentator Daniel Cormier pointed out on the broadcast, sounded like the English recasts for the role of Mickey Goldmill as they barked instructions to “Rock” — kept Usman honest in the second frame with some deft punches throughout.

But that was the frame in which Usman, competing for the first time this year, began to look more like the dominant force who had successfully defended his crown three times in 2021. He stung Edwards to the body. Usman put hands on the challenger at the cage. He scored a late takedown.

And Usman piled up more of those over the next 10 minutes, leaning more heavily on his NCAA Division II-championship pedigree while still mixing in that confident power punching he had worked on with the likes of coaches Henri Hooft and Trevor Wittman over the years.

The singles and doubles came more easily as the championship rounds wore on. On one single-leg in particular, Edwards barely reacted as Usman reached from distance and plopped him down.

“I can’t explain it. My body just wasn’t reacting how it was meant to react,” Edwards told reporters of his performance through four rounds. “I don’t know whether it was altitude or what it was. … It wasn’t a cardio issue as much as my body wasn’t physically reacting.”

Officially, fighters don’t know where they stand in a fight. But everyone watching knew what would later be confirmed: All three judges had Usman up, 39-37. If Edwards was gonna win, he would need a finish. And he sure didn’t look like a fighter who was about to pull out a miracle shot.

Leon Edwards
Leon Edwards
Zuffa LLC

A minute in, that miracle didn’t seem to be coming. UFC analyst Din Thomas, himself a successful coach and former fighter, shredded Edwards’ body language.

“If it wasn’t obvious enough, Leon is broken now,” Thomas said on the broadcast, with three minutes to go. “And the biggest tell that you can always know this is because he doesn’t give his coach eye contact in the corner. When you don’t give him eye contact, you’re ashamed. And he’s embarrassed right now of his own performance.”

If Edwards was, indeed, broken at that point, he sure found some magic glue to put the pieces back together.

Even by the end of the 24th minute of 25, Usman looked like a sure bet to pick up his gold and go home, same as he had done in each of his last six fights. Edwards was engaged, but not pressing. But Usman had stopped chasing takedowns; he was happy to stand toe-to-toe in the center, circling, trading the odd strike or two.

“He may have resigned himself to losing a decision,” Rogan said from his commentator’s chair

And, within 10 seconds of those words leaving the notorious podcaster’s lips, it happened.

Edwards faked with a left hand, masking the same-side high kick that caught Usman flush. The champ’s final moment in that role came as it so often does in this sport: crumpling to the floor, eyes staring a hole through the roof of the venue — Vivint Arena, in this case.

Call it a Hail Mary if you must, but Edwards explained the approach to the finishing strike against what he referred to as Usman’s boxing-focused striking.

I thought if I went same-punch, same-kick, it would land,” Edwards said. “… It just landed perfectly.”

Officially, Edwards’ victory came with 56 seconds to go. If he doesn’t execute that particular feint-then-kick sequence, nobody’s talking about Leon Edwards tonight. That was real victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat stuff in the octagon late Saturday night. And nobody saw it coming.

“You all said I couldn’t do it,” Edwards reminded. “Look at me now!”

Like it matters what people say about Edwards, anyway.

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