There’s no doubting the welterweight champ after UFC 286
Wagenheim: Are we supposed to be surprised that at the end of a raucous Saturday night in London on Saturday, Leon Edwards remained UFC welterweight champion? Anyone who is shocked by the outcome in the main event of UFC 286 at the O2 Arena in London might not have been paying close enough attention the last time he and Kamaru Usman tussled.
The prevailing narrative following Edwards’ stunning dethroning of Usman in August was that the head kick that ended the fight in the final minute of Round 5 was the Hail Mary of a man in a hopeless situation. And in a way, that was true. Usman was comfortably ahead on all of the judges’ scorecards.
But sometimes overlooked is that Edwards turned in the most dominant round of that fight. He came out for Round 1 that evening and scored the first takedown surrendered by Usman in his 16-fight UFC career, and Edwards controlled the then champ on the canvas for a couple of minutes, threatening a submission.
Sure, Usman seized control and maintained it the rest of the way — until that one-kick KO — but as glorious as that final moment was for Edwards, it was not his only moment. He had showed earlier in August’s fight that he could hang with Usman and put him in trouble.
And that is the essence of how this third meeting played out, from start to finish. The details were just different. There was no flashy knockout this time, just a whole lot of kicks to the legs and torso that slowed Usman’s advances. And there was no Edwards takedown, either, just a whole lot of stout takedown defense by the English fighter, who fended off 11 of Usman’s 15 attempts to take him to the canvas. That steady success on both offense and defense for the full five rounds is what enabled Edwards to retain his belt.
The takedown defense was a showcase for Edwards in a division full of wrestlers. Colby Covington was cageside, campaigning for his shot — despite not having competed in over a year. More feasible challengers include Khamzat Chimaev, Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad.
There’s a long line of contenders waiting for their shot. And they all saw what the champion did against a former champ who until last summer looked invincible.
Okamoto: Who’s next for Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman
Who should be next for Edwards: Colby Covington
Covington hasn’t fought since March, but that’s tied to an alleged assault on him by Jorge Masvidal in Miami shortly after they fought. While he hasn’t been active, Covington’s résumé still puts him first in line for a title shot.
Outside of Usman, Covington has been the top man of this division. Now, if I were Edwards, I wouldn’t want to fight Covington, either. Edwards feels like Covington ducked him for years, so forcing him to take a fight and wait for a title shot would probably taste pretty sweet. But all outside factors aside, Covington deserves the shot next.
Wild card: Jorge Masvidal
You know if Masvidal does something spectacular against Gilbert Burns at UFC 287 next month, there is a very good chance he is getting the next shot. The story line is too juicy for Edwards or the UFC to pass up.
“Three piece and a soda” is one of the most famous lines in this sport’s history, and Edwards has always wanted to get his hands on Masvidal after their backstage incident in 2019.
If you’re against this scenario because Masvidal wouldn’t be as deserving as others, all I can tell you is, get over it. If Masvidal shows up and takes care of business next month in Miami, we’re getting this title fight.
Who should be next for Usman: Stephen Thompson
I was a little surprised Usman made it clear so quickly inside the Octagon that he will be back and will see Edwards again. I don’t know why that surprised me; maybe I just thought after such a massive fight, he’d want a second to really gather his thoughts.
In any case, it shows where his mindset is. Nothing has changed. Usman is here, and his goal is the top. The Thompson matchup is one we never saw during Usman’s title reign, and I’d love to see it.
Wild card: Belal Muhammad
Muhammad is on a great win streak and is calling for a title shot. I know he doesn’t feel like he should be forced to win one more, but that’s the reality of his situation. If he were to beat the most dominant champion of the past decade, no one could deny him anymore.
Justin Gaethje puts on another memorable performance, but knows end of the road is coming
Raimondi: Justin Gaethje said something really interesting in his postfight interview. He told Daniel Cormier he has one last run at the UFC lightweight title in him and that he isn’t going to be around much longer.
That was a bit of a surprise, because, well, there’s a certain vibe around Gaethje that he is barely human. Some fans might have expected a gray-haired Gaethje to limp and creak his way to the Octagon well into his 50s and try to slug it out with opponents a few decades his junior. Why would anyone put it past him?
But Gaethje’s comments were a tad sobering. His days of stepping into the Octagon are numbered, and frankly, a quick reality check would make anyone understand why. Gaethje is only 34 years old, but he has had 28 pro fights, and he isn’t exactly the type to coast to victory avoiding damage, you know? That’s just not his style. Actually, it’s the opposite. Gaethje bores forehead first into these battles with some of the toughest, most dangerous fighters in the world with a half-smile on his face and joy in his eyes.
There are still some big, undoubtedly incredible Gaethje fights to come. His win over Rafael Fiziev at UFC 286 on Saturday keeps Gaethje, the former interim champ, in the contender conversation. He is probably only one victory away from another title shot now.
So, let’s try to enjoy Gaethje while he’s still around. There’s a tendency among fans, and maybe even media, to not fully appreciate things happening in the moment. We all have short attention spans. That Twitter timeline can scroll by pretty quickly. Instagram stories are gone in 24 hours. Let’s not make that mistake with Gaethje, who might really be the most entertaining fighter in UFC history. He has won 11 fight night bonuses in 11 UFC fights.
When it comes to action, the man does not miss — most of the time at the detriment of his own health and safety. Gaethje might not win the undisputed UFC lightweight title, and largely that won’t mean much for his legacy. The Fiziev fight was another notch in an equally important belt, the mythical one granted to him as the sport’s king of violence. And no one is coming for that crown any time soon.
Okamoto: Who’s next for Justin Gaethje
Rafael Fiziev, Justin Gaethje put on a show in co-main event
Rafael Fiziev and Justin Gaethje let the kicks and punches fly in the co-main event of UFC 286.
Who should be next: Dustin Poirier
This was one of the most impressive wins of Gaethje’s career. He said it himself repeatedly in the buildup to this fight that Fiziev is young and hungry and that it is a dangerous combination. And Gaethje was able to win after falling into an early hole.
The late adjustment of finding the uppercut was a thing of beauty, and it preserved what might be the final title run of his career. Poirier is in a similar spot. He has been at the top forever, but he came up short in a title bid that wasn’t that long ago (December 2021).
A fight between them makes all the sense in the world. It’s a rematch of a fantastic fight. It’s two former interim champs. The winner gets one more shot at the undisputed belt. Perfect fight.
So perfect, in fact, I don’t have a wild card for Gaethje. This is the only fight to make for both he and Poirier.
Okamoto: Who’s next for Rafael Fiziev
Who should be next: Loser of Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush on May 6
This was a tough loss for Fiziev, but he is still in a good spot. Had he won that bout, he probably still would have been a Dustin Poirier fight away from a title shot. Coming off this loss, Fiziev still might only be one fight away.
Regardless of whoever loses between Oliveira and Dariush, a win over one of them would be massive. There aren’t many names still ahead of Fiziev, and while he took the loss, this fight raised his profile. Either matchup would be fire.
Wild card: Mateusz Gamrot
Gamrot is coming off a win over Jalin Turner, but it wasn’t all that dominant of a performance. Gamrot would really test Fiziev’s wrestling, which I’d like to see.
Fiziev has looked solid defending takedowns thus far in his career, and if he could do so again versus Gamrot, that would really tell us something as Fiziev rebuilds his case for a title shot.
Not the return Casey O’Neill wanted, but there’s still optimism for the future
Raimondi: Casey O’Neill’s return from a torn ACL didn’t go quite as planned. The popular, Scotland-born fighter was competing in the United Kingdom for the first time, a significant moment in her career. Moreover, she had not fought in 13 months after recovering from knee surgery.
But O’Neill wasn’t able to pick up the win. Jennifer Maia outboxed her in a fun, back-and-forth fight. And that’s OK. Maia is very tough and much better than what she is given credit for. Let’s not forget Maia gave then-champion Valentina Shevchenko one heck of a fight in 2020. It’s hard to look good against Maia, who is well-rounded, hits hard and has solid technique. That’s the exact kind of matchup you don’t want coming back from a long layoff and a severe knee injury. Yet, O’Neill didn’t shy away at all, which could have been a concern.
O’Neill is still just 25 years old. She is still one of the most promising young fighters in the division. The fact she was able to stand and bang with Maia in a competitive fight is encouraging. It means O’Neill really isn’t all that far off the elite fighters in the division.
Women’s flyweight, by the way, is a division in potential flux. Alexa Grasso just knocked off Shevchenko to win the title. Shevchenko is likely to get the immediate rematch, and deservedly so, but things are wide open.
So, let’s not throw cold water on O’Neill’s prospect status just yet. Give her another year and see where she is at this time in 2024. It’ll likely be pretty close to the top of the 125-pound division.
Okamoto: Who’s next for Marvin Vettori
Who should be next: Khamzat Chimaev
Chimaev is coming to middleweight. The two opponents who make the most sense for him are Robert Whittaker and Vettori. The UFC has discussed that matchup, and it’s a good one; but if Alex Pereira defends his title next month against Israel Adesanya, Whittaker could and should slide in for a title shot. So, if that were to be the case, Chimaev would need a new dance partner at middleweight, and Vettori is the one. Actually, from a prefight standpoint, this matchup would have a fascinating buildup. We’ll have to see how a few more things play out in this division, but I could definitely see these two crossing paths.
Wild card: Alex Pereira
Like I said, if Pereira beats Adesanya, Pereira will obviously need a new title challenger. Whittaker is the correct choice, but if that fell through for whatever reason, Vettori would be next up.
Muhammad Mokaev wins, but at what cost?
Raimondi: Muhammad Mokaev remained undefeated. He got his third finish in four UFC victories. And he is still one of the best prospects in all of MMA. But will he regret how his fight with Jafel Filho went down at UFC 286? He very well might, even years down the road.
Filho had a legitimate, deep kneebar locked in on Mokaev’s left leg in the third round. Mokaev was in pain and said he heard the knee cracking. But he did not tap. He somehow weathered it, got out and slapped a choke on Filho for the finish.
Afterward, though, Mokaev’s left leg was clearly compromised. He had a hard time getting back to his feet and was limping around the Octagon. Hopefully, the damage to the knee isn’t too bad. But kneebars can be one of the most dangerous submissions in MMA because of the hyperextension of a vitally important joint.
During commentary on Saturday, former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping noted that a friend of his didn’t tap to a kneebar during his career and was never the same again. Knees aren’t something to mess around with. Mokaev is only 22 years old, and that was a very 22-year-old decision. “Live to fight another day” is not a mantra often used in MMA, where toughness and the ability to withstand pain and damage are glorified. But this wasn’t just a cut above the eye; it was something that could affect the rest of Mokaev’s career.
Let’s hope it doesn’t. Mokaev is an exceptional fighter who could end up dominating the flyweight division for years and years to come. That could have been the case, though, even if he took his first career loss at UFC 286 and left the cage with two fully operational legs.