After a loaded UFC 259 card, life returns to normal for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, UFC Fight Night 187 on Saturday still offers a strong main card. The Leon Edwards-Belal Muhammad main event serves as a welcome showcase for two of the promotion’s most underappreciated fighters, and it has some robust support. Misha Cirkunov and Ryan Spann should have a fun battle in the co-headliner, while the featherweight tilt between Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker looks to be an excellently made fight in one of the UFC’s most exciting divisions. Beyond that, there is some young, rising talent on display in Jonathan Martinez, Manel Kape and Matheus Nicolau Pereira, so the UFC could have done worse.
Now to the preview for the UFC Fight Night “Edwards vs. Muhammad” main card:
Welterweights#3 | Leon Edwards (18-3, 10-2 UFC) vs. #13 | Belal Muhammad (18-3, 9-3 UFC)
ODDS: Edwards (-260), Muhammad (+220)
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously had a negative effect on many fighters’ careers, but Edwards might top the list. It has been an impressive rise for Edwards, who first came into the UFC advertised as an explosive knockout artist. That hype led to a disappointing UFC debut. Claudio Silva’s aggressive wrestling threw Edwards off his game, and Silva eventually won an ugly split decision. Edwards quickly righted the ship, knocking out Seth Baczynski in just eight seconds, but from there, he obviously took the lessons from the Silva fight to heart, adopting a clinch-heavy approach to grind out a win against Pawel Pawlak. Edwards’ next bout was a performance that continues to look more impressive in retrospect. He lost a clear decision to Kamaru Usman but held his own surprisingly well in the wrestling department against the current welterweight champion. That 2015 fight was Edwards’ last setback, as “Rocky” has quietly worked his way up the ladder to become one of the UFC’s most underrated talents. Part of that is Edwards mostly being relegated to cards in Europe during his rise through the ranks. However, there is also just not much flash from Edwards inside or outside of the cage. He is not particularly charismatic, and that knockout of Baczynski remains the last time an Edwards fight ended before the third round. A 2018 main event win over Donald Cerrone finally got Edwards some notice as a future contender, and while a 2019 victory over Gunnar Nelson and subsequent backstage dustup with Jorge Masvidal seemed to finally bring him into the spotlight, nothing ever came of it. The UFC opted to go with Masvidal against Ben Askren, the flying knee happened and “Gamebred” went on to bigger things than the relatively low-profile Edwards. Instead, Edwards wound up in a main event against Rafael dos Anjos—it resulted in another technically impressive but unspectacular win—and waited for his next move. In the long run, talent tends to rise to the top, and so it looked like Edwards would eventually make it into the title mix despite the longer than usual path. The UFC scheduled a headliner between Edwards and Tyron Woodley for a card in London in March 2020, and a win there figured to put Edwards firmly in top contender status. Given Woodley’s poor performances of late, it probably would have been an easy Edwards win, but instead, the card became the first casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and “Rocky” was left stranded in England as other welterweight contenders got the opportunities to state their case. Upon his attempted return, Edwards once again found himself as the odd man out. He would be an interesting matchup for any number of contenders, but the UFC instead strong-armed him into taking a fight with rising prospect Khamzat Chimaev—a fight that would have been nearly all risk and no reward for Edwards. Like much of Edwards’ last two years, the bout seems cursed, as COVID-19 issues with both men scrapped the match multiple times. Edwards now faces one of the few welterweight contenders with possibly less renown in Muhammad.
Muhammad’s regional success obviously made him a prospect to watch when he got the UFC call in 2016, but the worry was that he could struggle to make his way up the welterweight ladder. “Remember the Name” was very much the type of fighter who improved over the course of his fights and was at his best in the championship rounds. Against better competition with only three rounds with which to work, the concern was that Muhammad would not be able to turn the proverbial corner until the fight was already out of hand. Beyond that, the start of his UFC career was not particularly promising. He just did not get the ball rolling in his promotional debut against Alan Jouban, and a quick knockout loss against Vicente Luque four months later raised the worry that Muhammad did not have the athleticism or durability to hang at the UFC level. Instead, Muhammad has spent the last four-plus years assuaging all of those doubts. Like Edwards, Muhammad is not the type of fighter to run over his opponents with a quick finish, but has handled himself well against every manner of competition, with a 2019 loss to Geoff Neal being his only defeat in his last nine fights. Muhammad’s default state is to pressure forward and smartly drown his opponent in pace with his striking weapons, but he has switched that up and adjusted where needed. He is willing to rely on his wrestling when the situation calls for it, and a June win over Lyman Good showed he can be an effective range fighter against a much more powerful opponent. Like Edwards, the tail end of Muhammad’s 2020 campaign got derailed due to COVID-19, but just a month after a one-sided win over Dhiego Lima, Muhammad steps in to try and take the Jamaican-born Brit’s shine as the underrated technician of the welterweight division.
This is a difficult fight to call. While most fighters are relatively static over the course of their careers in terms of tendencies and game plans, these two have shown an impressive ability to hold their own just about anywhere and adapt as needed over the course of their fights. It will be interesting to see how Muhammad approaches this, particularly in terms of pressure. His typical default approach could work here. Watching parts of Edwards’ previous fights, it is easy to see a scenario where Muhammad can get him to back up, allowing the Chicago native to throw a variety of striking volume. If that happens, the question then becomes whether or not that is a safe fight for Muhammad, particularly in terms of Edwards’ ability to reach out, turn things around and make the fight a grind inside the clinch. For as often as Muhammad has fought during his rise up the ladder, he has yet to fight someone who has simply looked to hold onto him and suck the life out of the fight. End even if he had, they probably would not be as effective as Edwards if he does decide to take that approach. For as much as Edwards’ finishing rate has dried up in recent years, he is still a powerful striking threat. It feels odd to talk about him as such after his run of decisions and attritional wins, but of these two, Edwards is clearly the fighter who can end this in one well-planned moment. As such, an out-fighting performance might be the way to go for Muhammad, but in turn, that is also likely a much more comfortable fight for Edwards, who is unlikely to chase him haphazardly and would probably just settle into an even striking match and slow down the pace. Throw in the X-factors of Edwards’ long absence and battles with COVID-19, and this could go any number of ways, particularly given that each man’s ability to adapt and take the fight anywhere should make for many swings in momentum over the course of the bout. In the end, the bet is that even if Edwards starts to get overwhelmed at points, he can take this fight to the clinch and win rounds based on control as a fallback plan. A steamrolling either way would be a shock—and as a result, the winner will probably still wind up as the underappreciated dark horse of the division—but the pick is Edwards via decision.
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