Fans have been waiting to see Leon Edwards fight again since July of 2019. His unplanned time off came after his apparent title eliminator against Tyron Woodley, which was set to take place in March of last year, was cancelled due to coronavirus shutdowns. Once restrictions on travel to and from his native United Kingdom were lifted, he had three dates with Khamzat Chimaev cancelled, due to covid complications on the part of both fighters.
When Chimaev was forced to pull out for the fight scheduled for this Saturday, Belal Muhammad stepped up to take the fight. These fighters carry identical 18-3 records into this fight, and each fighter is looking to continue his own respective winning streak. Edwards is a winner of eight straight, dating back to his 2016 unanimous decision win over Dominic Waters, while Muhammad is a winner of four straight since his 2019 decision win over Curtis Millender.
Leon Edwards is a patient striker with a balanced overall skillset. Of his eighteen wins, he has finished nine, including six knockouts and three submissions. He is relatively active with his hands, feinting and giving his opponents different reads. He is a counter-striker, generally waiting for his opportunities to move in and land shots. He likes to set up his straight left hand, which can be deadly when it lands, as well as one of the nicest step-in elbows in the division.
He generally tends to move forward and back his opponents up, staying ahead of them by utilizing his jab, his lead hook and strong calf kicks and kicks to the body. One of the impressive more aspects of his counter striking is that he is almost always looking to counter with two and three-strike combinations, as opposed to just sitting on his hooks and then pulling back to admire his work. He has the ability to switch stances, but he is much more comfortable standing southpaw. In his orthodox stance, Edwards is really only looking to set up lead kicks to the legs and midsection.
His standing defense can tend to be a bit reliant on his footwork, which is very sound, but he sometimes doesn’t move his head off the line well. Generally speaking, he doesn’t tend to absorb a lot of damage on his feet, but he has shown to be susceptible to a quick jab, and against mirroring southpaws with striking speed equal to his. Speed is usually an advantage for him, and a lot of his striking style is predicated on speed, so he is forced to adapt when that isn’t the case. Another particularly vulnerable part of Edwards’ striking is that he has eaten some nasty calf kicks in past fights.
His clinch and ground game are somewhat underrated, especially in terms of this matchup. He has solid wrestling skills, good takedown finishing skills, and can control top position for long periods of time. He throws nice knees and elbows in the clinch, an area where he has showcased his fight IQ in the past. The BJJ purple belt has three submission victories, one by arm triangle and two by rear naked choke. His RNC is tight and sneaky, and he is able to set it up by establishing tight body triangles from his opponents’ backs.
Though he is naturally a striker, Edwards has established advantages in past fights by slowing the fight down in the clinch, and taking it to the ground. Many of his opponents seem to have thought of him as a pure striker, and have been unpleasantly surprised once they’re on the ground with him and feel how strong he is there. I don’t believe his wrestling is on par with Muhammad’s, but that facet of this fight could be much closer than many are anticipating.
For example, even after narrowly escaping from an armbar, he initiated takedowns against Peter Sobotta, a much more credentialed grappler, and was able to separate the fight by establishing control on top. Sobotta was likely much more willing to fight off his back than Muhammad will be, but this example does speak to Edwards’ willingness to challenge high-level grapplers on the canvas. Edwards would go on to control the third round of that fight on the ground, before finishing it via ground & pound TKO.
Another strong example of Edwards’ grappling ability was his somewhat impressive showing against Gunnar Nelson, another well-credentialed wrestler. Nelson scored an early takedown in that fight, but Edwards was able to reverse position and finish the first round on top, landing strikes. He continued to stuff Nelson’s takedown attempts and control the action in the clinch, before scoring a third round takedown of his own. He did give up a takedown late in the third, which is the only imaginable reason that the fight was scored a split decision, as Edwards dominated most of all three rounds.
Edwards seems to be trending up and getting better with each fight. His fight IQ has been his most marked improvement. The way he manages situations along the fence, times elbows breaking the clinch, manages his cardio, times his counters and extends his combinations are all part of the intelligent way that Edwards has caused damage and won decisions in his recent showings.
Conditioning could prove to be an advantage for Edwards in this fight. Muhammad has never fought a full five-round fight before, while two of Edwards’ last three fights were five-round main events which lasted the full 25 minutes, with Edwards looking fresh in the final round. Edwards has yet to fight anyone who fights with the kind of grappling pressure that Muhammad does, but Muhammad has not yet proven that he can maintain that pace over five rounds. Muhammad’s last scheduled five-round fight was his 2016 Titan FC Welterweight Championship bout, which he won by TKO in the fourth round.
Muhammad is a wrestler by trade, and a damn good one at that. He has some of the best timing on his level changes of anyone in the division, locks his head off to the side and drives his feet through his takedowns. He shoots great outside single legs, and looks to run the pipe to pull his opponents down. He is very physically strong, and has executed some impressive slam takedowns in recent fights, and is very good at mixing his grappling with his striking.
As a striker, Muhamad looks to stay on the outside and utilize his movement. If you’ve listened to his podcast, you know he has an excellent mind for the game, which isn’t limited to his wrestling. He does what’s working and, often times, that means nasty digs and kicks to the body. He has a nice jab, and good power on his hooks and uppercuts, but does tend to wing his punches.
He is successful when he is able to move forward, inch his way inside with his feints, develop a rhythm of two-strike combinations (usually working the body,) and eventually change the pace by changing levels into takedowns. Muhammad throws tight body-head combinations, and has done a great job of throwing in flurries in his recent fights. He often ends up pressing his opponents into the fence, digging in underhooks and controlling position for long periods of time, while looking for ways to get the fight to the ground.
He does much better wrestling in space. He has the ability to scramble, and his chain wrestling is excellent. He can transition his double leg takedowns into body lock outside trips, and he can execute inside trips against the fence. He controls fights for long periods of time on the ground, establishing strong head position in half guard and landing solid short punches and elbows. When he passes to mount, he looks to slip in leg hooks and control an even more dominant position.
Defensively, Muhammad can sometimes hold his hands low in his guard. He also tends to dip his off hand when he punches, and can absorb a lot of damage at times. His striking defense is almost entirely reliant on athleticism, and he isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket with the heaviest hitters in the welterweight division, like Geoff Neal. He has been said to have a granite chin, and that chin has held up in all but one of his professional fights, his 2016 first-round knockout loss to Vicente Luque.
I mentioned earlier that conditioning may be an advantage for Edwards, but Muhammad has very good three-round conditioning. He is a pace and pressure fighter, and we still don’t know if he can sustain that pace for five rounds.
In the end, I have to lean Leon Edwards’ way here. There is certainly a factor of caution, being that he hasn’t fought in over a year and that Muhammad has been staying active, but Muhammad’s only real chance at winning this fight is by making it a grappling affair. At that, Muhammad’s wrestling isn’t dominant enough to convince me that he’ll be able to get Edwards to the ground, much less keep him there and control three out of five rounds.
Edwards’ striking is too clean and too advanced for Muhammad to keep up with, and Edwards has stood up to, and even taken down, high-level grapplers in the past. Leon has a lot of advantages in this fight, but I don’t believe he’ll be able to finish Muhammad inside the distance. I’ll be betting Edwards by decision, including him in parlays, and possibly hedging the decision prop with Edwards by knockout.