“Everyone’s gonna put on a little facade for the camera and say what they think they’re supposed to say,” Tom Aspinall explains, sat across a table in the UFC’s fighter hotel in Canary Wharf. It’s just been put to the Wigan heavyweight that Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman have pushed their own, simple narratives leading into UFC 286, where they will clash for the third time on Saturday, at the O2 Arena.
For Edwards, who took the welterweight title from Usman with a jaw-dropping, jaw-splintering head kick in August, the narrative is this: After winning the first round of his rematch with Usman seven months ago, by becoming the first man to take down the Nigerian-American, the altitude in Salt Lake City sapped his strength, leading to the static, sub-par stretch that preceded his stunning finish; without that external factor, the 31-year-old expects to not only finish his old foe again, but to do it with more than one minute left on the clock.
For Usman, who outpointed Edwards in 2015, the narrative is this: The 35-year-old dominated the Jamaican-born Briton for all three rounds in their first meeting, and for another three in their rematch; if he keeps his hands a little higher and his focus a little sharper, he will seal the win that he secured eight years ago and nearly replicated last summer.
Yet, while these broad-stroke narratives suit each fighter, there must be finer details in this picture. Aspinall agrees, though he acknowledges the surface-level interpretation of the rivalry before pointing out the more subtle factors.
“[Leon’s] story [about the altitude] seemed to match up with his performance,” says Aspinall, who headlined both UFC London cards in 2022. “So, if he could dominate the first round, and you take away the altitude, I think he should be able to dominate most of this fight. I don’t think he should have too much of a problem.
“But I think Leon also does something quite unique, in the sense that from a close range – in between grappling and striking range – he throws really short shots, elbows and stuff. I think that gets overlooked a lot. I think they’re really dangerous. If you watch his fight with Gunnar Nelson [in 2015], they’re so clean, and it’s particularly difficult to train for something like that, because you can’t elbow someone from that [close] in sparring.”
If that is the type of physical detail that might decide the fight, then what about the mental ones? Usman had won 19 straight fights across nine years – including his first bout with Edwards – before not only losing his UFC title but also losing consciousness for the first time in his career.
“The thing that concerns me is: That was a really heavy knockout, and it was [only] seven months ago,” says Aspinall. “Can the brain physically recover that quick after it got shaken up? He was ice cold on the floor with his eyes wide open, that’s some heavy stuff. I don’t know if I would want a turnaround that quick, if something like that happened to me.
“And how does that play into the psychological aspect of it? When you’re getting woken up by the referee, and you’ve got doctors around you, and that was six months ago and you’ve not even got a win since… that’s got to play some kind of psychological warfare with you; you’ve got to be battling something to step in there.
“But being a successful person in any aspect of life, you have to be somewhat delusional. You have to tell people stuff that is gonna make them uncomfortable.”
If Edwards and Usman have been content to push surface-level narratives, then fans have been equally content to offer safe predictions. A points win for Usman makes sense, and so does Edwards finding a finish with greater efficiency than he did in August, when he became Britain’s second ever UFC champion. The most-overlooked outcomes, however, involve Usman – a wrestler by nature – producing the kind of spiteful knockout that he conjured in his 2021 rematch with Jorge Masvidal, or Edwards securing a submission in one of the grappling exchanges.
“[Usman’s power punches are] definitely not talked about as much as other things, like his wrestling,” says Aspinall, “but this is MMA and everything can happen. Everyone’s got submissions, knockouts and decisions on their records. There are only a few people in the world on that level, and to be there, you’ve got to be dangerous everywhere. There are a whole load of aspects that both guys can do, that no one has ever seen. They’ve probably both got spinning attacks and submissions off the back that we’ve never seen.
“They’ve both got to be prepared for anything and everything. The margin for error is like… there isn’t one.”
On Saturday night, the facades will fall.
Watch UFC 286 live on BT Sport Box Office on Saturday 18 March. Coverage of the main card will start from 9pm. The prelims will be available to watch for free from 7pm on YouTube, BTSport.com, BT Sport App and BT Sport Box Office App.