Leon Edwards will end a near two-year exile from the Octagon when he faces rising star Khamzat Chimaev in a twice rearranged fight on March 13 – can the Jamaican-born Brit cement his status as a leading contender for a UFC welterweight title shot or will the Russian derail the ‘Rocky’s quest and register the biggest win of his career?
The best way to describe Edwards’ 2020 professionally is ‘frustrating’. ‘Rocky’ overcame an early misfire in his UFC career to storm up the welterweight ladder over a five-year period, going 10-1 during an 11-fight run to surge into the top five, but after beating Rafael dos Anjos for the victory of his career in July 2019 his career stalled. A fight with former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley had to be shelved in March, like many other major sporting events and competitions, and despite spending the next several months calling out the best and biggest names in the division, none of those call-outs resulted in a high-profile scrap for Edwards.
So how did Edwards respond? By agreeing to take on arguably the fastest-rising star in the UFC right now in Khamzat Chimaev – man who boasts a perfect 9-0 record and has already notched a couple of UFC records in the early stages of his career.
Chiimaev made his UFC debut back on July 2020 when he submitted Welsh veteran John Phillips inside two rounds, and 10 days later he needed just over three minutes to dispatch Rhys McKee with strikes to set a new record for the fastest consecutive wins in UFC history. He was not done there though – the 26-year-old Swede, originally born in Russia, signed on to face Gerald Meerschaert on September 19 and his 17-second knockout victory set a new UFC standard for the quickest three-fight win streak in company history.
But what do all of those victories have in common? As impressive as they were and as much as Chimaev has showcased his all-round game, none of them came against notable opposition. They were enough to propel him into the welterweight rankings, but a victory over Edwards on March 13 would undoubtedly catapult him right into the top five and make him a genuine contender for Kamaru Usman’s 170lb crown in 2021. The question is, can Chimaev pull off the biggest win of his career?
There is no doubting that the Russian-born Swede is an incredibly dangerous fighter who can stop opponents in a variety of different ways, but until he beats somebody of note it is difficult to truly decipher if what we are seeing is the rise of a future champion. And while there are question marks surrounding Chimaev, we do know plenty about Edwards, who has faced, and beaten, much better opposition than his opponent has ever faced. That decision win over RDA last time out was the biggest win of his career and should have been the catalyst for either a title fight or a number one contender with a top-five rival. It was not, but a win here could be.
Edwards lacks highlight-reel finishes on his CV, having stopped just three of his opponents since signing on with the UFC, but he has showcased his ability to earn the acknowledgement and the favour of the judges on multiple occasions. Only once has he come up short in his last 11 fights and that was against the man who currently reigns over the division, the impressive Kamaru Usman. It may not be pretty on the eye, but Edwards has the ability to frustrate opponents, make them look bad and catch the judges’ eye with his slick boxing skills. That will be the recipe for another decision win here and perhaps 2021 will be the year in which ‘Rocky’ finally gets his title shot.