Ahead of every championship fight, E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
For UFC 278, Kyte called upon Mike Brown of American Top Team, Eric Nicksick of Xtreme Couture, and Tyson Chartier of the New England Cartel to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the welterweight championship main event between defending champ Kamaru Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC) and streaking British challenger Leon "Rocky" Edwards (19-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC).
Best Trait of Each Fighter
At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?
Brown: Usman has so many tools and he seems to be getting better and better all the time. I think it's obviously great wrestling, great conditioning, and he's got a good build. He's very well rounded; he's the complete package.
Nicksick: Here's the thing with Usman – he and (Alexander) Volkanovski are the two champions, right now, that are better and evolving each time out. These guys are not only showing great things already, but then they come out and show a new wrinkle; they evolve something else and you're like, "I didn't expect him to have this in his game."
That's the Kobe Bryant mentality that makes it hard to catch them because they're trying to lap everybody.
If you really go "What is he great at?" you instinctively want to say his wrestling, but lately, it's been the blend between his striking and his wrestling. I think guys are so focused on defending the wrestling that now he's sleeping dudes. The overall evolution of what he's putting together, his body of work, is really masterful and turning into something different and special.
Chartier: With Usman, I think Trevor (Wittman) said it best a couple fights ago – he has a really, really good jab, and I think it's set up by his wrestling pedigree. People are so worried about the takedowns that you get heavy on the feat and get hit by the jab, and then once you start thinking about the jab, the right hand is coming in like you saw in the Masvidal fight.
Brown: I think Edwards is a sharp striker with dangerous elbows. He has some very dangerous weapons, and he's also really good at getting back to his feet along the cage. He's not easy to hold down; he's good at popping up and his cage wrestling is strong.
Nicksick: With Leon Edwards, it's been his striking, his kickboxing, but he's also been showing his evolution by shoring up some of those holes he might have shown in the past. I think this title shot has needed to happen for a long time, but it's only given him more time to improve on those areas since the last time they fought.
Chartier: For Leon, it's obviously his kickboxing – he's got a good jab and he's good with that rear kick, and then elbows when you get too close. It's a two-tiered approach where if you stay away, he can hurt you. If you come close, he can hurt you. He's dangerous at both ranges, so it's just a matter of him dictating where the fight goes, and if Usman changes the distance, he has to make him pay for coming in.
Path to Victory for Each Fighter
Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that's not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it's usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.
So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?
Chartier: It's whoever leads the dance.
For Leon, Colby (Covington) kind of showed the blueprint that if you stay busy against Usman, you can win the volume game and keep him on defense, that way he's less offensive. He's reacting to what you're doing, so that any offense that comes – whether you call it panic wrestling, reactionary striking – he's countering when he really wants to go first.
It's whoever can establish those kickboxing range weapons first. Whoever can go first and make the other one react – that's who is going to have success.
Brown: Either guy could do it multiple ways, but Edwards could do it with damage, particularly with his elbows in the close-range, pressure-striking range. Usman could hurt him on the feet, but he could also put him on the floor. I think he'll have more success doing it in the center; I think he'll have more trouble getting him down and holding him down along the wall.
Nicksick: If I'm in the Usman camp, I think I want to attach myself to Leon's legs early, to make him worry about the fit-in. I like the way Usman likes to attach to the snatch-single and connect to the body lock, and then the head-inside single.
I like his transitions and how he flows, and I like that early in the first couple rounds because I think you put that wrestling element into Leon's head because now when you start feinting level changes, that thought of getting taken down – even if you're not getting taken down, you still have to worry about it.
The other part is that by getting into those grappling exchanges, it's going to force blood flow into Leon's arms. Let's put some taxing on those arms and make him pummel, make him wrestle, and doing so in a five-round fight, you're going to add that cardio element, where we already know Usman is really good in those deeper rounds.
With Leon, I think it's very important to stay long — use the long jab, use the long cross; I wouldn't get into any hook combinations or anything that helps close the distance. I think if you're going to throw kicks, I'd go to the head — I think it jams a lot of Usman's power shots.
And throw things up the mid-line because that's going to help negate some of those level-changes. If Usman is changing levels and there is a teep up the middle, a knee up the middle, a cross or an uppercut, it's a deterrent. Change levels along with Usman's level changes.
If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out – that swings it in one direction or the other – what would it be?
Nicksick: For Usman, it's the fact that he's been here before and he understands the routine – he understands what it's like to be the champion, and fight week as a champion, the preparation; all of that knowledge is important, especially when it comes to a new guy.
Now I don't know this – this isn't a narrative that I know about Usman – but what I think can be something is that sometimes champions forget about what got them there, and does Usman skip steps or forget about how hard he has to train? I'm not saying this is the case, but maybe Leon can catch Usman at a time when maybe he's left some crumbs behind.
Sometimes Mike Tyson shows up and he didn't prepare the way he should have. I'm not saying I know this, I'm just telling you from what worries me as the championship coach of Francis Ngannou – I want to make sure that you don't forget what the f-ck got us here: the hard work, the preparation, the grittiness, the mindset.
Chartier: It's not necessarily something that people aren't thinking of, but I think it could be Leon's improved clinch game. When they fought before, Usman was able to dominate him when they got into the clinch. Now, he's a little more strategic there and he even has offensive wrestling and he's going to make you think about that.
In that clinch range, Edwards might have more there now – he might be better at getting out, which in a five-round fight, could play into it.
Brown: I don't know if it's an X-factor, but Usman is the champ and his confidence is sky-high; he seems to be getting better and better all the time. He's got a victory already over Edwards, so I think he's in the driver's seat. I think he's the favorite for good reason.
One Coaching Curiosity
Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.
Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach's interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.
So what is that one thing in this matchup?
Brown: I'm always excited to see the evolution of the sport, and any time you've got two of the highest caliber guys fighting, sometimes you're seeing not only high-level MMA, but also innovation. You've got to keep an eye out for new techniques that haven't been pulled out before in the cage and this is the type of fight where we could see something like that.
Nicksick: I kind of want to see if Usman hits a little adversity in this fight. I think you kind of saw that in the Covington fights, where he hit a little adversity, and that's a big part of why I love seeing champions so much.
I love the fact that Francis got tested and I love the way he responded. I love when Usman was challenged against Gilbert Burns and Colby, and the way he responded. I would like to see Usman challenged, and I think Leon Edwards is the guy to give him one of his best challenges and force Usman to show why he's pound-for-pound one of the best in the world.
Chartier: I want to see if Usman tries to wrestle because I feel like he might try to make a statement and say, "I don't need to wrestle; I can beat him on the feet." I feel like he's kind of at that point in his career where he had to beat him with wrestling the first time, maybe he wants to prove something this time.
I'm not saying it's the smartest thing to do, but I'm interested to see if he just goes away, doesn't even think of wrestling to prove a point.
Mike Brown is one of the top coaches at American Top Team, and was in the corner for Jorge Masvidal in each of his bouts against Kamaru Usman.
Eric Nicksick is the head coach at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, and the head coach of heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou, amongst many others.
This story first published at UFC.com.