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The Weekly Takedown: Kamaru Usman seeks to tie record with victory at UFC 278

A successful title defense Saturday against Leon Edwards would put the reigning welterweight champ in rare company.
kamaru-usman

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Kamaru Usman makes his sixth defense of the welterweight championship this Saturday, headlining UFC 278 in the main event against Leon Edwards.

This is a rematch from December of 2015, which ended in a unanimous decision for Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC). Edwards has not lost since, ripping off nine in a row since that defeat. He has youth on his side, entering the fight at 30 years old, a sharp contrast to the 35-year-old Usman. Edwards (19-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC) is also extremely well-rested, last competing in June of 2021 in a unanimous decision victory against Nate Diaz. Usman was in the cage this past November, when he walked in and out of New York's famed Madison Square Garden as champ by successfully defending the title against Colby Covington.

Usman crafted the most successful year of any fighter in 2021, winning three title bouts against elite competition and cementing himself as the best in the world. Considering the heavy workload, he understands why people question whether he enters this rematch compromised – though he wholeheartedly disagrees with the notion.

"I hear people saying I've been through battles and wars," Usman says. "Each and every guy I face is my toughest challenge yet. For them to get in position to challenge me, it means they've put themselves at the top of the division, and Leon is next up. But these aren't wars. When have you heard a split decision in these fights? It's all unanimous decisions and knockouts."

In addition to putting his title on the line, Usman also seeks to tie the great Anderson Silva with his 16th straight UFC victory. 

"When I started recognizing the greatness of this sport, it was during Anderson Silva's reign," Usman says. "Anderson Silva was the biggest name in the sport. Now I am. It's a culmination of all my work, and I'm blessed to be in this position."

Usman's stature continues to grow outside of MMA. Most recently, he was cast in the upcoming "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" blockbuster. He is charismatic and intelligent, as well as a legitimate force inside the cage, giving him immense mainstream appeal.

Fame has a knack for softening even the toughest of fighters, a battle Usman is fighting. That is not even a remote concern for Edwards, who has been overlooked within his own division for years. Edwards was bypassed multiple times for a title shot for fighters with greater mass appeal, and he is the furthest thing from a household name in MMA. Yet that is all advantageous for Edwards entering 278, where he is hungry to take all that Usman possesses.

"We've somehow reached this point where everyone associates success with losing your edge," Usman says. "That's not the case. Success is my motivation. It was before, and it still is. It makes me work harder. I love success. I love people calling me 'Hollywood' now. I want to be the best. That's driving me even further."

There is a sincere authenticity behind Usman's words. He is a different breed as a wrestler, belonging to a fraternity that shares an unquenchable drive to always give their best.

"Life is different for wrestlers," Usman says. "Wrestling in high school and college, and a couple years on the international stage, it gave me an understanding of life unlike anything else. The expression is true – once you wrestle, everything else becomes easier."

Edwards spoke with Sports Illustrated this week and revealed that he is still haunted by the loss to Usman. It drives him and has pushed him to new heights, and he now has the chance to climb even higher with a title victory. Even with the compelling backstory, plenty of reasons also exist as to why Edwards will come up short in the rematch. If Diaz made Edwards' chin look suspect, then Usman is going to make it crumble. Remarkably, after a stretch of decisions earlier in his career, Usman has taken a distinct route to greatness by finishing opponents far more often during his title reign.

"That's the thing about the climb," Usman says. "Once I got the fight I wanted, I couldn't make a misstep. I needed to be perfect on that climb, or else I'd never get a title shot. And, back then, I was a newbie. I was learning on the job. I'm not anymore. Now I'm free to fight the way I want as champion. Each and every time I step out there, I'm showing a different and better version of myself."

The most brilliant champions behold the rare ability to prevent rivals from stepping onto their throne. Had Usman not pursued a career in mixed martial arts, had he found inspiration from an altogether different passion, then there is a far greater chance that Jorge Masvidal would have already had a reign as welterweight champ. Perhaps the Covington era would be one defined by championship wins instead of championship losses. Maybe Gilbert Burns would have enjoyed a run as champ, right up until emerging star Khamzat Chimaev dethroned him. Yet none of that happened. That is because of Usman, the pound-for-pound most dominant fighter in the world, who carries within his soul the ability to find a way to win.

"I know how to win, and I'm going to get it done however I need to," Usman says. "Leon said losing to me drove him. Well, me winning, that motivated me. Success fuels me. I got better after I beat him. He got better after I beat him, too. The common denominator is that I won.

"Now we'll step in there on Saturday, and the better man will step out. Get ready to hear, ‘And still.' Forever and always."

'Chito' Vera keeps himself in title contention with impressive victory against Dominick Cruz

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Marlon "Chito" Vera pieced together the most impressive win of his career this past Saturday, knocking out Dominick Cruz with a vicious head kick.

The knockout took place nearly midway through the fourth round. Up until that point, it was Cruz's fight to win. Despite the fact that Vera had connected with more powerful shots, Cruz did a masterful job executing his game plan and landing heavy volume. Vera spent healthy portions of the first three rounds focused on Cruz's timing, and that ultimately paid off with the vicious head kick.

The two fighters now move in different directions. Vera inches closer to a title shot, which he should receive if he can defeat the winner of Petr Yan-Sean O'Malley. That won't be an easy task, but his path is clear. It is more complicated for Cruz, who had been adamant about only fighting for the title.

If Aljamain Sterling successfully defends the bantamweight belt in his upcoming fight against T.J. Dillashaw, perhaps a Cruz-Dillashaw rematch could be the main event on a future card. That still allows Cruz to fight up, and Dillashaw would receive a long-awaited chance to avenge his loss to Cruz. But the loss last Saturday is a significant blow to Cruz's chase of a third title run.

Last Saturday's fight further removed any doubt about the legitimacy of Vera. He is a patient, calculated, and lethal fighter, one that should frighten the entire top of the bantamweight division.

The Pick ‘Em Section:

UFC 278 welterweight title bout: Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Leon Edwards

  • Pick: Kamaru Usman

UFC 278 middleweight bout: Paulo Costa vs. Luke Rockhold

  • Pick: Paulo Costa

UFC 278 bantamweight bout: Jose Aldo vs. Merab Dvalishvili

  • Pick: Jose Aldo

UFC 278 heavyweight bout: Marcin Tybura vs. Alexandr Romanov

  • Pick: Alexandr Romanov

PFL women's lightweight semifinals: Kayla Harrison vs. Martina Jindrova

  • Pick: Kayla Harrison

Last week: 2-3

2022 record: 91-54