THE stipulation is clear: Leon Edwards must impress on his long-awaited return to the Octagon this weekend and he can but guarantee a world title opportunity in 2021.
The UK’s highest ranked UFC athlete will end 18 months of frustration when he faces off against American Belal Muhammad at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas in the early hours of Sunday morning.
But the pressure to find a fight-ending finish is palpable. The 29-year-old Brummie can’t simply have his hand raised and hope to jump into the title picture. He has to make a statement.
Earlier this week Dana White was asked; If Edwards puts on a spectacular show against Muhammad, is he the next title contender? To which the UFC president replied: “100%.”
‘Rocky’ has endured a turbulent 12 months outside of the Octagon. He was scheduled to headline UFC London last March, only for it to be the first UFC event to be cancelled due to the global pandemic.
A last-minute title opportunity also passed him by due to travel restrictions in May, before the 29-year-old was briefly removed from the UFC rankings altogether in October due to rumours he was turning down fights.
Within hours he had his ranking restored, however, after agreeing to face Swedish sensation Khamzat Chimaev, only for a positive Covid test to force the unbeaten Swede out of three dates and potentially out of MMA for good.
It's been a minute since we saw Leon Edwards in action..
But last time out he put it all together to take out RDA in a comprehensive victory
Those elbows pic.twitter.com/OZdCyeGiDz
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) March 10, 2021
Enter Muhammad, who after winning a one-sided decision at the Apex last month was perfectly placed to jump in and face the world number three at just four weeks notice.
Riding his own 8-1 run inside the Octagon, Muhammad, 32, has only lost three times in 21 fights after debuting in the UFC in 2016 after a 9-0 start to his career.
But he steps up to the upper echelons for the first time against Edwards, who after losing a split decision in Brazil on his 2014 UFC debut, has gone 10-1 since, with that sole defeat coming against current champion Kamaru Usman.
The rematch has felt overdue for the past few years. But Edwards is a quiet character in a division littered with larger-than-life personalities. The Brit has had to defeat more than his fair share of fellow contenders to climb the rankings ladder.
But the tide is finally turning in Edwards’ favour, especially as the man ranked at the top of the contender pile, Colby Covington, turned down this fight. The road is now clear for Leon to finally lay claim for his first title opportunity. All he has to do now is win in style.
But that’s easier said than done, especially for a fighter who is more dominant than destructive. Despite boasting a 50% career finish rate, Edwards has just three early wins inside the Octagon, one more than Muhammad in the same number of outings.
Without the intriguing title chance teasing narrative this main event would be a lock to go to a five-round decision. But Edwards knows what’s at stake and has the skillset to set a hot pace before pushing for a finish long before the final bell.