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On paper, the matchup of Leon Edwards and Nate Diaz is about as bizarre a bout you think the UFC could have put together over the last 12 months. The pair appear to be in such different trajectories in regard to their respective careers. And just in regard to the overall path the two appear to be on at this stage of their runs, I think you’d travel far and wide to find somebody who would’ve predicted we’d get Leon Edwards vs. Nate Diaz in 2021 at UFC 263.
Ranked at #3 in the official welterweight stack, Birmingham striking ace, Edwards has gone on a nine-fight undefeated streak since a December 2015 decision loss to current welterweight best, Kamaru Usman, and in the time since, has jotted his own impressive professional résumé over the course of the last six years.
However, an aspect of that run that must be taken into consideration, is the level of competition he’s stood opposite from when the Octagon door closes. Let it be known, the Team Renagade BJJ & MMA trainee is primed for a title shot off the back of a win over Diaz on Saturday night. And should Diaz lodge what would be quite the upset victory, well then he’s got his pick of the bunch next at 170lbs — including a title shot — which is equally as bizarre as this matchup in the first place.
Edwards can only fight whoever is ahead of him. But, with a challenge like Diaz, you can’t really merit a title shot with a win. It’s arguably as high-profile a fight he’s been a part of since his streak post-Usman began, however, it just seems a bit questionable how a victory over Stockton veteran, Diaz in 2021 can put the finishing touches on a title tilt earning run for a division elite.
The Brummie is as underrated a contender you’re likely to find, though. A finisher of fights isn’t something that springs to mind straight away when you envision Leon Edwards, however, his ability to set a pace and ultimately pull away with quite a significant lead is something that should come to the forefront immediately.
Stylistically, he is a very accomplished striker, much more so than Diaz. He’s got a kickboxing approach which allows him to set up kicks both high and to the midsection off the back of some real polished boxing combinations, and his work in the clinch with break-away elbows, and posting shots make him a dangerous proposition for Diaz, who suffered the brunt of his damage early against Jorge Masvidal back in November of 2019 off the back of hanging out in the clinch for too long.
Prior to his March return earlier this year, it had been a period of 19 months and 24 days of inactivity for Edwards, with the novel coronavirus pandemic shelving a UFC Fight Night London main event against former welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley in March of last year. High-profile pairings against the surging, Khamzat Chimaev were also shelved three separate times between December last and March.
Finally, he returned at UFC Vegas 21 against Belal Muhammad, in a bid to finally stamp his title challenger credentials. In a period of limbo prior to fight night with the promotion edging toward Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal II — things really couldn’t have gotten worse for Edwards come the culmination of fight night.
Appearing sharper than ever in a bid to finally earn a rematch against Usman, Edwards wobbled Muhammad in the first round with a left high-kick, however, an inadvertent eye poke called for a halt in proceedings.
In the second frame, Edwards’ outstretched hand once more stabbed the eye of Muhammad. And this time, left Muhammad, falling to the canvas in agony, with referee, Herb Dean left with no other option but to call the fight there and then. An official ‘No Contest’ — and Edwards’ momentum had been halted and the tires carrying him to a title tilt, slashed.
19 months and 10 days. The last time Nate Diaz stepped foot inside the UFC Octagon. November 2019. Madison Square Garden. Headlining opposite Masvidal — Diaz put his proverbial BMF championship on the line following a unanimous decision return over former lightweight best, Anthony Pettis that August.
Suffering badly in the clinch within the opening minutes of the first round, Diaz was sliced, as has been the norm as of late, with a massive elbow from the Floridian, before catching a big high-kick on his way to the canvas. A prolonged beating later and Diaz was prevented from seeing a fourth round — by the Octagon-side doctor, as well as maybe his right eye, as the abundance of scar tissue had opened, resulting in two sizeable cuts both above and below his right optic. Disputing the stoppage initially, Diaz really didn’t have much to argue about, other than the fact that he believes he would have been able to swing the tide of the fight in the remaining two rounds; a fight he had been losing quite one-sidedly prior to the stoppage.
It seems to be ‘ask and you shall receive’ for Diaz, however, Edwards doesn’t appear to be have been first on the list of potential comeback opponents for The Ultimate Fighter 5 victor. Atop his list sat now-minted lightweight champion, Charles Oliveira, as well as one-time scheduled opponent, former interim 155lbs titleholder, Dustin Poirier.
Challenging either to a welterweight battle, despite the fact both firmly ply their trade at lightweight — Diaz settled for Edwards. And stylistically, he’s likely picked himself the toughest opponent at welterweight today outside of the defending Usman, and the #1 rated, Colby Covington. Kudos.
The fact that this fight, again, quite bizarrely is sanctioned to take place over five rounds, can only play into Diaz’s favour, given the fact that he has in the past rallied late on. Case study, UFC 202 against Conor McGregor in particular. But if Edwards lays out a technical beating early and prolonged, I don’t expect a mountain-climbing performance in the latter rounds from Diaz.
Diaz’s last submission victory came in the form of his UFC 196 toppling of McGregor via a second round, rallying rear-naked choke. But, again, McGregor was on his last legs prior to that, as a result of some stinging shots on the feet. Before that, you have to go back to May of 2012 to find his last submission win; an impressive second round stoppage of Jim Miller. Don’t expect Diaz’s grappling to become the real outlier against Edwards, however.
There’s most certainly a ceiling to Diaz’s overall ability, even from the onset of his early run with the UFC post-TUF — and just two months removed from his 36th. birthday, and with significant miles on the clock compared to Edwards who is hitting what seems to be his career stride, it would be nothing short of foolish than to sway away from the Birmingham native in this one.
The narrative that Diaz tends to progress and really come alive in the later rounds is one that’s been pushed by the Stockton native himself. And without that much proof to back up that theory, in fact, we’ve got to go with Edwards, especially given the fact he’s been able to set a pace in the past over the course of five rounds against both Rafael dos Anjos and Donald Cerrone, as well as how he’s so much sharper on the feet than Diaz.
Prediction: Leon Edwards def. Nate Diaz via decision
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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