In the midst of a string of events featuring unheralded standouts searching for their breakthrough moment, the UFC returns to London this weekend with one of the most discounted talents on the roster serving a secondary role.
Leon Edwards has won six straight fights to climb into contention in the welterweight division, yet when the Octagon blows into The O2 Arena for its annual first quarter appearance on Saturday, the Birmingham-based fighter will step into the cage against Gunnar Nelson in the second-to-last pairing, while Scouser Darren Till battles veteran Jorge Masvidal in the main event of the evening.
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Having Till atop the marquee makes sense as the Liverpool lad fought for the welterweight title in the main event of UFC 228 in his most recent outing and proved to have a tremendous amount of British backing when the UFC brought an event to his hometown midway through 2018.
But Edwards was the headlining act in his last appearance as well, venturing to Singapore in June, where he pitched a shutout over five rounds against fan favorite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, the same man Till blasted eight months earlier to instantly vault into the title conversation.
While much was made of Till’s first-round stoppage win over Cerrone in Gdansk, Poland, Edwards’ triumph has become an achievement lost to the haze of last summer’s torrid schedule and the avalanche of events that have transpired since. That being said, fight fans and media got mighty excited for Cerrone’s follow-up bout against Mike Perry five months later in Denver and again seemed ready to catapult “Platinum” into larger conversations within the division had he dispatched of the former WEC standout on his home turf, but that didn’t come to pass.
Cerrone earned a first-round finish, declared his intentions to return to lightweight and has already staked his claim to a place in the queue of contenders there with a win over Alexander Hernandez, all while Edwards continues to linger in obscurity heading into this weekend’s fight card.
All Edwards has done of late is win fights and just like Pedro Munhoz two weeks back at UFC 235 and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos last weekend in Wichita, “Rocky” has the potential to come away from his clash with Nelson this weekend in London as the latest “breakthrough fighter” whose breakthrough was long overdue.
The 27-year-old talent is a perfect example of how fighters who simply want to ply their trade and stay active in the gym can get lost in the shuffle.
Because there has never been much fanfare around him, it’s easy to forget that he’s won six straight, a run of success that started following his loss to new champion Kamaru Usman and includes victories over surging Brazilian finisher Vicente Luque and Bryan “Bam Bam” Barberena, who went shot-for-shot with Luque late last month in this year’s clubhouse leader in the Fight of the Year race.
Even if you want to hold his 2-2 start in the UFC against him, those setbacks continue to get better looking with each passing day, as his first loss came when he dropped his debut to Claudio “Hannibal” Silva, who pushed his winning streak to 11 with that victory, spent four years on the sidelines battling injuries, and returned to pick up a first-round finish in his comeback fight against Nordine Taleb last May in Liverpool. Saturday night in London, the 36-year-old Brazilian looks to extend his ongoing run of success to a baker’s dozen when he squares off with Danny Roberts early on the main card.
You could easily make the case for Nelson having more buzz behind him, even though the Icelandic welterweight is a man of few words and doesn’t spend much time adding to his IG Stories. But because he had garnered attention in the grappling world before transitioning to the UFC and has an affiliation with Conor McGregor and the SBG Ireland crew, people have been close paying attention to Nelson from the first time he stepped into the Octagon.
Although he’s had some impressive performances thus far, Nelson has the same number of wins as Edwards under the UFC banner (eight), but none of that are as noteworthy or significant as Edwards’ victories over Cerrone or Luque.
Yet, Nelson has been talked about as a potential contender and someone to keep an eye on in the welterweight division throughout his time on the roster, while Edwards has remained in the shadows, quietly racking up wins and being ignored.
Unfortunately for guys like Edwards — like dos Santos and Munhoz before him, and countless others toiling in anonymity — performance doesn’t seem to matter all that much these days.
So much of what determines who gets opportunities and recognition these days comes down to outside of the cage elements — social media presence and following, trash talk and gossip that drives traffic and makes for click-able copy, who’s talking you up or putting you down.
Quality of competition carries less weight than the quality of your interviews or Instagram posts and you’re more likely to command greater attention by scoring an impressive finish against a middling opponent than you are for securing a less flashy stoppage or a lopsided decision win against a proven adversary.
Winning is still the only way to keep moving forward, but the road to the top is much longer than ever before if all you do is pile up victories and fighters with more buzz can cut in line at various points along the way.
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But then when the fighters who talk a big game and can’t back it up fall off and the latest “Next Big Thing” shows they’re not quite ready for prime time, it’s fighters like Edwards who are left standing — the quiet, unassuming types who just continue to stack wins that far too many people know far too little about given what they’ve accomplished.
Maybe — just maybe — people should start paying closer attention to these men and women a little earlier, so that they’re familiar with them as they rise through the ranks, running up lengthy winning streaks, rather than getting duped by another loud voice with limited upside who looks the part, but fails to deliver on fight night.
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