Belal Muhammad was scheduled to compete against Sean Brady last week on the UFC 259 undercard, but was kicked up into main-event status to fight Leon Edwards on this slate because Khamzat Chimaev is out with lingering effects of COVID-19.
Muhammad is more than enough replacement for Chimaev. Edwards now faces an opponent with more experience, seasoning and guile and one who is tough and unrelenting. Muhammad enters off three wins, all since Edwards’ last bout.
Muhammad, the 13th-ranked welterweight contender, employs solid wrestling and grappling, coupled with an unrelenting forward pressure, to complement his effective striking. Since a knockout loss to Vicente Luque in 2016, Muhammad has compiled an 8-1 record, with the only loss to 11th-ranked Geoff Neal.
Few are aware of Edwards, who has been inactive since July 2019. Edwards has had trouble getting fights simply because no one wants to fight this well-rounded, refined, dangerous mixed martial artist who is nicknamed “Rocky.” COVID-19 complications and lockdowns have also compounded the difficulty for the Jamaican, who resides in England.
Edwards is ranked the No. 3 contender in the division, and it’s my judgment that only welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and Stephen Thompson belong with Edwards in the division’s top three. Since a decision loss to Usman in 2015, Edwards is 8-0, having beaten Luque, Bryan Barbarena, Donald Cerrone, Gunnar Nelson and Rafael dos Anjos.
In this bout, Edwards will have to address his inactivity against Muhammad, who is warm and ready to fire. We saw the importance of being active when Dustin Poirier drubbed Conor McGregor.
Edwards, a southpaw, is taller than Muhammad by three inches, younger by three years and holds a three-inch advantage in both arm reach and leg reach. Edwards’ experience, body of competition and overall offensive and defensive arsenal make him a more complete fighter than Muhammad, but that does not consider Edwards’ time away.
Muhammad’s recent activity may hurt him, though. He took an abundance of deep-tissue damage to his lead leg and calf from Dhiego Lima’s violent kicks on Feb. 13, even though Muhammad won the bout. Four weeks is not a long time to recover from that serious type of leg bruising, so Muhammad will enter with some concern for that limb.
Edwards employs a devastating leg attack, and he surely is aware of his opponent’s history, tendencies and injury.
Edwards is a fighter who believes he is most deserving in the division for a title shot, and his disgust, angst and frustration at having to wait all this time to prove it are tangible. Edwards will show up Saturday night focused and intent on delivering a message.
Edwards is supremely motivated to display his wares Saturday. His size, youth, length and reach advantages will complement his refined precision striking and deft movement and display that, though Muhammad is a legitimate top-12 fighter, Edwards just may be beyond that in ability.