Leon Edwards vs Nate Diaz: When fighting safe isn’t safe

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch examines Leon Edwards almost dominant win over Nate Diaz, and the pathological caution that led a close shave in the final seconds.

Leon Edwards has a problem.

He is undeniably the most deserving contender in a division otherwise starved for fresh challengers. The last person to beat Edwards was the current champion, Kamaru Usman, and that was six years and nine (mostly) one-sided wins ago (plus a single one-sided no contest). It seems profoundly obvious that a rematch between the two men is in order.

Except for the fact that no one really cares to see it.

Last weekend, Edwards fought Nate Diaz at UFC 263. It should have been a slam dunk. Despite his resilient drawing power, Diaz is several years past his best, and less interested than ever in fighting for anything other than a fat wad of cash. At close, Edwards was favored five-to-one to win.

If ever there was an absolutely wide open opportunity for Edwards to certify once and for all his claim to the title, this was it.

Edwards dominated the fight. In fact, he won every minute of every round, other than the only minute anyone remembers.

With about 64 seconds to go in the final round, Diaz spun Edwards’ head around with a cracking left to the jaw. Leon managed to keep his head on straight, but only just. His eyes were clouded. His legs were gone, replaced by rubber stilts. And so Leon Edwards spent the remainder of his big break clinging on for dear life.

This display of survival instinct should have been impressive in its own right, a demonstration of Edwards’ heart, yet another feather in his contender’s cap—except for two inescapable facts:

It really shouldn’t have gotten to that point in the first place.
This isn’t the first time it has.

See, Leon Edwards is a cautious fighter. Very cautious. More professional manager than prizefighter, even.

And what an excellent manager he is. Edwards seems to have an unusually keen grasp of how his fights are playing out on the scorecards. Unlike so many other decision machines (Raphael Assuncao, Frankie Edgar, Gleison Tibau, etc) Edwards is almost never surprised by the scorecards. Among the seven decisions he has earned in the last six years there was only a single split, versus Gunnar Nelson, and that can be safely blamed on one judge, either intoxicated or Icelandic.

Most MMA fighters are more like Marvin Vettori, who spent every one of his inter-round breaks in the main event scoffing at coaches who tried desperately to convince him that he was, in fact, losing. For these create-a-fighters, every minute of the fight exists in its own universe, each exchange expunged by the one which comes after it. What adjustments are made are tactical, not strategic, in nature. The contest seems to race by, and can only be wholly recalled by sitting down and studying the tape, an act for which the Marvin Vettoris of the world generally have little patience.

Leon Edwards is decidedly different. He sees the fight as a whole even while standing in the middle of it, ensuring that he is just far enough ahead without ever letting it get close enough to disappoint him. He has such a clear view of the big picture that, at times, the minute-to-minute action of the fight seems to bore him.

Risk & reward

You might describe Leon Edwards’ fighting style as “risk-averse.” But what kind of risk is he avoiding, exactly?

It hardly needs to be said that combat sports are inherently risky. Aside from the trauma fighters sustain, much of which is invisible and may only be detected later in life, the straightforward act of winning a fight is uniquely precarious. On the football field or the basketball court, there is such a thing as a comfortable lead. In fact, both of those sports (and many others) admit the unwritten rule that one team should pull up when victory becomes a foregone conclusion.

But victory is never a foregone conclusion in combat sports, and especially not in MMA. Because, unlike most other sports, MMA has a variety of possible win conditions. A victory can be built slowly from the ground up, only to be torn down in a fraction of the time—by one punch, one choke, even one takedown.

Hell, even an untimely injury can decide, instantaneously, the result of a contest. In what other sport is that the case?

In this game, the longer you let an opponent stick around, the more chances they have to knock you on your ass. Obviously there is some serious risk involved in any attempt to finish an opponent, as well. It’s a balancing act, and whether or not a fighter can strike that balance is one line dividing the champions from the perennial challengers.

So when we say that Leon Edwards’ tendency towards tedious decisions is a product of risk-aversion, we simply must ask: wouldn’t sometimes be safer to finish the damn fight?

People have critiqued Nate Diaz for failing to put Edwards away after hitting him with the last-minute Hail Mary. To be clear, Diaz didn’t just leave the finish on the table; he went for it, swarming Edwards for the better part of that fateful final minute. But it took him a little longer than it should have to press the issue, especially when compared against some of Nate’s other come-from-behind wins, so the criticism is not totally unwarranted.

Anyway, here’s Leon Edwards in round four, ten seconds after stunning Diaz with his own best punch of the fight so far.

Yes, that’s right: instead of following up, Edwards chose to taunt his compromised foe.

Nate Diaz is 36 years old. He came into this bout having fought only twice in the previous five years. Just one of those fights pitted him against an elite welterweight, Jorge Masvidal, who finished him in three rounds.

By the time Diaz finally managed to hurt Edwards, he was cut, bruised, hobbling, undoubtedly dazed by an accumulation of power punches, and—difficult as the most diehard Diaz heads may find it to swallow—clearly very tired.

Leon Edwards, by very stark comparison, is 29 years old, an elite welterweight smack bang in the middle of his prime, riding a nine-fight unbeaten streak in which he has absorbed only 277 significant strikes compared to the 751 (yes, that’s seven hundred and fifty-one) that Diaz has eaten over the same number of bouts. Edwards is superbly conditioned, and should by all rights have been fighting with the confidence of a top contender on a serious hot streak.

In the first four rounds of the bout, Edwards not only outlanded Diaz, but delivered by far the more punishing blows, including in particular a long bombardment of crippling leg kicks—leg kicks which would ultimately serve as a much better excuse for Diaz’s relative lack of last-minute urgency than whatever invisible demon of pathology it was that kept Edwards from even attempting to press his advantage here, or at any one of a dozen other points in a fight he was otherwise winning with ease.

Which raises the question: why is he like this?

Mindset or mechanics?

Part of Edwards’ almost total lack of killer instinct is rooted in technique—or lack thereof. Though he is often regarded as a striker-turned-wrestler, Edwards’ ground game has long been the deeper end of his skillset.

He strikes with speed and precision from long range, and manages distance exceptionally well. But put Edwards in the pocket, that slice of range where both fighters may land effective punches, and things start to fall apart.

For a man who fights like a counterpuncher, Edwards is severely lacking in defensive craft. He can catch, parry, block, or duck a single shot, but beyond that first layer defense becomes a dangerous guessing game—a game which Leon would rather avoid by spending as little time in the pocket as possible.

There is also, however, a psychological component to Edwards’ passivity. Like Tyron Woodley, a man to whom Edwards has become all too easy to compare, he seems to view the mere prospect of a punching exchange as a failure, a trap he must avoid at all costs. I’m the clean, patient fighter, Leon seems to think, and my opponents are all-too-often messy. As long as I keep the fight clean and orderly, I am winning!

Whenever Edwards does engage in the pocket, his discomfort is plain. Speed and accuracy diminish considerably as he loads up on punches which come far wider than they would if thrown from a safer distance. Normally wide eyed and aware of everything around him, in the pocket Edwards starts to flinch, ducking and wincing as he trades shots.

Each time Edwards hurt Diaz, Diaz taunted him. That’s what Diazes do. And it was almost as if each taunt further confirmed Edwards’ biases. Aha! So he wants me to jump on him and go for the kill. I’ll just stand back and see how he likes that. Checkmate, Nathan.

It never crossed Edwards’ mind that Diaz may not have been baiting him, but merely bluffing. Instead of testing his theory, Edwards chose again and again to tease Diaz with the question: and what if I just keep fighting exactly like this?

And, even if it took the better part of five rounds, in the end Nate gave him his answer.

All of this would be less frustrating, perhaps, if only Edwards had never demonstrated that he can secure a finish when he deems it necessary. In 2016 Edwards fought the heavy handed Albert Tumenov, and dominated the first round with wrestling skills that were, at the time, a relatively recent addition to his game.

Then, in round two, feeling comfortably ahead, Edwards fell into one of his trademark lapses and gave Tumenov, a brilliant combination puncher, far too much time and far too many opportunities to figure out which combinations worked best. After scoring only one strike in the first, Tumenov went on to land 22 increasingly solid shots in the second.

Tumenov continued to work him over with strikes in round three, building on his second-round success, to the extent that even a solid takedown may not have earned Edwards the decision. Leon found himself in an unusual and uncomfortable position: he needed a finish.

Edwards shot in on a single, elevated the leg, tripped Tumenov to the ground, climbed halfway onto his back, and, while Tumenov was still focused on stymying the second hook, sunk in a choke and forced the tap. All in the space of 40 seconds.

On this one occasion, Edwards’ mid-fight inattention forced him to fight from behind, and he did so with aplomb. But usually Leon’s lapses are too well contained, isolated to the rounds in which they occur and leaving him free, therefore, to keep on with his dully managerial method. And the more five-round appointments Edwards is given, the less pressure he feels to find a finish. Even when things do go awry, as they almost always seem to do, Edwards can usually navigate his way back to an edge on the cards.

After his win at UFC 263, Edwards attended the presser, where he was asked to explain what had happened to him in round five.

“Like I said, I got complacent. I thought, there’s only like a minute and a half left, let’s just—” Mimicking a little bob and weave ”—go with the flow of the fight. And I paid the price.”

It was the kind of self reflective answer you’d like to hear more often from fighters, most of whom (like Marvin Vettori or, well… Nate Diaz) are all but completely delusional. And yet Leon Edwards is not as clear-eyed as he may seem. Sure, he can honestly assess an error, but this was far from the first time Edwards had allowed such an error to occur, and that makes it hard to believe it could be the last.

After all, the point of self reflection is to learn from your own errors. Otherwise you’re just staring in the mirror.

For more on Edwards-Diaz and the rest of UFC 263, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.

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