leon-edwards-cage.png
Getty Images

Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman are among the most successful welterweights currently competing in the UFC despite the inequity in star power. The two are set to collide in the main event of UFC 278 on Saturday nearly seven years after their first meeting as relative unknowns on the early prelims where the current champion earned a unanimous decision.

While Usman continues to build his resume to be compared among the greatest fighters ever amid slight tweaks to his game, Edwards has been mostly anonymous to the casual fan. The Englishman has not lost since that night in December 2015 while confounding opponents with his rangy boxing and superior grappling/wrestling.

"Around that time I was probably focusing more on getting revenge on him," Edwards told CBS Sports. "Now, it's a totally different fight than it was seven years ago. I am approaching it like a different fighter, like a new opponent. That's my main focus. He has made improvements and so have I. I'm excited to go in there and show the world that I am number one."

Check out the full interview with Leon Edwards below.

Despite losing his UFC debut in 2014 to Claudio Silva, Edwards never took a backwards step as he continued to develop and evolve his game. Wins over Vicente Luque, Bryan Barberena and Peter Sobotta started to put Edwards in more prominent spots, including a headlining opportunity opposite Donald Cerrone in 2018, which he won by unanimous decision.

After two more wins over Gunnar Nelson and Rafael dos Anjos in 2019, it seemed Edwards was primed for a title opportunity or at least a title eliminator. But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Edwards was stuck in lockdown at home in England just as he was set to headline a card in London against former champion Tyron Woodley.

Edwards ended up going nearly 20 months between fights as the world grappled with the pandemic, Edwards himself battling the virus as well as an injury suffered in training camp before a March 2021 date against Belal Muhammad. Even that fight ended disastrously as an accidental eye poke from Edwards ended the fight in a no contest in the second round.

"All I've been doing is training. The Khamzat Chimaev fight, for example, that's three camps," Edwards said of multiple bookings against Chimaev that fell through. "I've done many camps and improved leaps and bounds. Now is the perfect time to fight. I think those years looking back on it now were blessings in disguise. It gave me time to hone my skills and polish what I needed to polish. [Usman's] competed but he's also been in wars. His body is breaking down and I think now is the perfect time."

Edwards' penchant for decision wins and unwillingness to talk trash forced him through the long road to title contention. It was his willingness to fight Khamzat Chimaev, a highly-touted yet unranked fighter at the time, that curried favor with UFC brass.

"Leon Edwards signed a bout agreement to fight him and I think he was ranked No. 3 at the time. I just wanted to make that clear publicly that he absolutely stepped up to fight him, signed a bout agreement, and then Khamzat got COVID, so that was the end of that," White told TSN. "I'm bringing it up because I said that and never gave that kid the credit that he deserves."

"He absolutely deserves the next title shot, and yes, I'm wishing for nothing but good luck for Edwards this year, he's had a rough run," White said in a separate interview with BT Sport. "Usman, we're waiting for his hand to get cleared. His hand gets cleared and he's got the fight."

A decisive win over Nate Diaz at UFC 263 was the big-billing that had eluded Edwards for seven years: his first pay-per-view main card slot against one of UFC's most marketable stars. It was a one-sided fight, despite a late scare in Round 5, that introduced Edwards to a wider audience.

Usman has made it a point to show off the evolution of his striking game. Complaints over his wrestle-heavy approach to beating Masvidal at UFC 251 were muted by subsequent knockouts of Burns and Masvidal. CBS Sports' Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell, hosts of "Morning Kombat," suggest it would behoove Usman to revisit the strategy that earned him the nod over Edwards in their first fight.

"They seem like different fighters, both of them, but you just wonder about that dynamic -- where one guy is a little more physical, a little more intense," Thomas said after re-watching their first fight. "Here's the thing: Edwards has a real -- not lazy -- but careful, measured, slow-the-pace-down style. Kamaru is on you."