5 Best Opponents for Kamaru Usman After Loss vs. Leon Edwards at UFC 286

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIMarch 19, 2023

5 Best Opponents for Kamaru Usman After Loss vs. Leon Edwards at UFC 286

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: Kamaru Usman of Nigeria reacts after the conclusion of his UFC welterweight championship fight against Leon Edwards of Jamaica during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Suddenly, Kamaru Usman hasn't heard the words "and still" in a while.

    At least not in his favor anyway.

    It was 2021, in fact. He won the UFC welterweight title from Tyron Woodley, held it with an iron grip, and in his fifth and final defense, defeated nemesis Colby Covington.

    The words were indeed spoken on Saturday night in London, but it was Leon Edwards hearing them as he retained his 170-pound glory with a majority decision defeat of his now-three-time rival in their trilogy bout atop the UFC 286 show.

    Usman had beaten Edwards by decision in a non-title fight in 2015 before the initial title change occurred at UFC 278. And now that he's lost two of three in the trilogy and no longer occupies premium space near the top of pound-for-pound rankings, it's time to refocus.

    He'd discussed a handful of options before the surprising loss to Edwards in August, and the B/R combat team restarted the conversation here with another collection of possibilities.

    Take a look at what we came up with and drop a thought of your own in the comments.

Belal Muhammad

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    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 22: Belal Muhammad reacts after his TKO victory over Sean Brady in a welterweight fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
    Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

    OK, someone needs to pay attention to the rankings.

    Particularly to the guys who've been plying their trade for years without high-profile rewards.

    Belal Muhammad, ranked fourth at 170, represents those guys.

    The 34-year-old has been in the UFC since 2016, has a record of 13-3 across 16 fights (minus one no contest) and hasn't lost in more than four years since dropping a decision to Geoff Neal on a Fight Night show in January 2019.

    That's an eight-fight win streak for those scoring at home, which is precisely the sort of skein that typically precedes a title shot, though it appears Colby Covington is next in line.

    Still, given the last three wins have come against guys still ranked in the top 15, it's a no-brainer that Muhammad ought to at least get a shot at the old champ.

    No less an authority than blow-by-blow man Jon Anik took Muhammad's side on Twitter, reacting to news that Covington had been installed as the backup fighter for the Edwards-Usman fight with support for the unheralded Chicagoan.

    "Understand acutely why Colby Covington was the backup but hard not to feel for (Muhammad)," Anik said. "Hasn't lost in four-plus years. Just KO'd a previously undefeated fighter. The man deserves his respect."

Khamzat Chimaev

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    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 10: Khamzat Chimaev of Russia prepares to fight Kevin Holland in a 180-pound catchweight fight during the UFC 279 event at T-Mobile Arena on September 10, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

    If it feels like the Khamzat Chimaev mania has cooled a bit, you're right.

    Thanks to the Chechen-born, Swedish-based dynamo's prolonged run of inactivity—he's fought just three times since the end of 2020—he's not always first on lists when they're compiled about future fights for high-profile fighters.

    But take our word for it, this one would be fun. Title or no title.

    Let's not forget, Chimaev burst on to the scene in a pair of weight classes during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, defeating John Phillips and Rhys McKee in less than five combined minutes across just 10 days on Fight Island that July.

    He returned for a 17-second obliteration of veteran Gerald Meerschaert two months later and proved his welterweight chops with a difficult but deserved win over contender Gilbert Burns at UFC 273 in April 2022.

    One fight since ended in another first-round blowout, and Chimaev made his post-trilogy intentions known on social media, suggesting on Instagram (h/t Talksport) that he'd soon "take my belt from this two clowns."

    It won't be a title fight with Usman, but maybe he'd still come to 170 for it.

    Or Usman could go to 185.

    Go ahead, say you'd not want to watch. We dare you.

Conor McGregor

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    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 23: In this handout image provided by the UFC, (L-R) Conor McGregor of Ireland punches Dustin Poirier in a lightweight fight during the UFC 257 event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Speaking of fun, what in the MMA world is more fun than a Conor McGregor fight?

    Nothing, that's what.

    The "Notorious" Irishman is on the verge of a comeback against Michael Chandler later this year following a two-year absence after he broke a leg in a trilogy loss to Dustin Poirier at UFC 264.

    His mere hints at activity and/or intentions set the combat sports media world ablaze, and it was no different during Usman-Edwards fight week when McGregor told Ariel Helwani that the Chandler return would occur at 170 and that he'd follow it with a callout.

    "I would like that," he said.

    The fact that McGregor has lost four of seven fights, all by finishes, since his highlight-reel vaporizing of Jose Aldo in 2015 doesn't matter. He's Conor McGregor.

    And he typically gets what he wants in the Octagon.

    Usman seems down with it, too.

    So go ahead and book it as a the sort of fight that'd be far bigger than belts.

    "I've always said I welcome it," Usman said at a UFC 286 fight-week media conference.

    "If it happens, it happens."

    Stand by for chaos.

Leon Edwards

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: (L-R) Kamaru Usman of Nigeria punches Leon Edwards of Jamaica in the UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Some rivalries are just that good. And just that close.

    Though he's officially down 2-1 in the series after Saturday's result, it wouldn't be hard to argue that Usman has won more rounds across the 12 complete ones they've fought.

    So why not do it again, for a fourth time.

    Though Edwards may till other ground before revisiting his three-time rival, there's no reason to believe Usman won't be deserving of another title opportunity before too long.

    In fact, he made sure to plant the seed before leaving the cage in London.

    "I think I did enough to win the fight, but I knew it was a close fight," he said.

    "He had a great game plan, and I always said it from the start, I knew I'd see Leon again. And we're not done. I'll see him again."

    He's not likely to fall more than a spot or two from his position as No. 1 contender, which means another title run for the "Nigerian Nightmare" might be here before you know it.


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    SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - AUGUST 20: Kamaru Usman of Nigeria reacts after being defeated by Leon Edwards of Jamaica in the UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 278 event at Vivint Arena on August 20, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

    There comes a point for every combat sports athlete.

    You've earned the accolades. You've taken the punishment. And when you wake up one day, there's simply nothing else that inspires the hunger of competitive conquest.

    That's when the great ones—or at least the lucky ones—walk away.

    Whether he ever climbs into another Octagon, Usman will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will be recalled for generations as a welterweight great and pound-for-pound elite.

    And the reality may just be that at age 35 and coming off a pair of losses to a younger, hungrier opponent, Usman's best days might just be behind him.

    He's made enough money to sustain his family, and given his run of 19 consecutive wins and five title defenses, there's really no other accomplishment that would surpass what he's done.

    Landing a truly significant event with a high-profile opponent could change things, but simply returning to the rank-and-file contender pool at welterweight may seem pretty boring.

    Particularly for a guy who's been to the top of the mountain.