MMA Ratings Podcast

July 26, 2019

Leon Edwards: The Invisible Man of MMA

By Raphael Garcia

In 1952, Ralph Waldo Ellison wrote the seminal novel The Invisible Man, a book that explored some of social and philosophical issues facing Black Americans during that time. At UFC on ESPN 4, another Black man, Leon Edwards, picked up the biggest win of his career in front of an audience of millions, and yet, like the unnamed protagonist of Ellison’s text, could not shake the air of invisibility that has characterized his UFC tenure. Even as he continues to put together wins, it’s proven difficult for Edwards to shed the cloak of negativity that surrounds him.

The opening chapter of Ellison's novel describes a brutal, barbaric, blindfolded "battle royal" of black boys boxing which the book's main character participates in to receive a much-needed scholarship. As powerful white men from the town look on -- "bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants" -- yelling vulgarities and racial invective at the degrading display, this desparate violence performed without deliberation or intention feeds the decadent appetites of the onlookers at the cost of the dignity of everyone in the ring.

On Saturday night, Edwards shared twenty-five minutes in the Octagon with Rafael dos Anjos, where the Jamaican-born Englishman controlled the bout, outworking the former UFC Lightweight Champion in every aspect of the sport, even controlling the wrestling and ground areas. Instead of blind desparation, there was tactical precision. Instead of brutality, there was strategy. After five rounds, Edwards procured a win that should've landed Edwards a spot on the shortlist for a title shot, or at least a top five opponent in the future. But this is prizefighting, and because his fighting style is the antithesis of what “gets over” with not only the mainstream UFC fan, but UFC brass as well, one can expect Edwards to be overlooked.

To gain an insight into the kind of fighting that the UFC's fans and management do want to see, one need only tune in to ESPN+ for the Dana White Tuesday Night Contender Series. This is the platform that the promotion uses to find breakout talent who have yet to make their way into the Octagon. UFC President Dana White awards UFC contracts to fighters who impress him, and in recent weeks we’ve seen him criticize fighters who attempt takedowns at key moments in fights, a strategy that’s often considered a “safer” way of competing, albeit a less brutal and punishing one. The individuals that employ this strategy often leave dejected, as that decision can cost them the contract opportunity. To many, “fighting safe and smart” isn’t welcome within the UFC.

That is what puts Edwards in such a conundrum. The 27-year-old fighter is an efficient tactician that has picked apart his opponents while making his climb through the rankings. He entered Saturday’s contest in the 12th position of the UFC's promotional rankings within the division, and he now sits in the fourth slot, behind only former champion Tyron Woodley, former interim champion Colby Covington, and Jorge Masvidal. It’s been nearly four years since Edwards has lost, and he’s defeated a bevy of important fighters during that run. But the title picture becomes fuzzier at the top, as no one is clamoring for Edwards to be foregrounded.

One might think that a fight between Edwards and Masvidal would be the next logical step for them. Their rankings may support that, but what Masvidal did to Ben Askren at UFC 239 brightened his star, and his postfight commentary and demeanor has only increased his profile. With the increased exposure, Masvidal is poised for a promotional push from an organization that needs more faces to put on posters. He's being talked about for a bout with Conor McGregor -- pairing him with Edwards wastes that visibility on someone who is largely invisible.

As for Woodley and Covington, both men are currently attempting to position themselves for a fight with Kamaru Usman, the last man to beat Edwards. It’s hard to see either man viewing a bout with Edwards as a step towards that, especially Covington, who faces a former champion in Robbie Lawler at UFC on ESPN 5, and who has made visibility at all costs his guiding principle throughout his UFC tenure.

That leaves only men ranked below Edwards as potential next opponents, and that's a risky proposition. Dos Anjos took a similar risk, and look how he fared. Edwards may not have a choice in the matter –- very few fighters ever do –- but there are few options other than remaining active, and that isn’t enough to guarantee a title opportunity. Max Holloway and Tony Ferguson both put together epic win streaks before getting cracks at the belt (and in the case of Ferguson, only an interim title). Ferguson and Holloway are finishers that put together highlight-reel finishes. Edwards isn’t that; only three of his ten UFC wins have come via stoppage. In today’s MMA climate, that’s not enough to get on anybody's radar.

Since joining the UFC five years ago, Leon Edwards has put together a 10-2 record. But he is currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the 170-pound title picture. To garner the attention he needs from fans -- to turn their collective eyes and earn a bigger prize -- Edwards may need to bring the kind of desperation and brutality to his next fight that Ellison`s protagonist did when he fought blindfolded, as unrefined and undignified as that might sound. To do otherwise might keep Edwards where he is --invisible to most.

Rafael dos Anjos vs. Leon Edwards: Leon Edwards def. Rafael dos Anjos via unanimous decision (50-45, 49-46, 49-46).

UFC on ESPN 4: Dos Anjos vs. Edwards took place July 20, 2019 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN 4 Post-Fight Analysis

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