Monday Mailbag: Who will end the reign of King Leon Edwards?

UFC 296 went down on Saturday in Las Vegas and the final fight card of 2023 gave us plenty to talk about. Leon Edwards defended his title, Colby Covington looked impotent, Alexandre Pantoja keeps on winning, Shavkat Rakhmonov made a statement, and Josh Emmett almost killed a guy. There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s talk about all of it.

Next up

I guess we’ll kick things off right at the top with what comes next for the welterweight champion. And while I would have been pretty surprised for this to be the case even a month ago, it seems clear that the answer is Belal Muhammad.

Let’s be clear, Muhammad deserves to be next in line, but it just seemed so unlikely that he would actually get a title shot. He’s not particularly popular, Edwards continues to no-sell him (idiotically, I might add), and there were two rising welterweight stars set to compete on UFC 296 that had a good shot at usurping him. But somehow everything broke right for Belal and he’s the obvious frontrunner right now.

Edwards’ performance was thoroughly underwhelming and any notion of moving to 185 is completely off the table, Ian Garry got sick and withdrew from the card, and Shavkat delivered a terrific performance that somehow bothered people (more on that later) and apparently entered his fight with an ankle injury that needs surgery. Process of elimination leaves Muhammad in the spot that meritocracy should have put him in all along: Waiting on a date for the UFC’s return to England, because that’s where the next welterweight title fight is happening. I hope his passport is up to date.

Shavkat Rakhmonov

As laid out above, Shavkat is probably looking at some time away due to injury, but that actually works out for him here. In the absence of other contenders, Shavkat has already done enough to warrant a title shot, and so, while Leon and Belal settle up, Shavkat can simply wait on the sidelines with dibs on the winner. And if I had to guess right now I’d say Leon wins that fight, so let’s talk about Leon vs. Shavkat.

Shavkat can absolutely stand with Leon. Leon is a very good striker but he has a major weakness in that he’s so outrageously low-volume and not the most dangerous one-shot artist (I know he has the head kick and it’s great, but it’s also one fight in 26) that it allows people who are worse than him to still be competitive. (Mike) Heck, just look at Saturday! Statistically, Covington was right there with him and Colby is a worse striker than Shavkat. Shavkat can absolutely compete with Leon on the feet and maybe even win there.

As for the ground game, full credit to Edwards. He has become a very strong defensive and offensive grappler, but I’m still putting my money on Shavkat on the floor. He’s the unique sort of grappler that not only has dominant control spots but he threatens a finish at almost every moment of the exchange. Just look at the way he ended Stephen Thompson. “Wonderboy” had never been submitted in his entire career and Shavkat just effortlessly choked him once things hit the ground. He’s a cut above in this regard and if Leon gets put on his back, he’s in absolute peril.

But shout out to all the people who were absolutely convinced Colby would dominate the grappling because he was a D-1 All-American 12 years ago and Leon is British. Way to really have nuanced takes about things.

End of the Leon Era

So if I had to handicap it, Shavkat wouldn’t be my first choice, only because, as discussed, Belal gets first crack at it, and while I think Leon will win that fight, I am by no means sure of that.

Belal has a legit shot to take the title off Leon for two reasons. First, he’s darn good. The man has one loss in his last 15 fights and has put together five dominant wins since the no-contest with Leon two years ago. He’s well-rounded, has excellent cardio, and pushes a much higher pace than Leon. All of that makes him a live underdog. But the real kicker is that Leon is a fighter begging to be upset.

I harp on this a lot on the various shows from this website, but “fighting safe” is a bad way to fight. Not from an entertainment perspective (though it’s also that), but purely from a game theory standpoint. Think about it like this: In MMA, every second, both parties have a chance to immediately win or lose. The shorter the fight is, the less opportunity exists for both parties. But if one party is not a threat for sudden and immediate victory by virtue of the way they fight (Leon), then the longer the fight goes, the more opportunity there is for that party to lose. The safest course of action in any fight is to end it as soon as possible. Just look at what nearly happened with Nate Diaz! (Mike) Heck, look what could’ve happened with Colby. Colby won the fifth round, and with a cadre of terrible judges, Leon could’ve been robbed on the cards. It’s not like he did a lot in any of those first four rounds. By refusing to put the pedal down and really start going after Covington when he was not doing anything at all, Leon created more opportunity for failure.

It’s really, really, really hard to be perfect for 25 minutes. Thus far Leon has pulled it off, but if he keeps trying to eke out wins, things go awry sooner rather than later. Look at Israel Adesanya. He tried to be perfect against Alex Pereira and lost his belt as a result. Then when they ran it back, he invited more exchanges, opened himself up to getting hit more so he could land his own shots, and slept Pereira in the second round. Belal might be the type of opponent you can get away with this point-fighting style against, but Shavkat is exactly the opposite of that, and if Leon doesn’t get a little meaner in there, Shavkat is going to be the one to upend him.

Colby Covington

The most obvious answer for this is that Colby Covington is 35 years old and hadn’t fought in almost two years. That’s not exactly young and that is exactly a long time off from the cage. For all Dominick Cruz doesn’t believe in it, we have eyeballs and we’ve seen it plenty of times: Ring rust is real. For the first two rounds, Colby looked like a man in a fist fight who hadn’t been in one in a while and was trying to figure it out again. Fighting isn’t exactly like riding a bike.

On top of that, being old makes everything harder and I’m inclined to believe that was a major player as well. Father Time comes for us all, and while some men can stave it off better than others, the signs are usually the same across the board when it happens: Reactions slow, explosivity diminishes, and hesitancy becomes apparent. As you get older you still can do the things you once did, but it’s slower, harder, less. The brain doesn’t trigger as fast anymore and so you might see a window to shoot a takedown, for instance, but by the time your body reacts, that window is gone and so you don’t even try.

Covington’s game is one that can age gracefully, to a point. Because he’s not heavily reliant on fast-twitch muscles and reactions, and because cardio tends to be something you can maintain at any age, he can make hay for years to come, just not at the highest levels. Look at guys like Clay Guida and Jim Miller, in their 40s and still getting quality wins, just not over elite opposition. That’s where Colby seems headed.


Yeah, so Ian Garry is the answer here. I know he’s getting it in the teeth right now online, but the people who are doing so are real troglodytes, and that might be giving them too much credit. Garry is the dude at welterweight right now with the right combination of personality and skills to lift the division up to being among the most high-profile in the promotion.

I love Shavkat but the man is not dynamite on the mic and Leon seems determined to be the least interesting version of himself he can possibly be at all times (when the best quote the UFC can put on a promo poster for you is, “Let’s see who’s next,” you are in desperate need of a charisma transplant), so both of them are out. Belal ain’t it and he’s too old to have a long run at the top anyway. Sean Brady has the most generic name in the history of combat (think about it, I bet you went to school with a Sean Brady). And everyone else is past it already. Jack Della Maddalena I guess is in the conversation, but he’s also not the most interesting man in the world with a mic in his hands.

Love him or hate him, Garry gets reactions every time he’s in a room, and he can fight his ass off. He’s the best bet.

Alexandre Pantoja.

Damn, this is already long. We’re gonna speed run the rest of these so this isn’t 5,000 words.

Pantoja is going to fight the winner of Brandon Moreno vs. Amir Albazi. If Moreno wins, that’s kind of lame (since he’s 3-0 over him and all), but no one will complain because their fight earlier this year is one of the best of the year. And Albazi will deserve it if he gets the win.

No, Tagir Ulanbekov is not the real deal. Soldi win over Cody Durden and a gaudy record, but he’s already 32, and 32 at flyweight is like 36 at welterweight. But he can probably crack the top 10 with good matchmaking.

Bryce Mitchell

Honestly, I would like to see him retire. Josh Emmett’s KO of Mitchell is one of the scariest ones I’ve ever seen in MMA, and I’ve been following this sport intently for 20 years. It’s a life-changing knockout. I had some legitimate worry that this would be one of those things that happens in boxing where the fighter ultimately wakes up and is fine on fight night, but later something catastrophic happens. Mitchell does not get paid enough to take on that risk.

That being said, I know he won’t retire and that’s fine. It’s his life and he gets to choose how to live it. But he should not come back for a full year. The body isn’t meant to sustain injury like that. Give it plenty of time to recover.

Cody Garbrandt

Congrats to Garbrandt who showed off some vintage form, knocking out Brian Kelleher in the first round, but for all those “No Love” fans who are pumped about Cody being back, I’d hold your horses a bit.

I said heading into this fight that it was perfect matchmaking because it was an obvious setup for Garbrandt to show out, and that’s exactly what happened. Keller isn’t particularly dangerous on the feet and Cody is much faster, so there was really not a lot of ways for this to go wrong for the former champion. However, if he gets what he asked for after the fight — a matchup with former flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo — that’s going to be a problem. Garbrandt’s fatal flaw is that he simply cannot stand up to heavy fire coming back at him, and buddy, let me tell you, Figgy Smalls has that firepower. He also does have a chin than can withstand Cody’s shots, sooooooo, it’s probably not gonna go as well for “No Love” his next time out.

Five Rounds

And to close it all out, a quick hitter section.

  1. Maybe a little bit? Casey O’Neill is still young, so there’s plenty of upside, but Ariane Lipski sort of ran through her and she’s had her own struggles. I’m willing to believe, though, that this was more a case of Lipski has turned a corner (she’s 3-0 in 2023) and that O’Neill just got on the wrong end of things. But she didn’t look good.
  2. It’s tough because most refs are not good, but he’s probably in pole position at the moment. Tognoni’s absolute refusal to do anything about fouling is infuriating. He warned Ulanbekov about 43 times for toes in the cage, and did nothing about it. Just kept saying don’t do that. Dude didn’t even do the stupid thing where they go slap the hand/foot away from the fence. Just speaking into the wind for no reason.
  3. Yep. I had a moment of pause where I thought there was a chance we just witnessed the first death in the octagon. Eventually, that will happen (law of large numbers), and I’m not sure we’re ready for it when it does. Thank goodness it wasn’t Saturday.
  4. Commentary wasn’t good Saturday so I tuned out a bunch. Not sure what this is in reference to.
  5. Paddy Pimblett beat Tony Ferguson in 2023. I’m honestly not sure what that means. It’s more than nothing but not a lot more than that. Can’t knock him for it though. He did his job and, frankly, handled things with grace. Gotta respect that. And most importantly he put some distance between him and the Jared Gordon robbery. Now it’s back to business for “The Baddy.”

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again and see y’all next week.

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