UFC 263 – Nate Diaz affords Leon Edwards an opportunity at one thing he missed

Late in the evening of March 19, 2019, there was a defining moment for two fighters who were both well-established in their careers. It happened at a UFC event in London, but the two men didn’t fight each other. At least not officially.

Leon Edwards had his scheduled bouts in the co-main event and showed what made him one of the top welterweight contenders by winning his seventh straight fight. Edwards’ split-decision win over Gunnar Nelson wasn’t particularly artful, but it kept the Jamaica-born Englishman on his toes.

Two title fights between well-known opponents are titled UFC 263. Israel Adesanya defends his middleweight title against Marvin Vettori, whom he defeated by split decision in April 2018. Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno will fight for the flyweight championship for the second time after a draw in December.

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Then came the headline fight, which was an opportunity for another British 170 pounder to get back into the race. Darren Till, who had weathered an unsuccessful title challenge months earlier, faced a fighter who hadn’t won in over two years. But this would be Jorge Masvidal’s night. He cut Till off in the second round with a long overhand left for a knockout, which left the spectators in the O2 Arena in stunned silence.

Minutes later, Masvidal was being interviewed backstage when Edwards passed by. They exchanged words, something unkind about a possible meeting on the street and what would happen if they met from head to toe. And then suddenly they were head to head. Masvidal had moved away from his interviewer and approached Edwards. Before anyone could intervene, there was a deluge of blows.

“So I’ll give him the threesome with a soda,” Masvidal said afterwards, ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, “and then just slide out of there.”

It is possible that Leon Edwards can turn a win over Nate Diaz into a title shot and the kind of star he has missed despite a hugely successful career. Brandon Magnus / Zuffa LLC / Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

These may sound like battle words, but in reality they were star-forming words. In a single night, after nearly 50 fights and 16 years of rising and falling pro, Masvidal had a stunning knockout and then penned a meme that was to have an even bigger impact.

Masvidal had a new sparkling aura that shone even brighter four months later when his well-placed flying knee flattened previously undefeated Ben Askren in five seconds, the fastest knockout in UFC history. Less than two months later, Masvidal was wearing a “BMF” belt specially designed by the UFC for his battle with one of the company’s biggest stars, Nate Diaz. From there, Masvidal went straight to a challenge from Kamaru Usman, and after losing that title shot he was rewarded with another just six weeks ago. Masvidal is a star and is treated like one.

And Edwards? What did he get out of the “three” combination? Well, he got a wound on his cheek. That’s it. OK, he also got an appointment in July 2019 at the Octagon with a former UFC champion, but Rafael dos Anjos found himself in the midst of an unsafe slide, four losses in five fights. When Edwards defeated RDA, it created no momentum at all. And Edwards has fought only once since, despite turning down an offer to challenge Usman on short notice last July over pandemic-related logistics problems in England.

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Edwards is the forgotten half of the Masvidal confrontation, just as he was a forgotten man among world terweights. At this point, his undefeated streak has reached nine fights. But it has become Exhibition A, which illustrates the martial arts truth that winning is not the most important thing. To be a star in the fighting game, you need something more. A range of stunning finishes. A way with words. Something that moves the needle.

Or, you need to find yourself in a cage with someone who has the star power to increase your visibility and help you get where you think you deserve.

This is the opportunity Edwards will have on Saturday when he meets Diaz at UFC 263 in Glendale, Arizona. Diaz hasn’t fought in the year and a half since his TKO loss to Masvidal, which was only his second fight since 2016. He was almost retired, but that didn’t extinguish the gleaming spotlight that followed him. There are two title fights at the top of the bill on Saturday, but the battle for Diaz has caught a lot of the attention. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that it is the first non-main event scheduled for five rounds in UFC history without a title at stake.

Sometimes the fighting game doesn’t follow a logical sequence. Edwards already has wins over dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone (faded before the “Cowboy”) and the 170-pounder Vicente Luque. Each of those wins should be a bigger thing than beating Diaz – Edwards is almost a 5-to-1 favorite – but that’s not the case and it’s nowhere near that. If Edwards wins this weekend, the sky’s the limit. He’d be well on his way to meet Usman, and that title fight could come soon if the UFC can’t come to terms with alleged next challenger Colby Covington.

Edwards’ victory over Rafael dos Anjos in 2019 did nothing to increase his star power. Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

A date with Diaz can change a person’s entire career history.

If anyone knows how groundbreaking Diaz is, it should be Edwards. Their paths crossed in 2015 on the night Edwards suffered his last loss – to Usman. That fight didn’t take place in the limelight that the matchup would be under today. It was an early run-up to a card that seemed out of the mill at the time, but was the best in retrospect. No fewer than six UFC champions competed that evening.

Dos Anjos defended his light belt in the main event. Junior dos Santos, a former heavyweight champion, was in the co-main. Also on the bill were four future champions: Usman, Charles Oliveira, and Valentina Shevchenko and Francis Ngannou, who made their Octagon debut.

So Edwards’ foreplay slot was buried under a lot of talent. It has been largely overlooked.

But on the battle map was the name of another non-champion that no one overlooked. Nate Diaz was on the map – the main map – and he made sure everyone remembered him.

His win over Michael Johnson was a boxing clinic with all the extras required – pointing, laughing, hands down, chin sticking out – that make Diaz fights a must. In this case, however, the fight wasn’t as memorable as the post-fight.

Nate Diaz is a must see on TV # UFC263 pic.twitter.com/Ros98vdGth

– ESPN MMA (@espnmma) June 6, 2021

When asked about his victory in the cage, Diaz took the conversation in a completely different direction. “You’re taking whatever I work for, Motherf-” Diaz yelled in a Conor McGregor callout out of left field. “And I’ll fight your fucking ass.”

Immediately, the sport had another attention-grabbing and star-making meme. After a battle card with half a dozen champions, all one wanted to talk about was Diaz. And the callout worked when Diaz and McGregor topped two of the greatest cards in the past decade.

This is the rocket fuel Leon Edwards will have available this weekend.

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