UFC 304: Key questions and analysis on Aspinall-Blaydes, Edwards-Muhammad


The UFC will put two titles up for grabs in the form of rematches as the promotion returns to Manchester, England, in July for UFC 304.

Leon Edwards, ranked No. 2 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings, will defend his welterweight title against Belal Muhammad, ESPN’s No. 3-ranked welterweight. Edwards and Muhammad faced off back in March 2021, but the bout was ruled a no contest after an accidental eye poke from Edwards early in Round 2 rendered Muhammad unable to continue.

Both men will go into UFC 304 with impressive unbeaten streaks. Edwards has not lost in 13 straight fights, while Muhammad sits at 10 in a row without a loss.

Tom Aspinall will defend his interim heavyweight title against Curtis Blaydes in the other title fight. Blaydes, ranked No. 4 in ESPN’s heavyweight rankings, defeated Aspinall in just 15 seconds after Aspinall severely injured his knee after bringing the leg back from an outside leg kick.

There’s a hometown angle to these title fights, as Aspinall is from Greater Manchester and Edwards is from fewer than 90 miles south in Birmingham.

As both fights are now official, questions remain. Is this the best interim heavyweight title the UFC could make? Which current champion should most be on upset alert? What chances do betting experts give the title challengers?

We tapped MMA reporters Brett Okamoto, Andreas Hale and Jeff Wagenheim, along with betting expert Ian Parker, for their answers to critical questions about the matchups and impending storylines.

Which champion is more likely to retain the title: Aspinall or Edwards?

Hale: Aspinall. Edwards’ title defense against Muhammad is far from a gimme fight. But Aspinall is firing on all cylinders at the right time and looking to avenge the only loss of his UFC tenure, the result of a freak knee injury.

First and foremost, defending an interim title is ridiculous. The entire concept of the interim title is to unify with the champion, but Jon Jones is clearly uninterested in facing Aspinall at the moment. With the UFC heading to Manchester, though, Aspinall simply had to be on the card. However, one wonders if the UFC has concerns about the interim situation getting further muddled if Aspinall loses.

Blaydes is the only opponent that made sense, and the rematch narrative helps explain why this title defense is happening in the first place. But Aspinall is operating on another level these days, and that will likely see him finish Blaydes. It’s just really, really difficult to see a winning path for Blaydes, who is prone to getting knocked out by big punchers. Sergei Pavlovich, Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou all wrecked Blaydes relatively easily. Aspinall’s strengths are his boxing and power, whereas Blaydes’s methods lean towards wrestling. If Blaydes can’t get the fight to the ground, it might be a quick night for the challenger.

This fight keeps Aspinall busy, satiating what is expected to be a rowdy crowd in Manchester with their hero performing. Then, they can wait to see how the Jones situation plays out before deciding whether or not Aspinall will be elevated to full champion or fight to unify the belts.

Is this the best interim title fight the UFC could make?



Aspinall: I’m the new breed of heavyweights in the UFC

Tom Aspinall explains how he is taking inspiration from Leon Edwards’ journey to UFC gold.

Okamoto: Sure. Not to be a downer here, but the whole concept of defending an interim title in the first place is a bit of a hard sell. The interim champion, Aspinall, is ready to go. The official champion, Jones, should be ready later this year. They should be fighting each other. The fact Jones will fight someone else — instead of the interim champion — makes the interim title feel made up. But hey, we understand why it’s happening. Jones is a legend, the greatest of all time, and wants to face a fellow legend in Stipe Miocic. I might not think it’s the best fight, but I understand why it’s happening.

So, who was there for Aspinall to fight? Ciryl Gane was the UFC’s first choice, and that would have been fun, for sure. England vs. France. Gane’s quick, technical style on the feet is generally considered more entertaining than Blaydes’ traditional boxing-wrestling approach. But Blaydes certainly deserves the opportunity, and there is the story of unfinished business, given what happened when they fought in 2022. Had the UFC chosen to move light heavyweight champ Alex Pereira up for a chance to win an interim title, anticipation would have gone through the roof. But if we’re being honest, that would not have been the best thing for either division.

Both fights are rematches, how does past history impact these matchups?

Wagenheim: I love a rematch, because even though we lose the mystery that comes when fighters meet for the first time, we get to see fighter IQ on display. Who learned the most from the first fight? Who makes better adjustments?

With these two fights, though, we can mostly discard that. Blaydes-Aspinall 1 lasted all of 15 seconds before Aspinall blew out his knee and it was over. Edwards-Muhammad 1 went just over a round before an Edwards eye poke turned the fight into a no contest. Edwards was clearly in control while it lasted, landing several crisp, straight punches, drawing blood with a head kick and absorbing zero damage. But Muhammad was far from a beaten man, with four rounds ahead.

The history that will impact these rematches is each man’s progression since the first fights. After a year away from the cage to rehab his knee, Aspinall has got right back on track with a pair of first-round knockouts, the most recent coming in November against Pavlovich. Blaydes’ results have been mixed: a TKO loss to Pavlovich and a resilient win over surging Jailton Almeida. As for Edwards and Muhammad, both are unbeaten since they fought each other, but Edwards has higher-profile victories, including a 2022 dethroning of Kamaru Usman and a win in their rematch last year.

Edwards owns the belt and the look of a champion, and the same goes for Aspinall — there’s nothing “interim” about his championship standing among heavyweights. I believe the two Englishmen come into their rematches with an edge, and they will be further buoyed by fighting in front of what past Manchester events suggest will be a raucous home crowd.

First bets and potential odds for both title fights

Ian Parker: Here is how I would start the moneyline odds for each fighter to win at UFC 304, along with my first thought on how to bet each matchup.

Aspinall -300. Blaydes +220. Aspinall inside the distance. The reality is that where Blaydes is good, Aspinall is better, and barring another freak injury, Aspinall gets this done in under two rounds. We have seen Blaydes finished before, and if he can’t put Aspinall on his back, he is going to be in trouble on the feet.

Edwards -250. Muhammad +190. Over 4.5 rounds/goes the distance. Even with the KO over Usman, it came at the end of the fifth round for Edwards. Edwards tends to lack finishing urgency and fights to win versus to please the crowd. Muhammad will push the pace and try to turn this into a wrestling match, resulting in a lot of clinch time against the cage. Whoever wins, it will be by decision, as both fighters are durable with great gas tanks.

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