Since its inception in 2017, Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) has been lauded for the opportunities it brings to young and up-and-coming talents competing on the regional scene. But in July of 2019, Adli Edwards (6-1) had to come to terms with a difficult and dismaying reality: he would have to pull out of his chance to compete on the Ultimate Job Interview.
Edwards — who takes on Jake Willyard (1-5) at Ultimate Battle Grounds 4 on October 3 — scored a unanimous decision win over then-undefeated Brendon Marotte (6-1) at Combat Zone 70 in April 2019. On the strength of the win, which capped a four-fight win streak, he was scheduled to meet DWCS veteran Terrance McKinney (7-3) as part of last year’s Contender Series schedule.
Unfortunately, Edwards had reaggravated an old injury during the fight with Marotte.
Edwards was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He knew opportunities like DWCS don’t come often, but with UFC President Dana White known to be hard to impress — and only keen to award contracts after finishes and explosive performances — he felt he couldn’t be at his best in his condition at the time.
“It was one of the toughest decisions ever made,” Edwards told MMA-Prospects. “I wanted to tough it out and fight, but on that show, they’re looking for exciting finishes. I thought I might grind out a win [but] I might not be able to finish the guy like I wanted to. Or worse, I could have taken the kind of damage that would have put me out. I thought I was so close that, hey, even if I [wait and] fight when I’m healthy, I’ll be able to get my shot.”
What Edwards didn’t expect was for that fight to still be the most recent one on his record entering September 2020. Edwards didn’t feel at his healthiest to compete again until the winter, but said he struggled to get paired with a suitable opponent once he did.
He had an eye on the DWCS season originally slated for this past spring, but his plan really fell apart once the MMA world was effectively shut down as part of the height of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“So, terrible timing, and, of course, just waiting till now until the fall season started and they don’t like how inactive I’ve been, I think,” Edwards said. “So, I had to get a fight and show I’m still here, and I’ve been training the whole time. I’ve been getting better and better, to be honest — better than I ever have. So, hopefully, I can show I’m right there in the mix still, and hopefully, get that call soon.”
What may be the most difficult part of missing out on last year’s DWCS season was turning down the chance to fulfill a dream over 15 years in the making. The 31-year-old Edwards began training jiu-jitsu during his freshman year of high school and got so attached to the craft that he became determined to become a professional MMA fighter.
“It got me to join my high school wrestling team. I wrestled through college [at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio], but the goal was always to be an MMA fighter and fight in the UFC, like everybody, trying to dream of being a world champion,” Edwards said. “I think there’s a lot of things that drawn me to it. It’s definitely fun; I definitely enjoy it a lot. I’m not really in it for the money, or the fame, or anything like that, but that definitely helps. It’s fun trying to compete at the highest level for sure, but it’s just been interesting to me. I think it’s a really fun puzzle to try to solve.
“I’m definitely a competitor, and I think you don’t really get a better type of competition, a better form of competition — or a more pure type of competition I should say — than being trapped in a cage trying to fight with somebody.”
Edwards made his amateur MMA debut in Ohio in September 2012, while still competing as a college wrestler. He competed in nine amateur bouts between 2012 and 2016, winning eight of them.
While not every MMA fighter tends to spend a lot of time on the amateur circuit, Edwards says it was a strategy that he and his coaches came up with while still in his wrestling days in order to become a more well-rounded fighter and fix any potential flaws in his game.
“It was a strategy we kind of came up with early in my career. I had a great grappling background, I had a good wrestling pedigree, I had a lot of things that I knew were immediately [going to come easily]. I had UFC-trained fighters from the get-go, and Bellator vets, guys like that. I knew my A-game and things I was good at, was good enough to [win], but I had a lot of holes in my game I wanted to fix.
“We really spent the time, a lot of fights we would try to drag out over three rounds rather than finish the guy in a minute — because I wanted that match time, I wanted that ring time, I wanted to fix the weaknesses. Sometimes you’re only as strong as that weakest link, so we wanted to make sure I had a complete game. That way when I get into the UFC, and I started getting exposed, I wasn’t going to [have to] revisit the draft board.”
What also played a role in that, according to Edwards, was that he was the victim of amateur opponents pulling out the day before, or the day of, events he was booked for.
“Unfortunately, I always had the problem of having a hard time getting fights,” Edwards said. “They’re pretty spread out, unfortunately; a fight here, a fight there. I can’t even tell you how many times I showed up to fight, and after weighing in, the guys would bail out and no show. So, I’ve been at it for a while. I’ve been training forever. I’m hoping as I get higher up in the rankings and fight better opposition here, that happens less and less; I gotta be more active.”
Edwards finally did officially turn pro in October 2016, defeating Ken Beverly (9-5) by unanimous decision at Justified Defiance Fight Series 3, and then he scored his first finish with a first-round TKO of David Moore (3-3) just over six months later.
Edwards suffered his first pro loss at CFFC 66, dropping a split decision to Ryan Cafaro (7-5), but he’ll enter this fight with Willyard on a four-fight winning streak.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced gym closures across the nation not long after Edwards began to feel healthy again, he didn’t have to suffer too much from its effects. A wrestling and conditioning coach outside the cage, Edwards used his home gym to stay in shape.
Additionally, during that timespan, Edwards was able to learn from Ultimate Fighter, UFC, and Bellator veteran Marcus Davis (22-11, 1 NC), a longtime staple of the sport.
Davis, who also competed in boxing and kickboxing and was known for his striking game in the cage, was able to assist the ground-based Edwards in his stand-up game.
“[Davis] lives locally, and it was awesome because he works a gym as well. I think he had a lighter workload [during the pandemic]; I did as well,” Edwards said. “And he was able to spend a ton of time taking me under his wing, showing me a lot of these veteran tricks. I’m really excited to showcase how much better my striking’s [gotten]. Over the summer, we did a lot of work, and I think it’s gonna be paying dividends in the next couple of fights.”
Desperate for the opportunity to fight again — healthy, looking to show off new-found skills, and seeking a second Contender Series chance — Edwards came across an announcement from local promotion Ultimate Battle Grounds, looking for fighters who would be willing to compete.
And when Edwards heard back from the promotion, he was able to talk to its promoter — UFC’s current No. 7 ranked middleweight Derek Brunson.
And in his talks with the middleweight contender, the two were able to connect well with their similar wrestling backgrounds, and Edwards got to learn a thing or two from him as well.
“We started talking shop; we were both [NCAA] Division-II wrestlers back in the day, so we were chopping up a little bit about that,” Edwards said. “He gave me some names that were potential opponents. The first guy that said yes, we locked on. I just want to show a showcase of skills and show them here.”
Edwards’ opponent at Ultimate Battle Grounds 4, Willyard, has done a lot more of getting finished, to say the least. After a 4-17 record on the amateur scene between 2014 and 2018, Willyard turned pro in May 2018 and will enter the fight with Edwards at 1-5.
Willyard, in fact, has not made it past the 78-second mark of any of his professional fights, with four of his five losses coming by submission. His lone pro win, which came in June 2019 against Cody Abbott (0-1), was also a submission.
Willyard was most recently seen at Shamrock FC 327 in January, where he was submitted by a then 0-2 Kevin Mueller in 30 seconds.
For Edwards, however, it’s not about the number of fights or finishes, wins or losses, or strategies that his opponent has. For him, it’s a matter of getting back in the cage and being active again and showing that he’s evolved even further as a fighter and deserves another crack at earning a UFC contract.
“I’m just trying to get in there and get in my flow. I just want to do my thing zone in and let the fight finish how it finishes. I expect it to be a first-round finish. I’m feeling, honestly, stronger, more explosive I’m bigger than I’ve ever been before. I’ve sharpened up a lot of different tools, and I’m gonna let him pick his poison,” said Edwards.
“I’m not really trying to change my training too much around him so much as making sure I’m as sharp as can be.”
Edwards knows White isn’t the kind of guy to give out second chances to every potential fighter, but he plans to bring such a big finish to the show that White will give him one more try at his dream.
“I think an explosive finish will do the trick,” Edwards said. “Hopefully, we can get something that looks great on a highlight reel. Obviously, sometimes what happens is out of my control – he is also in there – but I’m hoping it’s an exciting, explosive finish for sure.”
And now that the UFC will be hosting a second DWCS season in 2020, scheduled for November and December, the strategy for Edwards is to look impressive and stay healthy.
By doing this, he sees the chance to make a quick turnaround and compete on one of those DWCS cards later in the year.
“I think that lines up great,” Edwards said. “Hopefully, after that October fight, there’s plenty of time to get me lined up on one of these cards.”
Ultimate Battle Grounds 4 takes place at the Landmark Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.