Leon Edwards had not competed in nearly two years. This obviously was not the result he'd hoped for in his return.
Edwards accidentally poked Belal Muhammad in the right eye in the opening seconds of the second round Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. Muhammad dropped down immediately in pain and blood started to trickle from the eye.
The ringside physician entered the Octagon, and shortly thereafter, referee Herb Dean called the bout off. The official result was ruled a no contest because of the eye poke, with the bout ending at 18 seconds of the second round.
Edwards went for a combination, starting with a kick and finishing with a left hand. But his hand was open on the punch and his fingers struck Muhammad's right eye.
"I didn't mean to do it," Edwards said in his postfight interview. "I went for the cross-head kick. He stepped into it. I really apologize. I'd rather [have] a loss than that. I'm heartbroken. I don't know what to say."
Edwards had not fought since July 20, 2019, a span of 19 months. The layoff was due to COVID-19 lockdowns, canceled events, and he and his opponents testing positive for the coronavirus. When he left the cage Saturday, the incredibly unlucky Edwards said he only had questions for his team.
"What now?" Edwards said he asked them. "What do I do now? I went in focused on my next chapter to be the world champion. ... It's been a long year and a half. To come back to that, it's like ..."
Edwards looked terrific in the first round. He landed a big head kick that opened up a cut over Muhammad's right ear. Edwards also landed some hard left hands and one-two combinations. Muhammad's best strike was an elbow out of the clinch against the cage.
After the eye poke, Muhammad was in pain and visibly emotional, clearly wanting to continue but unable to do so. His right eye was already swelling up in the moments after the poke. Going in, ESPN had Edwards ranked No. 4 in the world at welterweight.
UFC president Dana White said this week that if Edwards beat Muhammad, he would be "100 percent" in line for a title shot. This was supposed to be his chance to vault himself back into divisional relevance after the long layoff.
UFC Fight Night took place with COVID-19 protocols in effect at the UFC Apex, a facility across the street from the promotion's corporate campus.
Edwards (18-3, 1 NC) had won eight straight fights leading into Saturday. His only loss in the past seven years came against current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in 2015. Edwards, a 29-year-old Jamaica native who fights out of Birmingham, England, owns victories over the likes of former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone and Vicente Luque.
"I have worked my way back up from getting defeated by Kamaru Usman," Edwards said. "I've fought everybody. I've opted to fight everybody. I believe I deserve a title shot next."
Muhammad (18-3, 1 NC) was on a four-fight winning streak. The Chicago native was coming off a unanimous decision win over Dhiego Lima just 28 days ago and took this bout on three weeks' notice after Khamzat Chimaev, Edwards' original opponent, withdrew because of long-term COVID-19 health complications.
Muhammad, 32, has just one loss in his past 10 fights. He later wrote on social media that his vision was coming back and his eye had no permanent damage. He wants a rematch with Edwards.
"My heart is shattered my first main event ended like that but Gods the best of planners im sorry to the fans and the UFC you deserved a full fight," Muhammad tweeted.