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Utah is ready for UFC 278, but fighters Usman, Edwards might have preferred a different destination for their title bout

Once resigned to not fighting “somewhere dramatic,” the athletes are now adjusting to the altitude, the churches on every corner, and the apparently-loaded coffee.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC welterweight champion and No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter Kamaru Usman participates in the media day session on Aug. 17, 2022 ahead of the upcoming UFC 278 pay-per-view in Salt Lake City.

Back when it was announced that the UFC 278 pay-per-view would be held in Salt Lake City, both UFC president Dana White and Smith Entertainment Group chairman Ryan Smith went to great lengths to convince assembled reporters that it’s not that big a surprise that such a marquee MMA event would be staged here.

Some of the fighters who will compete on Saturday at Vivint Arena felt a little differently.

Leon Edwards, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but who lives and trains in Birmingham, England, will be challenging welterweight champion and pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman for the belt Saturday. He admitted that when he was informed that fight would be taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was initially a bit of a letdown.

“First of all, I didn’t know where it was. I asked my manager,” Edwards said. “When you’re a kid, you picture [winning] your first UFC title somewhere massive — it’s going to be in Vegas, it’s going to be in New York, somewhere dramatic. But the title is the title no matter where you put it. And I’m about to become world champion, so it is what it is.”

He added that he paid out of his own pocket for him and his team to come to Utah two weeks before the fight (instead of the traditional Tuesday before fight night) because he was worried about acclimating to both the time difference and the alleged altitude issues.

“Everyone’s told me about the elevation!” Edwards added. “Back home, I’m sleeping at sea level, you know? … But when I came out, I couldn’t tell no difference. It felt the same.”

Usman is originally from Auchi, Nigeria, but now trains out of Denver, so he’s at least familiar with the oft-forgotten Mountain Time Zone.

But even he didn’t foresee SLC as a venue for his sixth title defense.

“Initially, I was like, ‘Okay,’” Usman said, the emphasis on that last word (and his facial expression) conveying surprise. “But at the end of the day, my paycheck doesn’t really change, it stays the same. So we get to come out here and give Salt Lake City a treat. And if this fight goes anything like I’m imagining, it’ll be a tremendous fight that they’ll never forget in Salt Lake City.”

The champion, throughout his session, straddled the line between his cosmopolitan predilections and his alleged bucolic inclinations. One moment he was extolling the virtues of silk shirts, noting that he’ll soon go on a vacation that will include a stop at Fashion Week (to be held in New York, London, Milan, and Paris), and multiple times expressing a desire to “become bigger than Dwayne Johnson.” Then in the next breath, he was expressing fondness for his days as a collegiate wrestler at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, his new home in Colorado, and the “good, good, good people” that can be found in such places.

When asked his thoughts about his brief time in Salt Lake City thus far, he again got across that ambivalence.

“Good values and homegrown. And that’s what’s important to me now. Now, if you had asked me that question at 23, [scoffs], ‘S---, I want to be in Miami!’” Usman said. “But the things that are important to me now are family, and a good environment to raise a family and just be a good human.”

Luke Rockhold, out of Santa Cruz, Calif., conceded that his knowledge of Utah is pretty limited. He’s aware that Park City is “f—ing high” and “f—ing hot,” Salt Lake City is a “beautiful place,” he counts himself a friend of Orem-based ex-UFC fighter Ramsey Nijem, and he’s aware that Utah’s recent history with the UFC is not particularly impressive, especially given a disastrous Fight Night event staged at Vivint Arena back in August 2016 which drew fewer than 7,000 fans.

“I’m curious [how this will go]. I heard the last one was empty,” he said. “Hopefully there’s some people in the arena.”

Even if all the fighters weren’t necessarily buying into White’s rhetoric that “Salt Lake City has arrived,” is “booming” and “on fire right now,” and “becoming one of the better global destinations in the world,” there are still those on the card who were excited to come here.

Jose Aldo, a former two-time UFC featherweight champion from Manaus, Brazil, said he did some research on the place he’d be coming to for UFC 278 once the locale was announced.

And unlike Rockhold, he has zero concerns about what Saturday’s in-arena atmosphere will be like.

“I’ve been following what this city is all about as far as the sports fanbase here, because of the Utah Jazz, and I’ve seen how they are,” Aldo said through a translator. “And what I expect is for people to come out and be as rabid and as avid about [UFC 278] as they are about the Jazz. I think a lot of good things are going to happen.”

On the other hand, Tyson Pedro, a light heavyweight fighter from Sydney, Australia, didn’t need to research Utah. His father, originally from California, briefly served a Mormon mission to Australia and ultimately wound up moving there. Meanwhile, Pedro also has family members who have moved to Utah owing to their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“All my [extended] family’s here in Utah, all my aunties and uncles who I haven’t seen in like 15 years,” he said. “It’s nuts how it all works. I think I’m just attracted to Mormons or something, because we always end up back with them.”

He’s particularly enthused to fight in front of fans again. After missing nearly four years of his career due to a knee injury that wound up requiring three surgeries, Pedro wound up making his UFC comeback on April 23 — though his victory came in the UFC Apex complex, where the company has staged myriad events during the COVID-19 pandemic, owing to its extremely limited capacity. And so, he’s very keen to experience the rush of a live crowd again.

“I can’t wait to hear that cheer, man!” Pedro said. “Well, hopefully they cheer for me.”

Like Edwards, he acknowledged that coming to Utah has required making some adjustments. In his case, though, it has nothing to do with altitude or time zones.

First off, he finds it “crazy how many churches and temples there are — right next to each other.”

Of far more importance, though, has been his difficult acclimation to the local java.

“I do not know what you’re putting in the coffee over here, but that s— is strong-a—. That’s what crack’s got to feel like,” Pedro said, laughing. “The coffee’s definitely better [in Australia], but it’s a lot stronger over here. I think the black coffee here is nuts. You’ve got to settle down with that!”