In 2019, Leon Edwards was booed in front of his home fans at the O2 Arena in London. On Saturday, he was celebrated in the same venue as potentially the greatest British mixed martial artist in history.
In earning a majority decision win over Kamaru Usman at UFC 286, Birmingham’s Edwards, 31, followed in fellow Briton Michael Bisping’s footsteps of defending a world title for the first time.
Should Edwards win his next fight, he will surpass Bisping as the Briton with the most UFC title defences.
The fans showed their love for Edwards throughout the event in London, chanting his nickname “Rocky” while passionately cheering every strike he landed on his Nigerian opponent, but it has not always been that way.
Only four years ago, the crowd sided with Edwards’ popular Icelandic opponent Gunnar Nelson and jeered the Briton as he fought his way to a split decision win.
“I took the longest road to get here. I’ve earned my respect the hard way. No one gave me nothing. It makes [this win] even more satisfying for me, my team, the UK and mixed martial arts,” said Edwards.
“It means the world to me. I feel it’s every kid’s dream, and to have it happen at 31 years old after such a rough patch in my career, it’s really the icing on the cake.”
‘I’m a kid born in Jamaica with nothing’
Edwards was born in Jamaica but moved to the UK around the age of nine.
In Jamaica, Edwards’ father was the leader of a gang which saw him exposed to drugs, gun violence and murder.
Edwards’ father brought his family – which included Edwards, his mother and his brother Fabian – to Britain for a safer upbringing, but tragedy would soon strike with his father killed in a shooting in London.
The loss caused a “spiral effect” which led Edwards into the world of gang violence in Birmingham, before finding a way out after joining an MMA gym at the age of 17.
Edwards never looked back.
“I’ve been through thick and thin and I truly believe the journey I’ve been through helped me be here,” he said.
“I’m a kid born in Jamaica with nothing. My dad was involved in gang crime. A single mum raised me. It’s a great story to tell, and to make my son proud of me for what I’m doing, means the world to me.”
After joining the UFC in 2014, Edwards’ hit a bump when he suffered defeat by Usman in 2015.
Edwards has said previously that was the moment he knew he could beat the 35-year-old.
He then embarked on a 12-fight unbeaten run which has included winning the title from and then defending it against Usman, while also overcoming the disappointment of multiple fight cancellations and being removed from the UFC rankings in 2020 because of inactivity.
Edwards has never been as outspoken as most other UFC champions, instead preferring to let his fighting do the talking, but in winning over and capturing the hearts of MMA fans, he has shown how embracing your personality can reap rewards.
UFC president Dana White says Edwards’ title-winning story is a “game changer” for the UK.
“England has a world champion, looks like we’ll be doing a lot more title fights here,” he said.
“If the champion fights three times a year and we do him over here in London, it makes sense.
“The first time we came over here was in 2002. We came to Manchester and that started the explosion over here. Now we have a champion bringing title fights over here, it’s a game changer for the UK.”
What’s next for Edwards?
White said in his post-fight news conference that American welterweight Colby Covington will get the next shot at Edwards’ belt.
Covington, 35, weighed in as the backup for the main event in London and was sat cageside at the O2 Arena.
However, it is not a decision with which Edwards agrees.
“I don’t know how that makes sense. He’s not fought for over a year and half,” said Edwards.
“I don’t know how he gets a title shot when there’s other guys who have been active and deserve a shot and didn’t sit out. I’m the king now and I feel I should decide who’s next.”
Another fighter who has been touted as a potential opponent for Edwards is Jorge Masvidal.
Masvidal and Edwards have history, with the American striking Edwards backstage following his win over Nelson in 2019.
The pair were due to meet in December 2021 but Masvidal pulled out with injury.
He will fight Gilbert Burns in Miami next month – a fight Edwards says he may attend.
“If Masvidal beats Gilbert that’s the fight to make, PPV [pay-per=view] wise,” said Edwards.
“I feel like there’s a storyline to tell. If he gets the job done, I’ll consider it.
“But anyone can get it. I’m the champion, I’m still young. Prove your case in the division and I’ll fight you.”