Leon Edwards: I kept waking up and thinking, ‘S***, the UFC title is in my house’

Of all the qualities that make Leon Edwards one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC, patience has perhaps been the most important.

It was Edwards’ patience that kept him in the sport of mixed martial arts throughout a period in which he was repeatedly denied rightful opportunities to earn a shot at welterweight gold, and on 20 August, it was patience that helped the Jamaican-born Briton retain focus and hope in his title fight with Kamaru Usman – all the way up to the final minute of the 25, when he took his old foe’s title and possibly a piece of his soul.

It was the kick that was heard around the MMA world but most deafeningly by Usman in the microseconds between Edwards’ shin cracking against his skull and consciousness flooding free from the Nigerian-American in Salt Lake City.

“It’s sunk in now,” Edwards says of his title win. “The first two or three weeks, though, I kept waking up and seeing the belt on my table and thinking: ‘Oh s***, the belt... the belt is in my house.’ But now I’ve got used to it, I’ve took it everywhere, shown it to everybody.

It’s a mad path to get there, my life’s been crazy. If you told me when I was born in Jamaica, in a war zone, that I’d be UFC champion... who could have said that would happen? It’s wild, even now I smile about it. I’m proud of myself for sticking through it – through all the ups and downs.”

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Edwards’ stunning welterweight title win saw the 31-year-old secure an unprecedented early takedown of Usman before himself suffering on the wrong end of the champion’s renowned wrestling skills for the majority of the fight. Edwards later admitted that the altitude in Utah seemed to have drained him of his energy, but with a loss seemingly imminent, Edwards slung a head kick Usman’s way and ended the bout in the most captivating fashion. The win also saw Edwards become Britain’s second ever UFC champion and avenge a 2015 decision loss to Usman.

Edwards knocked out Kamaru Usman in the final minute of their title fight (UFC Europe via Twitter)
Edwards knocked out Kamaru Usman in the final minute of their title fight (UFC Europe via Twitter)

“I’m a winner at heart, I hate to lose,” Edwards says. “To know that he was the last guy to beat me, that was defo extra motivation; I used that as fuel when I was tired and fatigued in training camp. It all just tied into the perfect motivation that I needed.”

The “Nigerian Nightmare” was a favourite over Edwards in their rematch this summer, not only because of his prior victory over “Rocky” – whose nickname has never been more fitting – but also because of a 19-fight win streak that included five straight successful title defences. A trilogy fight between Edwards and Usman looks a certainty, and UFC president Dana White has teased a first UK stadium show for the UFC to host the bout, for which Usman is still considered a favourite by many.

“Their opinions haven’t made a difference this far,” Edwards says. “I’ve been doubted my whole career. First they said I couldn’t get in the UFC, then they said I couldn’t crack top 15, top 10. ‘You ain’t gonna be champion.’ I’m at that stage now where there’s nothing I think I can’t do; everything they said I can’t do, I’ve done it. I don’t care that I’ve proved people wrong, but I’m happy that I’ve proved myself right.”

Edwards’ sole goal in MMA was to become UFC welterweight champion, meaning a decade-long journey came to its conclusion in August, leaving “Rocky” with a motivational cavity in the aftermatch of his rematch with Usman. It is a cavity he already knows how to fill, however.

“My goal is to be the best welterweight of all time. You do it by being a kid again, the kid I was the first day I walked into an MMA gym when I was 17 years old – the nerves, the excitement, wanting to train, getting there early. That’s what I need. I cannot get to this point now and think: ‘Okay, that's it.’ That’s not it. I set a goal to secure my family’s future and be the best of all time. That’s how I can be great again.

Edwards was emotional after his last-gasp title win in Utah (Getty Images)
Edwards was emotional after his last-gasp title win in Utah (Getty Images)

“I need to switch my mindframe to wanting to be the best. I need another goal to drive me, and that’s mine now: To be the best of all time. I truly believe I can do it. I’m gonna do it.”

Edwards could enhance his legacy with a clash against former dual-weight champion Conor McGregor, who is under the same management as Edwards. The Briton has said a super-fight with the Irishman would be “easy” to arrange, but the 31-year-old insists that McGregor is not “on my radar”.

“I’m focusing on the welterweights that are active now, the top five,” says Edwards, who is also “100 per cent” sure he would be the fan favourite against McGregor. “Do I think I’d win? One hundred per cent. I think I’d be the younger, better technical fighter, all-round fighter. But my focus is not on Conor at all, because I’ve got killers just there, active now – the [Khamzat] Chimaevs, the Usmans. They’re way more challenging, I think, than Conor McGregor – as far as technically-[speaking]. They offer more risk to me.”

Edwards is likely to return to the Octagon in the first quarter of next year, possibly for a third fight with Usman and potentially at Wembley Stadium in London. He might yet claim another title before then.

When asked whether he should be nominated for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award, Edwards laughs: “One hundred per cent. Who’s done what I’ve done in the UK this year? It’s one in a million – from Birmingham, doing it in the UK, in one of the biggest-growing sports in the world, inspiring generations and youth in other gyms.

“I think I 100 per cent should win it, or at least be nominated anyway!”