Issue 206

June 2024

Leon Edwards is right where he was always destined to be seated atop the UFC welterweight division. With two successful title defenses into his championship reign, he is riding an incredible eight-year, 13-fight unbeaten streak. E. Spencer Kyte explains why he’s widely regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in mixed martial arts.

He is in a rare class in his field after having to navigate tragedy, trauma, and hard-scrabble upbringings to reach the biggest stage in the sport and achieve uncommon success.

But when you know Edwards’ story — even from the tiny bits he’s doled out or details collected from scattered conversations— there is no other way to think of it.

That’s not to say he hasn’t worked to get to where he is because he has; it’s just that with all the twists and turns, his life could have gone a different way. You can’t help but feel like there has been something cosmic, something greater helping to steer “Rocky” in the right direction, guiding the soft-spoken, highly skilled competitor to his place on the welterweight throne.


Edwards hasn’t spoken much about his life before discovering mixed martial arts and starting down the path that has carried him to being one of the best fighters in the sport today. The abridged version makes for fascinating reading. 

He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he lived in a one-room shack with his mother, father, and younger brother, Fabian. Poverty, drugs, and crime were daily surroundings. His father had a reputation and was into, as Edwards once described it to ESPN’s Marc Raimondi, “questionable activities.”

His father moved to London and sent for the family a few years later, with Edwards, his mother, and his brother settling in Birmingham, first in Aston and then Erdington. When he was 13, Edwards’ father was murdered in a London club, and he sank deeper into the gang life that had become day-to-day. Edwards mentioned some of the activities he was involved in, but the complete picture of what this time in his life entailed has remained undiscussed.

When he was 16 or 17, his mother brought him to the MMA gym that opened up in Erdington — the Ultimate Training Centre, or UTC — and his life took its first major turn.

“They’ve come from Kingston, Jamaica — and the roughest part of Jamaica, a place called Waltham Park; it’s a very dangerous place,” Dave Lovell says of Edwards and his family. “Basically, coming from a zinc tin to what the kid has achieved, it makes me so proud of him.”

Lovell worked as a boxing coach at the UTC when Edwards was brought there as a teenager. He’s also a fellow Jamaican immigrant who landed in Birmingham and knows first-hand how difficult it is to build something anew in a place where bad choices reside on every street corner.

“I met him as a teenager, watched him turn from a teenager into a mature man,” continues Lovell, now famous for his rousing corner work with Edwards at UFC 278, where he urged his fighter not to accept defeat heading into the fifth round of his championship clash with Kamaru Usman in Salt Lake City, Utah. “This kid was hungry, he wanted it, and I’ve seen his progression, nursed him along the way; showed him, mentored him, not just in fighting, but in some of life’s ups and downs.

“Obviously, me being around them for this amount of time, them interacting with my sons, I know the family — it’s just me as a father figure, and they could be my sons,” Lovell said of Edwards and his brother. “I just automatically look at them and take them on board; them and any of the lads that I’m involved with, you know? It’s just the situation with Leon and Fabian losing their dad early on in life maybe makes it more special.

“Overall, they’re my boys. I love them.”


Since they’re so inextricably linked, the connection between Edwards and Lovell just feels like one of those things that everyone in the MMA industry has come to accept, but pause for a second and think about its origins and how uncanny it truly is. 

A kid who had recently lost his father and was headed down the wrong path is brought into a gym where he meets a fellow Jamaican, a father figure who can help guide him as he embarks on this new journey.

John Gooden, the UFC broadcaster and producer who has been around the Birmingham duo frequently over the years, sums up the relationship nicely.

“I think I asked (Edwards) on Fight Day Focus, ‘If Dave wasn’t in your corner — was he the reason you turned around?’ and he was like, ‘Yep.’ But you can’t be turned around like that by your coach if he’s brand new if this is your first go-round.

“Clearly, Leon really respects Dave, but it feels like they’re on an equal pegging. They just bounce off one another quite nicely. Dave clearly can get through to him. He is a Jamaican man that came over, and he had it tough. Then to see and learn Leon’s story at the UTC — he’s a young Jamaican man and he took him under his wing.”

“Dave is like a father figure to me, has been with me for a long time, and has made a huge impact on my career,” Edwards says of Lovell, who also serves as a mentor, confidante, and constant travel companion in addition to being the welterweight champion’s chief corner. “Him believing in me means a lot and helped me believe in myself.”

And Lovell believed in Edwards from the hop.

“This kid is God-blessed,” offers the engaging coach, who is, as Gooden suggested, a captivating orator. “He’s a natural talent, same as his brother.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but Leon, in his youth, was a very skilled footballer. Fabian, as a youth, was a very skilled rugby player. I believe these guys, regardless of what sport they decided to take up, they would have excelled in it, just because of that God-blessed, natural talent.

“All he had to do was believe in himself, because he’s got the tools and the mindset to do what he wants in this game,” Lovell adds. “I just had to keep emphasizing that, re-drilling that in him. ‘You just keep winning, Son, and your time will come; you cannot be denied.’

“And the rest is history.”


It’s easy to look at where Edwards is now and imagine his journey into an inevitable march to the top of the welterweight division. To work backward from where we stand and re-write the story based on where it ended up would be a disservice to the perseverance he’s shown to reach the top of the welterweight division.

Edwards’ last loss came on December 19, 2015, in Orlando, Florida, on the preliminary card of what has aged into one of the most stacked UFC events ever.

He and Usman met for the first time in the third bout of the evening, with Usman earning a unanimous decision win with scores of 30-27 once and 29-28 twice. The winners of the first two bouts of the evening were the debuting Francis Ngannou and recent TUF grad Vicente Luque. The remainder of the event included victories by future champs Valentina Shevchenko and Charles Oliveira, Nathan Diaz’s famous callout of Conor McGregor after dispatching Michael Johnson, and Rafael Dos Anjos successfully defending the lightweight title against Donald Cerrone in the main event.

Think about how long ago that feels.

Edwards hasn’t lost since that night, yet it took until the summer of 2022 for him to get his first shot at championship gold.

After his loss to Usman, “Rocky” registered five straight wins, including a victory over Luque, to earn his first main event assignment — a five-round bout with Cerrone in Kallang, Singapore. “Cowboy” had snapped a three-fight slide against dangerous opposition and was positioned as the guy you needed to beat to break into the Top 15 and start facing established names consistently.

Edwards won the fight by unanimous decision, garnering 48-47 scores across the board to extend his winning streak to six and earn a step up in competition next time out. Nine months later, the UFC returned to London, and the Birmingham man was paired off with Gunnar Nelson, who earned an ovation on his way to the Octagon. At the same time, Edwards was booed by the boisterous British contingent that had packed The O2 Arena.

He won a split decision that never should have been scored a split decision, extending his winning streak to seven, setting up a main event showdown with Dos Anjos in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer.

The last two men that had beaten the Brazilian had fought for championship gold soon after, with Colby Covington besting him in an interim title fight and then winning one more following a long layoff before challenging for the undisputed title against Usman, who followed his win over Dos Anjos by dethroning Tyron Woodley to become champion.

It felt like Edwards was finally on the doorstep of getting a title opportunity. He won the fight by unanimous decision — 50-45 once and 49-46 twice — to push his winning streak to eight, and given his history with Usman, he felt like an obvious candidate to challenge for gold within a fight or two.

He was booked to fight Woodley in the main event of the UFC’s annual March trip to London. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the relocation and eventual cancellation of the event, eventually leading to additional obstacles between Edwards and his championship opportunity.


“As someone that is sent out as the producer, I can’t remember the last time I visited an individual fighter as many times as I had done Leon, and no one ever saw that footage,” says Gooden, who made multiple trips to Birmingham to capture footage and interviews with Edwards for fights that never materialized from March 2020 to when Edwards finally returned to the Octagon a year later.

“What we didn’t know at that point was that Woodley was there for the taking. Leon knew it, but the rest of us didn’t. From that point, Woodley went on a slide. You’ve got to be thinking, if you’re Leon Edwards, ‘That was my fight, man.’”

Following the cancellation of his bout with Woodley, Edwards was eventually paired off with rising star Khamzat Chimaev for a December 2020 main event. When Edwards tested positive for COVID, it was pushed back to January. When Chimaev continued to struggle following his own positive test, it was pushed back to March. When the undefeated prospect could not go by mid-February, the pairing was scrapped, and Chimaev was replaced by Belal Muhammad, an ascending grinder who had pushed his winning streak to five a month earlier.

After dominating the opening round, the bout was halted 18 seconds into the second round after Edwards accidentally poked Muhammad in the eye, and the Chicago native could not continue.

On the shuttle back to the hotel following the fight, Edwards called his mother as he always does, and the UFC cameras captured the agonizing moment.

“Every step of the way, in the present moment, I felt so bad for this kid; it just felt like he kept getting served up the most horrible luck,” says Gooden, tracing the timeline of events between what felt like Edwards’ opportunity to punch his ticket to a title clash with Usman and the frustrating result against Muhammad.

“I would literally say to him, ‘How are you?’ and he says, ‘This is God’s plan.’ I’d lean in a bit and say, ‘You can tell me,’ and he’d go, ‘This is God’s plan.’

“I mean f*** me — you really — if that’s how it’s done, brilliant, because if this was me, I would have fallen apart,” adds Gooden, breaking from his usual buttoned-up nature to make clear how impressed he was with Edwards’ resolve at the time. “He wasn’t earning any money either! And then look at what happened in the Belal fight, which is why I think we saw the outpouring of emotion with his mum.”

In the footage, Edwards begins speaking with his mum and is overcome with emotion, his head falling to his phone as the tears pour. Lovell is there consoling him, encouraging him, ever the stabilizing voice in his corner.

“That was definitely a hard time mentally, but I got stronger because of it,” Edwards says of the stretch of cancellations and the prematurely halted clash with Muhammad. “Looking back on that, I am thankful for how it made me stronger. In the end, everything worked out, and now I am on top.”

While Edwards offers succinct thoughts on that period, Lovell is a little more robust with his opinions about the impact of that stretch on his charge and society.

“That period you’re talking about was a positive and a negative,” begins Lovell. “The negative in it was obviously the pullouts, the COVID. The positives in it was Leon was learning his trade more — he was in the gym, training more, learning new skills.

“Mentally, Leon is very, very, very strong-minded. He knew the world was feeling it, and we understood what happened. He caught COVID, then Chimaev caught COVID, and it was just the way it was. Looking back now, hindsight, maybe that was the fulfillment of his journey, or part of it.

“It was a testing time for humanity, for everybody under every circumstance, and as a fighter, you can imagine taking a year, nearly two years out of your life; that’s a long time,” continues Lovell. “Leon handled it well, and we guided him through as a team. We knew what we needed to do to keep him focused, keep him on track. If it’s ever in doubt, he’s always got me on the end of the phone, and I gave him basically what I thought he needed to hear.

“Who’s to say if he took those fights and the circumstances were right that it would have ended up the way it did?” he asks, posing a perfect rhetorical. “Everybody is on the same journey, but there are different twists and turns in each fighter’s journey.”

The winding road next carried Edwards into a bout with Nathan Diaz at UFC 263 in June 2021, where the streaking contender from the Midlands dominated 24 minutes of the five-round co-main event before getting stung by a shot late in the fight that became the only thing people wanted to discuss about the contest.

Despite his unbeaten streak reaching double digits, Edwards was still penciled in for another non-title bout after besting Diaz, signing on to face long-standing rival Jorge Masvidal at UFC 269. A bout between the two seemed inevitable since their backstage encounter in London two years earlier. However, it never came to fruition, as Masvidal was forced to withdraw, and the bout was scrapped.

Finally, it was Edwards’ time.


“Listen — stop feeling sorry for your f***** self,” begins Lovell, getting in the face of Edwards in the corner between the fourth and fifth round of his UFC 278 championship clash with Usman. Edwards tells his coach, “I’m not,” while looking dejected on the stool, and Lovell presses him harder.

“Well, c’mon then! What’s wrong with you? You’re too f****** down! You’ve got to pull this one out of the fire. C’mon Leon, man! You got it! C’mon Leon! Let’s go! C’mon!”

The round progresses like the previous three rounds had, with Usman dictating the terms of engagement and getting the better of things, and Edwards is unsure of how to do anything about it.

“If it wasn’t obvious enough, Leon is broken now,” says Din Thomas. “The biggest tell is that he doesn’t give his coaches eye contact in the corner, and when you don’t give them eye contact, they’re ashamed, and he’s embarrassed right now with his own performance. This is how you know a fighter is broken, and Leon right now is broken.”

As the round progresses, Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier talk about the challenger being resigned to accepting defeat, suggesting that Edwards will be happy with going the distance against the dominant champion, who entered on a 15-fight winning streak and was looking to draw level with the great Anderson Silva for the longest winning streak in UFC history.

“But that’s not the cloth from which he is cut,” counters Jon Anik, right as Edwards uncorks a left high kick that catches Usman on the button and sends the champion crashing to the canvas.

Headshot. Dead.

Seven months later, in London, Edwards earned a majority decision win in the rematch, solidifying his place on the throne before successfully turning aside the challenge of Colby Covington at UFC 296 in December.

Later this month, he’ll defend the belt against Muhammad in the main event of UFC 304 at Co-op Live in Manchester, the final bout in what, on paper, is a showcase of much of the British talent on the UFC roster.

“Things have been crazy,” begins Edwards when asked how his world has changed since becoming champion. “More money, more opportunities, and more fame, but I do a good job and trying to keep life as normal as possible and keep my feet on the ground.”

As always, Lovell has a more detailed account of things.

“All these things come with being the champ, don’t they?” begins Lovell. “He’s had to do his media — his obligations to his sponsors, etc. — but he’s handling it perfectly okay. He doesn’t get carried away with it. Very rarely do you see him doing any kind of hype on the internet or anything.

“Leon just rolls with life, you know? He’s not one of these people that likes the razz-a-ma-tazz and the loudness — he’s a quieter person by nature. The fight game has put him in the spotlight now, and obviously, he’s got to deal with what he’s got to deal with because this is a business, so now he’s got to get his business head together.

“But that kid don’t take his eye off the ball, mate,” he adds, making it clear the champ has remained full focused on both the task at hand and maintaining his place atop the division long term. “He’s a calculated soldier — he knows what he’s about, knows his mission, goes about his business calculatedly.”

The victory not only changed Edwards’ life and the lives of those in his inner circle, but it also made Birmingham the hub for mixed martial arts in England and served as a beacon for those in the community that see the local fighter as an example of what is possible.

“Leon made a point out of doing it out of Birmingham,” says Gooden, who has been plugged into the UK and European MMA scene since his days on comms for Cage Warriors. “He was inspired by Vaughan Lee back in the day, and now it’s the place to go.

“Arnold Allen goes there. Christian Leroy Duncan goes there. Damir Hadzovic has been on the mats there. The Figlak Brothers go down there. Sam Patterson goes down there. It has now become one of the central points for European mixed martial arts.”

Gooden explains that Edwards has a commanding presence in the room — a natural leadership ability where everyone else looks to him for guidance and follow his lead — and while the fighter himself wasn’t keen on discussing his leadership role at Team Renegade, Lovell was more than happy to offer a few insights.

“Who else are you gonna look up to — he’s the defending world champion!” cackles Lovell. “There’s the guy with the tools, he’s talking perfectly okay, he’s looking good, not got a mark on him, and he’s a good mentor in the gym to the up-and-coming fighters.

“If a certain fighter walks into the gym and he’s had a fight, you’re always gonna get respect for it. Leon doing what he did and the fashion he did it — winning and defending his title now — it’s doesn’t get bigger than this. Me as a coach being a part of this, seeing Leon pass on his knowledge to these up-and-coming fighters it makes me feel proud.”

Edwards’ influence has been felt outside of the training room as well.

“It means a lot,” the champion says when asked about being a role model in his hometown, whether for youth navigating the same challenges he faced growing up or anyone else dealing with obstacles in their lives.

In regards to kids, Edwards points to his work with the UFC and OnSide, one of the leading youth charities in the U.K., in launching a mentoring program through several of the organization’s facilities prior to his championship win over Usman in 2022.

“If I can help just one kid that was in the same situation I was in, and show them there is a better way, then it will all be worth it.”

“The youth in the area all love him,” adds Lovell. “Any of the kids who are serious can look at this guy, who came from where they come from — and where we come from is a rough side of town — pull himself out of that, and show that with hard work, this is what you can achieve.”


Later this month, Edwards will defend his title on British soil for a second time, facing off with Muhammad in the main event of UFC 304 in Manchester.

It’s a rematch that has been a long time coming, and it's one that Muhammad has been hectoring Edwards about basically since the first time the two men shared the Octagon. After the Briton ascended to the welterweight thrown, the challenger’s calls to run things back have only continued to get louder.

“Yeah, Belal is tormenting him every single day, and Leon is online a lot,” laughs Gooden when asked about the pairing. “You might not see him posting, but he’s online a lot. I know he’s seeing this stuff.

“He laughs at a lot of it,” he adds. “I think he’s been through so much that this stuff doesn’t matter.”

Truth be told, the fight probably should have taken place last December. However, after Covington served as the backup fighter for Edwards’ rematch with Usman in London, the brash American was penciled in as the next in line to fight for the title, leaving Muhammad to sit on the sidelines and bide his time.

In some ways, there are parallels between the UFC 304 combatants, as the challenger will arrive in Manchester on a 10-fight unbeaten streak, having won five straight since their initial encounter and clearing each new obstacle placed in front of him on his way to finally securing a championship opportunity.

However, for Edwards, this is strictly about answering any lingering questions that remain from their first meeting and silencing the talkative Muhammad before continuing his pursuit of his next career goal.

“I’ll be happy to beat Belal and keep moving forward,” he says when asked about the fight. “He’s been doing a lot of talking, so it’s time for him to back it up. It will be good to clear that no contest and show again that I am levels above him.”

And when that is done?

“I want to go down as the greatest to ever do it - that is my motivation now.”

You can bet there's a legions of fans backing him to do just that.