Exclusives Interviews 8 November 2022
Author: Andra

GRM Exclusive: Leon Edwards talks becoming world champion, life prior to MMA & his next fight

8 November 2022

Leon Edwards is now the World UFC welterweight champion, a title that was earned with a lot of sacrifice and came after a two-years string of unfortunate events, which made some deem his career ‘unlucky’.

The Jamaican-born fighter made history on the 21st of August when he defeated Kamaru Usman with a legendary head kick in the last round, after everyone thought the fight was already won by his opponent who was ahead of him on the scorecards.

The world saw the new World champion walk out the ring with the belt, leaving a confused Usman to gather himself as he later declared that Edwards gave him “a 20 minute nap”. That night went down in history both for what happened in the ring, and also as Edwards became the first Jamaican-born fighter and also the second British fighter in the history of UFC to ever become the World welterweight champion.

Four months after the historic fight, Leon Edwards talks about the moments in the ring, the weeks of preparation before the fight, and also his life story and what motivated him to get to where he is now, getting out of the road life and using his father’s passing as fuel. Take in the full conversation below!

Let’s take it back to the beginning: how did you get into this sport?

“I got involved into Mixed Martial Arts aged 17. My mum told me I have to go to the gym because I was getting into trouble. Police was also coming to the house so she was like “Alright, give it a go” to try and keep me away from hanging around in the street or getting into trouble. So that’s how I got involved in it, I went to the gym and I fell in love with it. I kept showing up and yeah, now here we are.”

Who was your inspiration when you first started training?

“Anderson Silva for a fighter, I think Anderson Silva was probably the first fighter that I looked up to thinking “He’s sick!”, you know, “He’s doing well!”, so yeah. But apart from that it was more about me changing my circumstance that motivated me to want to improve and want to get better.”

What sacrifices did you make to become a fighter?

“I missed a lot of partying! (laughs) When I was 17 all my friends were 18-19, all my friends were going on lads holidays and yeah.. I missed all that stage because I was always focused on competing and basically be who I am today. That was my main goal, you know, to become the World champion. So for me to do that, I had to make sacrifices as far as not partying all the time and overindulging in other stuff, you know, so yeah that’s the sacrifices that I made at a younger age that’s paid off now.”

Going back to your life in Jamaica, how did growing up there influence you?

“My life in Jamaica gave me the motivation and the drive to want more out of life, you know, me being born in Kingston, Jamaica – rough area, rough city and people being born in poverty. That’s what gave me the drive and the motivation to want to achieve more. I put it down to Jamaica – the way I think, how solid I am as a man.”

And what was it like when you first moved to the UK?

“Difficult! (laughs)  Because coming to a new country, you speak like broken English, patois, you get into a lot of fights in school when you’re young because kids are going to be kids and they’re going to make fun of the way you speak, so you’re always getting into fights and that, but apart from that it was a better life. A better environment from where I came from in Jamaica. It was safer than where I came from in Jamaica, so I was grateful for that part of it. As a kid it’s difficult because you kind of still enjoy being in the environment you grew up in because everyone lived the same way.”

Tell me about your teenage years over here, what challenges did you face and how did you accommodate here? 

“My teenage years I think is when I started getting into trouble. My dad got killed when I was 13 years old and from then I got involved in gangs. From then I went through a rebel stage, from 13 to 18 I’d say. And then I kind of changed my life over time and all my friends that I was getting into trouble with are now in the gym, they’re now doing different stuff with their life.”

How did getting caught up in the road life affect you?

“I wouldn’t say that it affected me, but I knew there was more to life than just being on the road, you know? I knew that so I had the opportunity to get into MMA and use that to change my life. I always knew that road entails, which is death, prison… I hardly know any person that’s won from being on the road, so I knew what was going to happen eventually, so now to be involved in MMA that’s what changed my life I would say.”

What part of it poured into your ambition to become a fighter?

“I think I get my mental toughness from that life, from struggle, that’s how I’ve built my mental toughness. Going through what other Jamaicans went through,  my teenage years, my dad getting murdered, that’s what built my mental toughness. It was hard at the time going through it, but now looking back at it that’s the reason why I’m so solid now as a man.

“It was bad I’d say, but it still built me into the person that I am today. I probably wouldn’t change it because look what I’ve achieved, look what I’m doing with my life now; so maybe if I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t be where I am.”

What advice do you have for other people trying to change their circumstances?

“I’d say find something that you like doing in life, not just fighting, it could be anything. [Find] your passion, dedicate yourself to that, put your mind to that and make a plan towards it, just work towards it. That’s what I did, I found what I like doing, dedicated myself to it, worked hard, showed up every day, studied it, everything was about MMA at the time. It still is but that was my world and I kind of manifested it into who I am today because I put all my energy into it.

“So it can be music, sports, [being a] lawyer, anything, whatever you like doing just do that, put all your energy into it and like I said, nobody wins on the road. I hardly know one person that’s won, eventually it’s going to catch up to you so just find what you like doing and do that.”

What role did your father’s passing play into who you are right now and your achievements?

“I think it played the main role, you know, because before he passed he came to the UK first. He brought me, my mum and my brother to the UK, so if he didn’t do that and he’d left us in Jamaica then I probably wouldn’t have been where I am today because I defo wouldn’t be doing MMA. That was one of his biggest achievements I would say, you know, taking his family out of the ghetto in Jamaica and bringing them to the UK for a better opportunity at life. Obviously his passing when I was young affected me, affected my family, we went through tough times but then we’ve all found our feet, so yeah.”

What was your upbringing like in Jamaica in the light of your father’s life and the things that you saw?

“In Jamaica my dad was the leader of the gang in the neighbourhood where I grew up so for me life was good (laughs) because my dad was the leader of the gang so everyone was showing me respect. Obviously he came to the UK before us so he was selling like remote controlled cars and that, bicycles. (laughs) Back in those days that was a big thing to have, to have like the first remote controlled car in the neighbourhood and stuff like that. That was like massive. So for me I thought it was a pretty good life. 

“Looking back now, as a man, I’ve got my own son now, it’s not a good life you know. I was living in a war zone, you know what I mean? But yeah, you’re used to your environment, right? If that’s what you’re used to, everyone around you lives the same way, you think that that’s just what life is. Obviously now stepping out of it, I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished and seen what I’ve seen in life, I just know that that’s not life, there’s struggles and it’s hard and [parents] they’re doing the best they can to give back to their kids and provide for their kids.”

Obviously you have a son now, what sort of path would you like him to follow?

“He can do what he likes, he’s good, you know what I mean? He’s never seen struggle, God willing he never will, so I want to give him the opportunity that he can choose whatever he likes. The opportunity is there. He’s always gonna have a crutch, that’s the main thing, that’s my main motivation, like he will never fail because of me. As long as it’s like that then he can be whatever he wants, you know.”

Do you think he’s going to become a fighter like you?

“He does Jiu Jitsu but I wouldn’t want him to be a fighter, not really. I don’t think he’d do it to be fair. He enjoys training but I can’t see him competing and I wouldn’t want him to compete. But I defo want him to train because you take a lot away from training. As a kid you get to mix with different kids, like different cultures, different races, you get to compete against other kids, you build up that nervousness that you normally get, it gives you confidence as a man.

“That’s important. So with what you get from training he can take it into other stuff that he wants to do in life so I told him “You have to do some kind of sport, you can’t just be sitting around and playing the PS5. You have to do something.” 

Your career was deemed unlucky for a while by the people in the industry. Looking at the string of events that led to where you are now, what do you have to say to these people?

“Look at me now! (laughs) I think that probably just made me tougher for this, to achieve this. I know it was hard going through it, it was frustrating, going through ups and downs in your career, you know? Before the pandemic I was on a nice tier, I got to headline my first main event in the UK but that got cancelled because of Covid. And from there it just went like this, like a rollercoaster.

“But I chose to start thinking “Ok, what can I control? I can control training”. Just show up to the gym and train. Everything that’s meant to play out will just play out. And that’s what I did, I just changed my mentality, I was turning to the gym – train, improve myself, get better. And that paid off. So when it was time to fight I’d already improved, in the last two years I’d been improving, so I was ready. Instead of sitting on the couch, moping about it, complaining “Oh, why me?” I felt “Ok, show up to the gym and train, just use that energy to train” and that’s what I did.”

You challenged Usman knowing that this fight could either bring you historical success or succumb you into an even darker place, what did this decision mean to you at the time?

“I think that’s just the sport, right? I approach all the fights the same, I don’t put Usman on a pedestal. A fight is a fight. Let’s say for example the fight before Nate Diaz, if someone out there got beat by Nate Diaz then the Usman fight wouldn’t have been an option, you know what I mean? So they’re all as important as each other. I don’t put no fight above no fight. It all leads into what I want to be, which is the best of all time. So I can’t treasure one over the other.

“Obviously the belt was on the line but take all that away it’s just me versus him and that’s it. I don’t overcomplicate and think “Oh, he’s the champion.” I think “Ok, it’s just another fight.” This is my fifth main event that I’ve done for the UFC. I’ve been here before, I’ve been the main event before, I’ve headlined around the world before, that’s just another guy I had to fight and that’s how I approach fights. I don’t overcomplicate it and think “Oh, this guy is some monster’, you know? (laughs)”

And how did you feel when it was confirmed that the fight was on?

“I felt “Finally!” (laughs) Like I said, the roller coaster of years and everything I went through and finally we’re here, we’ve matched up, we got dates, we got a venue, we know where it’s going to be so I thought “Finally!” I just put my energy into training and focusing on how to beat him and what I’ll need to do to beat him.”

What was the most challenging aspect of your preparation?

“The preparation in general! (laughs) All of it! Training is hard you know. To be training like two-three times a day is hard. It’s hard on your body, it’s tiring on your mind and you try to spend like family time as well so it is difficult. But yeah I think just training in general is hard, but if you’re trying to achieve anything it’s going to be hard. So I said to myself that it’s fine that it’s hard, that’s how it’s meant to be if you want to be great.”

Usman was ahead of you on the scorecards before you landed that head kick. How did you keep your spirits up during this time?

“I just knew that I was better. What it was, because I fought at altitude, it played a part in the fight, for the cardio, you know. Mentally I always try to win no matter what, even if I’m down on the scorecards I’ll keep coming until I win. But I think, like I said, my life prepared me for that moment. My mental toughness. Some guys would’ve just accepted it, accept the defeat. You’re down four rounds, you just accept it that you’ve lost. But I was like “Na, I’m not losing tonight”. (laughs) And I just kept going and the head kick landed that was drilled in camp and yeah, took him out.”

And how did you feel after the fight? 

“Gassed! (laughs) I was emotional, I was gassed, it was wild. It’s hard to put into words. It’s hard to put into words the emotions you feel like you have something you work for that you know can change your family’s life, you work for it for like over 12 years, like non stop every single week for 12 years and then you finally achieved it. How do you put it into words? It’s difficult. It’s like one of them things where it’s only one in a million people that will be able to achieve that, you know what I mean? So yeah, it’s hard.”

And what was the first thing you did when you walked out the ring?

“I phoned my mum, cried to her on the phone (laughs) then I had an afterparty booked that I booked before the fight and I went out with my team, celebrate, eat pizzas, just chilled.”

I feel like the moment you called you mum and you said to her “I told you mum” was such an emotional moment for everyone 

“Everyone said the same thing, yeah, yeah. It was emotional. It means a lot to us. Like I said, that’s my motivation, that’s my fuel, you know, to change my family’s life and because of them I did it and I’ll continue to do it until I’ve secured them.”

How did your family celebrate your win?

“With a big party when I got back! Because I went to Las Vegas for a little bit and then I came back to the UK and we had a massive street party! Jamaican jerk chicken, everything! DJs, it was sick!”

What’s the next step now?

“Next is the trilogy over here in the UK, so I’m trying to have like a stadium show. Hopefully like Wembley or Villa Park in Birmingham would be sick. But yeah, I think early next year in March I will defend my belt.”

How are you feeling about that?

“Good, can’t wait! (laughs) This is my first actual headline, if God willing it goes through, in the UK. I’ve always wanted to fight in the UK and to be the main event. So to come back now with the belt and the main event and a stadium that’s what everyone would dream for, every athlete would dream for.”

Who else do you think is going to come for the belt apart from Usman? 

“You got Khamzat, you got Colby, you got Gilbert Burns, you got Belal Muhammad, there’s people who are in the top five in UFC, top ten that can challenge for the belt, you know. I don’t know, we’ll figure it out! (laughs)”

Moving away from UFC for a minute, talk to me about the charity you’ve set up in Birmingham and how you’re planning to support the young people from your city?

“I started a charity with a charity that already existed in the UK in 14 locations – London, Birmingham, Liverpool, etc to help at-risk kids that are involved in knife crimes. We  work with the police as well, which is a similar thing. So it’s something like we use MMA to give back to the kids that come from a similar background like I did, like gangs and stuff like that.

“The UFC have funded my project which is 40K per location to buy kits for the kids like gloves, shin pads, and everything and I am also mentoring them so yeah, it’s going well. I am starting a charity in Jamaica as well where I was born. I like giving back, I like to help, you know?”

Last but not least, who would you like to thank the most and what message do you have for your fans?

“I want to thank my mum for getting me involved in Mixed Martial Arts, my team for always believing in me and sticking by me and the fans as well for supporting me all this way.”

Also before we wrap up, as we are a music platform, who’s your favourite UK artist?

“I’ve got a few. For Birmingham Jaykae, Stardom, Mist; London I like Fredo, Little Torment. I like rap music so it just depends what I’m feeling to be fair but yeah those are the main artists I listen to like day in and day out.”

And what music do you listen to before you fight?

“It’s either some kind of rap music or reggae, bashment, like Skeng, people like that, you know what I mean. Everything to do with like hardcore, I like my mindset in that zone for a fight, so anything hardcore I’ll listen to it. (laughs) So it’s either rap or reggae, one of them.”