UFC welterweight contender Leon Edwards will get arguably the biggest opportunity of his career at UFC 263 on June 12 when he takes on former UFC title challenger and fan-favorite Nate Diaz.
The matchup will be the first five-round non-title bout in the promotion's history and a featured fight as part of a lineup that includes two title rematches between UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Marvin Vettori in the main event, and UFC flyweight king Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno in the night's co-main event. It will undoubtedly be the biggest chance of Edwards's career to not only introduce himself to the casual MMA fan but also to put to bed the idea of a debate of who should be the rightful next title challenger at 170 pounds.
I think more importantly though, it will give Edwards the chance to expose his story and humble beginnings to many fans probably for the first time. The mild-mannered contender has been sort of lost in the shuffle of the hornet's nest of elite fighters in the always crowded UFC welterweight division. You've probably heard about Edwards's technical prowess as a fighter, he's one of the more cerebral technicians in the sport in the way he can deconstruct an opponent's skill-set. You probably know about his eight-fight winning streak, the fact his last lost loss was to current UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman back in December 2015, and his infamous backstage altercation with Jorge Masvidal after UFC Fight Night 147 that led to the viral three-piece and a soda comment from Jorge. But if you were to honestly ask yourself as a consumer outside of those things mentioned above, what do you really know about Leon Edwards the person? I'm sure you would find you don't know much about the UFC's mystery man at 170 pounds.
Leon was born in a country some would consider a literal paradise in Kingston, Jamaica a place he fondly remembers growing up in. However, as he detailed to UFC reporter Megan Olivi on her podcast Becoming A Fighter, things weren't so paradise-like for him and his family detailing their living conditions on the island. His father was also a leader of a gang, something Edwards realized the impact of early on and the atmosphere in which it created to live within.
"My house was like basically a wooden shack," he said. "I didn't really think much of it, it was just a normal life. Just being brought up in like a gang environment, where there's shoot-outs every other week. To be a young kid and be so knowledgeable about shootings and people getting shot, and who's been killed. Looking back now, it was like a mad way to grow up."
Then Edwards' family would decide it would be best to move out of Jamaica and started a new life in Aston, England. But even in England, adversity once again followed Edwards, and being the new kid in a new country led to him having to stick up for himself regularly, introducing him to his eventual career path in fighting. An even bigger blow would unfortunately and tragically come with Leon's new life in England when at just 13-year old, his father was murdered for unknown reasons in London. This led to some toxic and self-destructive behavior that Edwards himself acknowledged was the ripple effect of his dad's untimely passing.
"From there's a spiral effect of going into, getting involved in gang crimes," Edwards told Olivi. "And from there I just got more shorter tempered. I was more angry as a kid, so I'd end up in more fights. My mom came many times to get me out of the police station, I knew what I was doing was breaking her heart. She was disappointed, I knew this, I did want to do better, but just didn't know how to do better."
Well, he started doing better, finding an MMA gym, UTC Birmingham that was above a Blockbuster video store of all places. In thanks to his mother's love and commitment to keeping Edwards off of the streets, she worked two to three jobs to afford to be able to pay for him to take classes at the gym. For the first time in his life too, Leon had people around him in his coaches pushing him to pursue training because of his natural talent. That positive reinforcement and purpose helped kickstart Edwards' MMA journey, where he would go 8-1 to start his professional career and become the BAMMA welterweight champion at just 22-years old.
Edwards had gone from fighting in school and the streets to winning a world title in Europe's biggest mixed martial arts promotion. The wins in BAMMA would lead to the unimaginable of now making it to the pinnacle of the sport for Edwards, as he signed with the UFC in September 2014 and made his promotional debut two months later against Claudio Silva at UFC Fight Night 56. Edwards ended up losing that fight against Silva via a split decision, going on to start his run inside of the Octagon with just a 2-2 record after defeating both Seth Baczynski and Pawel Pawlak but then dropping the loss to Usman.
Life had now dealt him another set of unideal cards, but Leon just kept going and improving and focusing on what he had already overcome throughout his life. Choosing to utilize his past struggles as a superpower of sorts, and dedicating his energy to only controlling what he had full control over. This mindset helped spark the five-year winning streak he now currently is on and takes into the Diaz fight at UFC 263. Over the course of his last eight victories though, not everything has gone smooth sailing for Edwards. Much like with his life, there's been a correlation in his fighting career with being presented with choices to accept adversity as a way out, but Leon instead took the confidence of dealing with the struggle he had already been handed in life and whether consciously knowing or not, applied that into his fights during this winning streak.
Against Dominic Waters and Vicente Luque, he out-willed both to win the decisive final third rounds in each bout. Against Albert Tumenov at UFC 204, he survived a second-round onslaught and caught the Russian contender in the third round via submission due to a rear-naked choke. Bryan Barberena dropped Edwards at the end of the second round with a left uppercut during their fight at UFC Fight Night 115, but again Leon's mental fortitude would shine through as he would win the third round, nearly submitting Barberena and taking another decision victory. Three fights later, Gunnar Nelson mounted Edwards with just a minute left in their matchup at UFC Fight Night 147, but he didn't panic and once more kept his winning streak alive.
There's this undeniable through-line with the decisions Edwards made in overcoming the circumstances of his youth and the mindset he applied to turn that into a positive, that also bleeds over into the resilience he's shown over the course of his current winning streak. He didn't let the path his father chose dictate his own or get swallowed by the pain of his tragic passing. He didn't allow the violence around him in England to make the decision of who Leon Edwards was going to be either, instead, utilizing the struggle and trauma he had faced as a way to carve out a path to define himself on his own terms. His mental toughness wouldn't be only tested in the Octagon, however, losing an entire year of active competition to circumstances, once again out of his control.
He had just defeated former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in the main event of UFC on ESPN 4 in July 2019, arguably the biggest victory of Edwards' career. It was the signature victory Leon had needed to get a fight with the top five of the division, the elite, he had joined the pinnacle of title contenders at 170 pounds and it only seemed inevitable he'd be given a fight with a marquee name. Edwards had put on a world-class display of experience meeting maturation in technical skills, dismantling dos Anjos in every facet of the game. His post-fight callouts of Jorge Masvidal and Kamaru Usman, especially after the incident with Masvidal in London back in March 2019, signaled what looked like the natural next step in Edwards' ascension up the rankings to an eventual title shot.
However, yet again, the universe wasn't working in unison with Edwards' plan for greatness. Neither the fight with Masvidal or the title rematch with Usman would come next, Jorge would opt for a BMF title headliner against Nate Diaz at UFC 244 and Usman took a classic fight with rival Colby Covington the following event at UFC 245. Although he didn't get either the opponent or opportunity he wanted, after his win over dos Anjos, Edwards would still finally be given the chance he'd been waiting for. He was scheduled to face former UFC welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley, in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card on March 21, 2020, at the O2 Arena in London.
There would be no way of rightfully rejecting Edwards a title shot with a ninth win in a row, especially over a former champion in Woodley, and in the headlining bout of an event in his home country of England. Then COVID-19 happened, the rug was once again pulled out from under Leon's feet by circumstances out of his control. The event was canceled, the opportunity to earn the title shot, and do it in front of a hometown crowd gone as well. Woodley would go on to face Gilbert Burns two months later at UFC Vegas 1, losing a one-sided unanimous decision in what would be the catalyst for Burns to leapfrog Edwards in an opportunity that was taken away from him. The Brazilian contender would be awarded a title shot against Usman adding insult to injury if you will to the situation for Edwards.
Now surrounded by nothing but uncertainty amidst a global pandemic, and losing his title shot to Burns, Edwards truly was the odd man out in the UFC's welterweight division. The timing still seemed right for Edwards to get a matchup with another top-ranked contender, either in the form of a Masvidal fight that had eluded him or against Covington after he had just lost in a title fight to Usman. I think as we've learned by now though with Leon's story, things in life usually aren't always exactly the way we want them to be. We also don't always get what we deserve in life and rarely get the things we want or feel we deserve, when we feel we deserve to get them. As much as we hear it when we're young, it doesn't quite resonate with us until we're much older that the world doesn't revolve around our plans and dreams. We really are sort of at the universe's mercy in many ways and rolling with life's proverbial punches is sometimes the best approach to surviving its chaos.
Covington would fight Woodley at UFC Vegas 11, winning via a fifth-round TKO, a victory that wrongfully or rightfully looks like it will position him for a rematch with Usman. Edwards had to sit on the sidelines and watch for a second time, a different opponent not only beat Woodley but then parlay it into an eventual title opportunity. Masvidal also in cruel contrast to what Leon was going through at the time, would be gifted by the MMA gods an enormous reward of a last-minute replacement opportunity to fill in for Burns against Usman at UFC 251. The promotion in October 2020 then decided to remove Edwards completely from its rankings, throwing salt into the wound and continuing the downward spiral for what should've been a transformative year for his career.
The UFC then gave Edwards a consolation prize of sorts, finally scheduling him a fight with an unranked Khamzat Chimaev in the main event of UFC Vegas 17 in December 2020. Chimaev burst onto the scene as an undefeated Chechnyan prospect who could fight at both 185 and 170 pounds, starting his Octagon run off with a 3-0 record and winning Performance of the Night honors in every appearance. He had only one win at welterweight in the UFC though over Rhys McKee at UFC Fight Island 3, making an argument as to why he was fighting Edwards in the first place. For the Birmingham product, it still represented a chance to end an agonizing year-long layoff, regardless of what seemed like a high-risk low reward situation for him to be placed in.
Disaster struck yet again though, the scheduled fight in December was canceled after both men tested positive for COVID-19. Edwards had lost yet another opportunity but also been given a new fight and opponent with the virus. It hit him pretty hard, he lost 12 pounds in just four days and was unable to train, continuing to delay his return to the Octagon. Making matters worse, the fight with Chimaev was put off completely after trying to be rescheduled twice again in January and March of this year. Good news finally came for Leon on February 18 though, the promotion had found a replacement opponent and a top 15 ranked fighter for Edwards to face on March 13 at UFC Vegas 21 when Belal Muhammad stepped in for Chimaev.
Muhammad wasn't necessarily the named foe Edwards had been starving for, but he was 8-1 in his last nine fights and gave Leon the chance to finally stake his claim as the rightful number one contender at 170 pounds. The first round of the fight saw Edwards looking as sharp as ever, showing no real signs of the dreaded ring rust, so many competitors suffer as he outclassed Muhammad fairly easily to take the opening card. Reality was finally manifesting the victory and platform Edwards had needed to decisively earn his title shot. Then the second round started and a mere 18 seconds into the round, the catastrophe of the past 16 months in a brutal way would poetically show up again as Edwards committed an accidental eye poke during an exchange that would halt the fight, ultimately forcing it to be ruled a no contest.
Once more there would no ninth victory in a row, no title shot, and with another main event opportunity taken away from him, nothing had been answered for Edwards after such an extensive layoff. The emotions were hard to contain, even for someone as resilient as Leon Edwards. During his post-fight interview with commentator Daniel Cormier, you could tell the circumstances had taken a toll on him.
"I went in there, focused on my next chapter to be a world champion," Edwards said. "To have that f****** taken away from me, I'm just heartbroken."
As I said earlier, life doesn't always seem to give us the things we want or even deserve when we want them, but usually when we're at our lowest or darkest moments, sometimes it gifts us the brightest of days afterward. Edwards had constantly been given unidyllic circumstances in life from his early days in Jamaica to Birmingham, and now with his fighting career as a top UFC contender. We live in an era of society currently that does a great job of enabling people to victimize themselves for anything really, it's easy to look for excuses as to why the world is conspiring to work against you. Unlike many who choose that comfortability it wallowing away in their own self-pity, Edwards took the path of never allowing that to ever engulf him.
The ability to focus on only the controllable again would be Edwards' superpower, he wouldn't get caught up in the narrative of his supposed hype train being derailed and started to vocalize his case of why he should be given the next title shot. This strategy had faltered him before in getting the attention of the other elite contenders in the welterweight division, but this time, Leon had finally caught the big fish he was searching for. His winning streak had gotten the attention of one of the biggest stars in the sport, Nate Diaz agreed to face Edwards in the first five-round non-main event or non-title bout in UFC history at UFC 262 on May 15. A minor injury would lead to the fight being rescheduled to this Saturday, June 12 at UFC 263 but nonetheless, the stars have finally aligned for Edwards.
"If I'm not gonna fight the biggest fight I can possibly find, I'm gonna fight the best fighter that I can possibly find," Diaz said on his thinking behind the Edwards matchup.
Edwards now has a fight that provides him the chance he's wanted, to leave no questions about his place at 170 pounds, but fighting an opponent like Diaz also gives him a stage like he's never had before and financial incentives I'm sure close to the equivalent of what a title shot would bring him.
Patience is often one of the most valuable assets you can acquire to deal with the mayhem life inevitably throws at you. However, just waiting and doing nothing essentially, doesn't always work with overcoming the struggles you're presented with or going after the goals you want to achieve in your lifetime. Perseverance, on the contrary, seems to be a more useful attribute to obtain in one's pursuit of greatness or success. Leon Edwards is the physical embodiment of how perseverance can be utilized by anyone to keep chasing what they so desperately want in life, regardless of the obstacles in your way or how much life may try to define you by its ungovernable situations that it presents to you.
From his humble beginnings, the tragic loss of his father, overcoming gang violence in England, and dealing with the ups and downs of his fighting career, Edwards' story has shown how persevering through our own individual pain and struggles can benefit our lives greatly. Our supposed flaws become advantages when we view our own personal strife through this lens. We don't get to choose the environment we're born into or to be born at all, but we do get to choose every day how much the past conditions of our own lives define our present and future. Leon chose to live on his terms and the commonality of the way he has overcome the struggles of his own life is one I believe everyone can not only be inspired by but also actually learn from.
The culmination of Edwards' career and life will come at UFC 263 against Nate Diaz, it's the chance that's not only been long overdue for him but one he's repeatedly asked for. But as he put it in his own words, Leon has not only already won in life but he's also fighting for a bigger reason than fame or title belts. He wants to show people that no matter where you begin in this wild ride of life, it's where you finish that really defines your story as a human being.
"The more my profile grows, the more I succeed in my career, the more I wanna help other people," Edwards told Olivi. "There's loads of other kids that probably got similar stories to me with single parents and coming from underprivileged backgrounds. So if I can tell my story now and to help somebody, one person, that's good enough for me. To help motivate them and to show them that it's not where you start, it's where you finish."