UFC: Leon Edwards on coming back from brink to be MMA's best comeback story
Last updated on .From the section Mixed Martial Arts
"I keep waking up and touching the belt, making sure it's still there."
Leon Edwards has just woken up the morning after returning to his hometown Erdington in Birmingham. He is the newly minted UFC welterweight champion and was given a hero's welcome but he is still on Utah time - and cloud nine.
The 31-year-old dethroned long-time champion Kamaru Usman with an inch-perfect head-kick in the final minute of their long-awaited rematch.
It had been a lop-sided affair until then. Edwards - who lost the first fight seven years ago - had gone into autopilot after a superb opening round.
The next four rounds will go down as "one of my worst performances in my career", he says, right up until the knockout.
"The road I took to get there, and to have that happening in the fight, I was thinking in my head, 'what the hell's going on? You're here now and you can't let this opportunity go to waste'."
Edwards was given a stirring speech by his team, which included his brother Fabian, and heard amid the chaos someone from his corner shout: "Throw the head-kick." He did and Usman folded backwards onto the canvas - his amazing three-year reign as champion over.
It was an incredible comeback and not the first time Edwards has been written off.
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'It's not where you start, it's where you finish'
The magnitude of the achievement hasn't quite sunk in for Edwards. He is just the second UFC champion to hail from the UK.
"Born in Kingston, Jamaica, living in a warzone basically. Immigrated to the UK, same thing again. It's a wild story," he says. "I've got a son now that's nine years old and I couldn't have imagined him living the way I lived when I was nine.
"That's how I know it's a crazy story because he lives a totally different life to the way I lived my life when I was his age.
"I'm happy to be the light for other people that are coming up. It's not where you start, it's where you finish. As long as you put the time in, you can achieve anything."
Social media might be jammed with replays of the thrilling knockout, but it is also awash with glimpses into Edwards, the man. His emotional post-fight speech - "You all said I couldn't do it. Look at me now. Pound-for-pound. Headshot. Dead. That's it" - went viral.
As did Edwards' emotional backstage phone call to his mother and family. He was reunited with his mother on Wednesday, there were more tears.
"All of it just came down on me [in that moment]. To get to the title was so hard. From the pandemic hitting, my career went up and down, fight cancellations - all of it just came out," he explains.
"That's what it was, pure emotions. I can't tell you what I was saying, I don't know what I was saying. I just blurted it all out.
"Crying and excited. All emotions, all in one. It was a mad moment."
He adds: "I cannot think of a better [comeback] story in mixed martial arts."
What next for the UFC champion?
Edwards was four years old when he moved to England. He was 13 when his father was murdered. He drifted towards gang life before his mother convinced him to give mixed martial arts a try.
"I've been in the gym ever since," he says. He credits his mother as the driving force behind his rise. According to Edwards, she never lets him forget it was her who set him on the path to UFC champion.
Edwards now has his eyes on a title defence in the UK in March next year. Michael Bisping defended his middleweight belt against Dan Henderson in Manchester in 2016. It was an overnight event, catered as much towards the American viewing audience as those in attendance. Edwards fought on that card. He was 25 at the time.
Edwards and UFC president Dana White have expressed a desire to stage his next fight in a stadium on primetime UK television. Paddy Pimblett, Darren Till, Molly McCann and Arnold Allen will be invited to make up the undercard.
Usman will almost certainly be given a rematch and is happy to travel to England. Edwards is hopeful his mother might come to the fight, but admits she hates watching him compete up close. He is on the fence about having his son come too, having seen footage of Usman's own young daughter in tears after his loss last Saturday.
There is also the prospect of a grudge match with two-time title challenger Jorge Masvidal, who Edwards clashed with backstage at UFC London in 2019.
"Jorge is the one I want," Edwards admits. "To have him back now in the UK for a title shot would be mad scenes.
"He's had two or three losses so he has to go out there and get a few wins under his belt for the fight to make sense. That's a fight that 100% needs to happen."