It’s a rematch seven years in the making and two years overdue. It’s another chance for Kamaru Usman to chip away at George St Pierre’s claim to the title of the greatest of all time at 170lbs. It is – for purists at least – one of the more intriguing title fights of 2022. For Leon Edwards its bigger than all of that; it’s a chance to put an end to a nightmarish few years and become the star he deserves to be…but it’s a chance that may be his last.
At the time of writing a Youtube interview with Leon Edwards on BTSport, the UFC’s UK broadcast partner, had garnered just 16,000 views on a channel with 4.5 million subscribers. Granted, BTSport’s following is likely dominated by Football fans and maybe I’m a little old and out of touch with the YouTube generation, but to quote The Scarlet Witch in Dr Strange & The Multiverse of Madness, “…That doesn’t seem fair.”
As pointed out by the person who shared the statistic, the apathy around Leon Edwards ahead of what is undoubtedly the biggest fight of his career, is incredible. Edwards is a man who possesses all the traits this sport is crying out for in its leading lights; skill, humility and a story that emphasises triumph over adversity.
So why isn’t the MMA world carrying Leon Edwards aloft on its proverbial shoulders?
There’s an easy (read: lazy) go-to answer that seems to pop up in the discourse quite often, and it’s that Leon doesn’t embrace a trash-talking, scenery-chewing alter-ego in front of the cameras in the vein of many of MMA’s biggest tickets. That’s…fair. He’s certainly no McGregor, Covington or Masvidal when it comes to social media call outs, slinging insults and courting manufactured drama.
But then neither were the likes of Georges St Pierre, who is (for now at least) considered the consensus all-time great at welterweight. Looking down the lineage of champions and challengers at 170lbs, the same could be said for Johnny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Robbie Lawler, Damian Maia, Rory McDonald or Stephen Thompson.
If it isn’t necessarily what ‘Rocky’ does outside the cage that’s the problem, perhaps it’s what he does when the Octagon door is bolted? Edwards doesn’t generally let himself get drawn into the kind of wild and bloody brawls that cemented the likes of Condit, Lawler, Hardy and Diaz a permanent place in out hearts. He doesn’t stop people dead with one shot like a prime Hendricks or snatch submissions out of thin air like Maia… but again, neither did GSP, Matt Hughes, or any number of dominant champions of years past and present.
The best weapon in any high-level fighter of longevity’s arsenal is their smarts. If we’re punishing Edwards for being too smart a fighter then, to use that quote again, “…That doesn’t seem fair.”
The Worm That Turns
It’s not unheard of for MMA fans to turn on fighters on a whim. Even Anderson Silva, legitimately one of the greatest and most bedazzling athletes to lace a pair of 4oz gloves, faced calls to be cut from the UFC as champion after a pair of lacklustre performances in 2010, when he was one of the sport’s few genuine superstars during its biggest growth period.
People don’t seem to be hating on Leon though. Being hated in this business isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the money of someone paying to see you get beaten up is just as good as anyone else’s, just ask Tito Ortiz, Henry Cejudo, Muhammad Ali or any successful pro wrestler. People just seem apathetic towards Edwards; the heaviest millstone a fighter can carry.
What’s particularly peculiar with Edwards is that even his adopted home of the UK hasn’t rallied behind him in the way you might expect. As a nation much smaller than our collective ego is comfortable with, the UK loves to back a winner when it comes to international sports and in MMA, where we were vilified for years as a territory that could only churn out ‘boxers with a bit of jiu-jitsu’, that’s particularly true.
From Ian Freeman to Mike Bisping, Dan Hardy to Ross Pearson and even those who never made it to such dizzy heights, the UK historically gets behind fighters who, respectfully, couldn’t hold a candle to Edward’s achievements. You only need to look to the likes of recent success stories Molly McCann and Paddy Pimblett to see how eager we are to hop aboard a train heading in the right direction.
A Victim of Circumstance
Perhaps then, Leon Edwards is a victim of circumstance. After all, Rocky’s road to welterweight gold has been nothing short of a nightmare.
UFC London, 2019: Till vs Masvidall. To say that the atmosphere around the event (among both UFC staff and their broadcast partners) was bullish would be an understatement. There was a genuine belief that Darren Till would become the next Michael Bisping; a charismatic hero/pantomime villain for the fans and national press to rally around.
During the fight week media obligations Till and Edwards exchanged some harsh words. This, coupled with the fact that he was facing perennial UK fan favourite Gunnar Nelson, saw Rocky receive a reception in the pro-Till O2 Arena that could be described as frosty at best. By the time he’d eked out a less-than-thrilling split decision win, the crowd had roundly turned on him. In Leon’s own words, it was a situation that left him feeling that he should represent Jamaica from that point forward.
Later that night a lone Masvidal, fresh off pole-axing Till, approached Edwards and his team backstage to deliver the infamous “three piece with the soda”. Edwards left the arena with a split cheek and a bruised ego, while Masvidal walked out the UFC’s newest superstar.
Then came Covid. Edwards was heavily promoted in the UK ahead of his scheduled UFC London 2020 main event, but its last-minute cancelation and his subsequent refusal to hop on a plane to the other side of the world on a few days’ notice to face Tyron Woodley, or to step in as a last-minute replacement for Gilbert Burns on Fight Island, drew the ire of the UFC brass; never a good move in the court of public opinion.
Three years on and Edwards’ luck and stock might be the lowest of anyone heading into a major title bout since Justin Eilers fought Andrei Arlovski at UFC 53. Three cancelled bouts against Khamzat Chimaev, one each against Nate Diaz and Masvidal and an eye poke ‘No Contest’ against Belal Muhammad only added to fan frustrations.
As if the wounds of the previous few years were lacking salt, the elusive Diaz bout finally materialised in the summer of 2021. Despite winning just four fights in the last decade, Nate (much like his brother Nick) maintains cult hero status among the UFC faithful due to both his proclivity for crowd pleasing punch-ups and his anti-establishment persona. In reality though, he’s no longer a winner at the highest level and hasn’t been for some time; a fact that has never appeared more apparent than against the increasingly complete Leon Edwards…
…until one punch changed everything.
Of 25 minutes spent fighting Nate Diaz Rocky lost one, but the post-fight discourse centred on some fantastical ‘What If?’ alternate timeline in which Stockton’s (second) finest broke with tradition and actually won a meaningful scrap.
One Last Rung
That Leon Edwards isn’t one of the UFC’s most prominent and adored stars is as much a sign of the times as it is a reflection of his personal circumstances. In the content age, with fights practically every weekend, it’s easy for someone like the the anti-Masvidal to get lost in the shuffle.
The fact of the matter is that Rocky hasn’t been able to afford to lose a fight in some time, and his rematch with Usman is no different. Similarly, if he is to pump his stock to that next level then any potential victory on Saturday needs to be equally as emphatic as a loss would be catastrophic.
MMA is a ruthless sport at the highest level; a roll of the dice regardless of how well prepared you are. Leon Edwards has reached the final fork in his Rocky Road. From here it’s either a great view from the top, or a long way back and for 25 minutes on Saturday night, finally, opinions won’t matter.