Leon Edwards: Rise of the UFC Welterweight Champion

We take a look at British-Jamaican native, Leon Edwards, and his historic rise to becoming the UFC welterweight champion.

Leon Edwards: Rise of the UFC Welterweight Champion


"I wanted to be a better person than my story was"

After he defeated Kamaru Usman in August 2022, Leon Edwards became the UFC welterweight champion and cemented his place in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) history.

Edwards, a Jamaican-born resident of Birmingham, England, never envisioned of competing in a UFC title fight.

However, his mother forced him into MMA to keep him off the city’s streets.

13 years after being introduced to the sport after mixing with the wrong crowd, the athlete known by the nickname “Rocky” battled for the UFC’s most prized award.

DESIblitz takes a look at who Leon Edwards is behind the glamour of his champion title and how he jumped the ranks to become the welterweight champion of the world.

Life Before the UFC

Leon Edwards: Rise of the UFC Welterweight Champion

Edwards, his parents, and his younger brother Fabian resided in a quiet neighbourhood in Kingston, Jamaica where he was born and raised.

With his friends, he enjoyed playing football, making and flying kites in the Caribbean breeze, and climbing trees to harvest mangoes.

Yet life also had a risky side that Edwards says he could not fathom his children ever having to deal with.

The father of Edwards was the leader of a neighbourhood gang.

Edwards became desensitised to gun violence since it occurred so frequently in his neighbourhood. He said:

“There were shootouts around me.

“You had to run and hide. It’s weird because you kind of get used to it, living in this mad warzone, you know?

“I’ve got a son now who’s nine and I couldn’t imagine him in that environment.

“But at the time you hear gunshots. You’re like ‘okay, no one got hit and no one died’, so you’re back out playing again.

“It just becomes normal.”

When Edwards was nine years old, his parents had already divorced, and his father was already residing in London while continuing to provide for the family financially from abroad.

The choice by his father to relocate the remainder of the family to Aston in Birmingham, England, was meant to signify a new beginning. But it was difficult for Edwards right away. He said:

“You don’t want to move because all your friends are in Jamaica. You don’t want to leave them, and at the time I was upset.

“You’re also an immigrant coming to a new country. But it’s still better than worrying about getting shot by a stray bullet or whatever.”

Edwards, his mother, and his younger brother bid Jamaica farewell and moved to Birmingham to begin a new life.

Their previous residence, a one-room wooden house with a zinc roof in a run-down area of Kingston where “hearing gunshots was normal” had been left behind.

Edwards now had a room of his own.

However, in October 2004, “Rocky” received a phone call that would change his life forever. After Edwards’ mother answered the phone, he soon could hear her crying.

According to the welterweight champion, he was aware of his father’s background:

“I knew what he was involved in, so I knew eventually something would happen to my dad.

“When it’s a late phone call you know it’s something bad. It was a traumatic situation, it wasn’t like he died in his sleep – he got murdered.

“It was like a spiral effect; it made me angry and more willing to partake in that life, it pushed me into a life of crime.”

At 30 years old, Edwards is still unaware of the entire circumstances surrounding his father’s passing. All he knows is that he was shot and killed in a nightclub for “something to do with money.”

Back in Kingston, he had been involved in gang activity, and as a young man, Edwards frequently found himself in its hazards.

The “darkest” years of his life followed, and Edwards too became more and more involved in Birmingham’s gang violence.

Edwards remembers getting into arguments with other students at school who would tease him for having a Jamaican accent.

His nickname “Rocky”—a tribute to the boxer from the movie that is still popular—comes from his propensity to fight.

However, things soon became increasingly difficult for Edwards. He recalled:

“There was a big gang thing at the time in Birmingham, the Johnsons and the Burger Bars.

“They were rivals and violence constantly broke out between both sides.

“I got involved from school. You’re in the same neighbourhood and you go to the same school [as the gang members].

“The older guys, the younger brothers, all at the same school, and you get used to hanging around with them and it just trickles into that.”

When Edwards learned of his father’s passing, he was 13 years old.

According to him, that was a turning point that drove him farther into that lifestyle. He said:

“I had a shorter temper, I was angrier and I ended up in more fights.”

“There were a few things I did during this time that I truly regret. It’s hard to believe it was me who did it. I don’t like talking about it.

“I’ve been in situations where I wouldn’t say I feared for my life, but life-threatening situations.

“We did what all gangs do. Sell drugs, there were robberies, shootings and stabbings.

“I was arrested a few times, for fights and having a knife. My mum had to come to the police station many times to get me out.

“I knew what I was doing was breaking her heart, but I just kept doing it because your friends are doing it and as a teenager, you’re just involved.

“At the time your brain is so diluted and so focused you think this is life, and this is your world. You can’t see outside of it.”

Nonetheless, he managed to escape and defied all chances to carve a path in MMA that led to him taking home the sport’s top prize: the UFC world championship.

Discovering MMA

Leon Edwards: Rise of the UFC Welterweight Champion

When Edwards was 17 years old, his mother saw a gym above a DVD rental shop that offered MMA training as they walked to the bus stop.

After encouragement from his mother, Edwards took part and joined.

He was extremely unaware of MMA as a sport because of how gang culture had distorted his view of fighting.

The concept of a fair bout that took place in a competitive sporting setting was foreign to him. He shared:

“It was odd because at the time I used to think that fighting was not weird, but I’d never straight nose [have a fair fight with] somebody, you know?

“[Gangs] are more likely to stab you. That was the mentality.”

Edwards’ coaches informed him he had a natural gift after he had taken a few sessions.

He soon began receiving prizes, and his mother’s enthusiastic response inspired him to work even harder.

Edwards said:

“I could see my mum was proud of me when I was bringing home trophies and that, and that’s what kept me at it.

“If you did something negative [in gangs], everyone supports you, then if you do something good I realise you get the same praise, so I was thinking ‘well I might as well do well then’.

“I was thinking I should enjoy my life and not have to look behind my back at people trying to stab me, see the world – and that’s what I did.

“I put all my energy into training at 17 and just never looked back.”

Edwards quickly found out that the frustration and anger that drove him to street gangs could be controlled and transferred into honing in on athletic skill.

Signing With the UFC

Leon Edwards: Rise of the UFC Welterweight Champion

Edwards made his amateur debut at age 18 and won it via submission. A little over a year later, he won his first professional match.

At the age of 23, he acquired a contract with the UFC, where he has won 12 out of 15 matches.

His first and only loss was against Kamaru Usman in 2015. Since then, he has been on a fantastic win streak.

The stage was set for his first title fight which would be against Usman at UFC 278 in August 2022, seven years after their first fight.

Usman himself was on a 15-fight win streak and had defeated every top contender in the division, with ease.

So, whilst many British fans were faithful on Edwards’ skill, they knew the type of challenge Usman posed.

However, after a gruelling bout where Usman dominated and broke Edwards morally, “Rocky” pulled out a high kick to the head and knocked Usman out in the fifth round – one minute before the end of the fight.

In doing so, he became only the second champion in UFC history and the first champion of Great Britain since Michael Bisping in 2016.

At UFC 286 in London on March 18, 2023, Edwards faced Usman in a bid to defend his title and successfully managed to win in a monumental fashion.

Edwards has never embraced the “gangster” stereotype and has always been cautious when discussing his life and background.

Instead, he understands the significance of his miraculous transformation and is motivated to support others who are seeking improvement. He believes that sports may have saved his life:

“I didn’t want to glorify it, I didn’t want to come across as this gangster. I wanted to be a better person than my story was.

“The more my profile grows, the more I succeed, and the more I want to help other people.

“I want to show people now it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

“In the UK, knife crime is such a big thing, I’ve lost friends to it, been involved with it, so if I can go back and help someone and show them a different path, I’m willing to do that.

“One of my friends went to prison, got stabbed and died. Some of them have done good work and stuff, but most of them are still doing what they’re doing.

“So yeah, I take it from that – [without MMA] I’d either be in prison, dead, or working a 9-5.

“I’m 100% relieved. Not just me but my family too, you know. It would be sad for my mum to have a husband that got killed and then a son that got killed.

“I always had a feeling I could be better and there was more to life, but I didn’t know how to get it.

“There was nobody around me with a blueprint to success so I didn’t know how to achieve it.

“That’s what I’m saying: if I do it – if I become champion – it shows everyone else what’s possible, too.”

With his massive rise, the UFC welterweight champion became one of the most followed UFC stars on Instagram after his UFC 286 win against Kamaru Usman.

Before UFC 286 Leon “Rocky” Edwards had 919K followers but after winning, the fighter now has over 1 million followers on his official Instagram page.

The MMA sportsman’s high rise from rags to riches in the world of MMA and beyond is inspirational, and a testament to his hard work to turn his life around.

To many people who share a comparable past, the sportsman encourages a glimmer of hope to be the change you want to see in the world.

Young, aspiring individuals who hope to create a strong impact in sports have a strong example set in Leon Edward’s journey.

Ilsa is a digital marketeer and journalist. Her interests include politics, literature, religion and football. Her motto is “Give people their flowers whilst they’re still around to smell them.”

Images courtesy of Instagram.

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