More than 600 days sit between Leon Edwards’s last fight -- a unanimous decision win over Rafael Dos Anjos -- and when he’ll step foot in the Octagon again.
It's a layoff that obviously wasn’t planned, and one that’s arguably been more frustrating than one spent recovering from injury, but either way, the key to Edwards’s success in navigating this incalculable season of his career has been patience.
Then, like so many around the world, Edwards’s life was placed on hold for a few weeks. Then a few months. Then an entire year.
“The last year and a half has been frustrating,” the third-ranked welterweight said. “You’ve got to keep your main goal in mind. My main goal is to be a world champion.”
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It’s a goal he hasn’t shied away from, despite the turbulent times filled with cancellations, fight camps cut short and countless rescheduled bouts.
In December, the British-Jamaican thought he may finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when he was scheduled for a main event bout against rising star Khamzat Chimaev. Then Edwards came down with COVID.
The bout was rescheduled for a month later, only for Chimaev to also contract COVID, further delaying the bout to March. Chimaev ultimately pulled himself from the bout due to lingering effects of the virus.
But Edwards wasn’t going anywhere this time. He didn’t care whose name landed next to his, as long as the date remained March 13, 2021.
“Obviously you’re pissed off and you’re upset… It wasn’t about the opponent, it was about keeping the same date,” Edwards explained of the frustration he felt after receiving the call that once again his fight against Chimaev lay in the balance. “Once the UFC said ‘We want to keep you on the card, we’re looking for a new opponent,’ it kind of eased the blow a little bit.”
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This time around, an up-and-coming face awaits him on the other side of the Octagon, as 13th-ranked Belal Muhammad agreed to step just four weeks following his breakout UFC 258 victory over Dhiego Lima, on a mission to make waves in the welterweight division.
But Edwards said he doesn’t care for the details of who he faces, what they’re after or the little number next to their name. All that matters to him is being on the inside of the chain link fence.
“I’m willing to fight anybody. I’m not here to just hold my number and not compete,” Edwards explained. “I’ve been pushing over the last year to fight any of these top guys, I’ve proven it by offering to fight Khamzat.
"He wasn’t even ranked at the time and everyone was ducking him so I said ‘Okay, I’ll step in, I’ll do it.’ He fell out, and Belal Muhammad fell in. I said ‘I’ll do it.’ I’ve proven to the UFC and to myself that I believe I’m number one so I couldn’t give two s**ts who’s number two or three, so that’s what it is. Put them all in.”
Grateful to be back in the environment he enjoys most, Edwards says he’s feeling “normal, natural” and excited to finally be back under the lights Saturday evening. And while the biggest challenge some fighters face during a layoff is emulating the intensity of competition in their own gyms, the Brummie has managed to stay sharp during the abyss of a never-ending camp, thanks to his ever-changing return date.
“This is my fourth camp that I’ve had in the last year,” Edwards said with a chuckle. “If I’m not ready now, I’m never going to be ready. It’s all in your preparation. If you prepare correctly, if your mindset is in the right place, I don’t believe in [ring rust].”
“Rocky” cited last weekend’s performances of Dominick Cruz and Islam Makhachev as examples of his thoughts on the fable of ring rust, adding that “people only mention ring rust when the guy comes out and they lose the fight. But when you win, no one mentions anything about time off.”
The 29-year-old, who under normal circumstances fights an average of twice per year, has worked to polish the skills required to extend his eight-fight win streak even further en route to a shot at the title.
“If I was fighting back to back, you don’t improve as fast, because you’re always preparing for an opponent,” Edwards explained. “I’ve used the last year and a half to up my skillset, up my mental state. I feel great and I’m eager to get back in the Octagon.”
Looking forward to finally testing himself again, Edwards believes a ferocious Muhammad is just another pitstop on the way to the top of the division.
“I’ve seen his fights during camp. He’s a good, durable opponent. He’s just coming off a good win about a month ago, but I just believe I’m better. However the fight goes, I believe I’m better.”
Looking to build on a win streak that rivals only the champion Kamaru Usman in the welterweight division, Edwards believes that if he keeps being himself, he’ll be after gold by the end of 2021.
“They cannot deny a winner,” Edwards said. “I’ll be a world champion if it goes the way I plan by the end of the year.”