Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and in the UFC welterweight division, that crown now rests upon the head of Birmingham, England’s Leon “Rocky” Edwards.
Last August, after amassing a 10-fight unbeaten streak, the Jamaican-born standout finally got the opportunity to share the Octagon with champion Kamaru Usman in the main event of UFC 278. Usman was the last man to defeat Edwards, beating him by unanimous decision in December 2015 while the Brit was still getting acclimated to competing on the UFC roster and Usman in the early days of the 15-fight winning streak he carried with him into their pay-per-view clash last summer in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After 24 minutes of action, Usman was a minute away from a sixth consecutive successful title defense and Edwards was on the cusp of letting the moment he’d been chasing for years slip from his grasp, until he uncorked a left high kick that shook the MMA world to its core and changed everything in an instant.
“How much the story has changed from when we first talked,” Edwards said, relaxing in a London hotel room just a few days out from his championship rematch with Usman at UFC 286, reflecting on his journey and the many times we’d spoken in the past.
When I ask him about the weight of being champion, the pressure that rests on his shoulders and the obligations that come with carrying the UFC welterweight title, he smiles, admitting things were initially challenging, but are much more settled now.
“Shoulders are feeling good, head is good,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been conditioned now to being champion — I’ve gotten used to the life and enjoying the process of it. At the start, like a month in, I was getting pulled from left, right, and center, but now I’m able to focus in and enjoy the process of it.
“I think it’s easy,” Edwards responded when asked about finding the balance between being the champion in public and doing what he needs to do in the gym in order to remain atop the division through this weekend and beyond. “I train every day anyway, and it’s easy for me to say ‘No’ because if I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I think guys, once they become champion, the game consumes them and they fall in love with the life but, for me, my main aim is always to be in the gym.
“Living the lifestyle comes secondary,” he added. “It’s always been that way and it still is that way.”
Nearly seven months after that fateful night in Salt Lake City, Edwards and Usman are set to meet for a third time, with the welterweight title again hanging in the balance, in one of the most fascinating championship rematches in UFC history.
Their encounter at UFC 278 played out like a three-act play, but left the audience with numerous questions that Saturday’s main event will hopefully answer.
Edwards won the first round, surprising Usman by taking him down, taking his back, and controlling him for the duration for the frame to open an early lead before the champion took control through the middle frames, drawing level and distancing himself from the challenger until the shocking ending.
While the specter of that contest still hovers over this weekend’s headlining clash, the champion says he has moved on from that victory, but wonders, like everyone else, if Usman can say the same.
“I’ve forgotten about that fight now — it’s done; that moment has passed,” offered Edwards, his focus locked on defending his title, solidifying his place atop the welterweight division, and beginning what he envisions as a long, lengthy championship reign. “I enjoyed it, but now it’s going back to the drawing board, going back into camp, and breaking him down for what he’s good at and not good at.
“We’ve spent a lot of time fighting each other — we both know each other inside and out — and I’m confident I will be victorious on Saturday night.
“For me, that was one of the worst performances of my career, and I still ended up knocking him out so, for me, it’s easier to shut it off,” he said, fighting off a chuckle when asked about his ability to move on from that encounter while it likely still lingers for Usman. “For him, he’s seen this replay over and over and over again, every time he goes on his phone, someone’s tagging him in it.
“A bad knockout like that does change a lot of fighters. Has it changed him? We don’t know; we’ll see Saturday night.”
When I ask how he intends to find out what kind of lasting impact, if any, the finish from their last fight has had on Usman and suggest an early return to the same-side high kick that ended that fight, Edwards can’t hold back a laugh.
“There are many different things he does that I can capitalize on, and I will look to do that,” he said, smiling a Cheshire Cat grin.
While his confidence is apparent and abundant, what resonates most about Edwards just a few days ahead of his trilogy bout with Usman is how at ease he is, which is a stark cry from the first few times we spoke.
Early interviews featured short sentences and cliched responses that offered little insight into who he is as a fighter or a man; a private person not yet comfortable having outsiders probing for answers and to uncover more about an ascending fighter whose life path shifted upon moving to England and who only discovered mixed martial arts towards the end of his teenage years.
Lounging on a hotel bed, taking occasional draws from a large bottle of water, he laughs freely and answers every question with detail and insights that paint a picture of a man who has grown comfortable in his new position as UFC welterweight champion, and one eager to defend his belt on home soil on Saturday night.
“It means the world,” he said of fighting in London, where he’s 3-0 in the UFC. “If you asked any athlete what their dream scenario would be, it would be this: going back home, on your home turf, defending your belt in a sold-out arena for one of the biggest pay-per-view cards that has ever touched this soil.
“It’s gonna be a fantastic event. It’s gonna be a great night for the fans, and a great night for me and my family, so I’m excited. I’ve done all the work, I’ve put all the time into it, and I will get a fantastic performance.”
Back in August, everyone saw the emotions pour out of Edwards following his walk-off knockout win — from the pride and defiance of a doubted challenger that pulled victory from the jaws of defeat to a tearful son on a video call with his mother, having reached the pinnacle of the sport and changed their lives in an instant.
It was a moment that clearly meant everything to Edwards, but like the fight itself, it’s a moment that has passed, with the opportunity to create another lasting memory before him this weekend.
So what will it mean to stand in the center of the Octagon on Saturday night, a deafening roar echoing throughout The O2, Bruce Buffer bellowing out “And Still!” as UFC President Dana White wraps the welterweight title around his waist, the champion having successfully defended his belt?
“Even you just saying that gave me goosebumps,” said Edwards, laughing as he clinches his fists and shakes with excitement. “It’s gonna mean the world to me, and to be able to share this moment with my friends and family and all my loved ones is gonna be even more special.
“Just you explaining it like that gave me goosebumps,” he added, that Cheshire Cat grin having returned once again. “It’s gonna be good.”