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Leon Edwards of Jamaica prepares to fight Kamaru Usman of Nigeria in a lightweight fight during the UFC 286 event at The O2 Arena on March 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
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Leon Edwards Is Taking It All In Stride

Championship Life Suits Leon Edwards, Who Hopes To Work His Way Toward All-Time Great Status With A Win At UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington

Leon Edwards won the welterweight title about 16 months ago with a head kick heard around the world. Occasionally, though, he’ll wake up, see the UFC belt on his wall and think, “Oh, s***, I’m the champion.”

“Rocky” had a longer path than most to championship life, but that path made the success all the sweeter. More than a year later, Edwards still can’t shake the confounding feeling of achieving a lifelong goal.

Order UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington 

“It’s a weird feeling to set your mind to something, and work toward it over 10 years, and achieve it, especially in this generation,” Edwards told UFC.com. “If you don’t get it straight away, you just kind of move on to something else. Especially the way my career was going — I was winning the fights but wasn’t getting opportunities, so it was a longer road than normal.

“I had to win 10 fights in a row to get a title shot, so it’s a path I’m used to walking. It’s a path that made me stronger. It’s a path that built resilience within me and makes me want to fight harder to keep it.”

Other times, though, it’s easy to remember his breakthrough, including when he leaves his Birmingham home. To the victor goes the spoils, and when asked how life has changed since winning the belt, Edwards’ quick smile speaks to the financial gains one makes as a champion.

He also understands the platform he’s on provides more visibility to the public, for better or worse.

FREE FIGHTS: Edwards vs Diaz | Covington vs Masvidal | Pantoja vs Rovyal 1 | Rovyal vs Schnell

“A lot more people know who (I am) on the street,” he said. “You can’t go out of your house without taking a picture. Loads more media obligations you have to do, but this is what I’ve dreamed of for a long time. This is what fueled me to be where I’m at, to be a world champion. I’m taking it in my stride, embracing it, and enjoying it.”

His response is similar to the way he handled his first main event assignment against Donald Cerrone in June 2018 and speaks to the consistency with which Edwards has maintained himself in and out of the Octagon throughout his career.

Main Event Preview | UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington
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Main Event Preview | UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington
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Of course, winning the belt is one thing. Things change once you’re the one in the black and gold kit befitting a champion. In March, Edwards proved his title-winning knockout wasn’t a fluke as he thwarted Usman from bell-to-bell over the course of five rounds in London’s O2 Arena. Edwards now has his sights on building his legacy as champion with eyes on the still-standing records Georges St-Pierre set during his Hall of Fame career.

Those aspirations bring him to his next test: Colby Covington. The brash American remains omnipresent at the top of the welterweight title picture despite fighting just three times in three years.

The 32-year-old Edwards described Covington as an “annoying bee buzzing in your ear,” which he hopes to rid himself of on December 16. Edwards isn’t underestimating Covington, whose persona can, at times, distract people from the excellent MMA skills he brings into the Octagon.

MORE UFC 296: Fight Card Preview | Main Event Breakdown | Covington In His Own Words | Colby Rates Fellow Welterweights | MMA Coaches Break Down Main Event

“A character is just a character, but the way he competes is just the way he is,” Edwards said. “When the doors are closed, it’s just me and him. (Donald) Trump can’t save him. Nobody can save him. It’s going to be a good fight.”

Noting the similarities between Usman and Covington, Edwards said his duels with Usman helped craft his camp for Covington, who lost two title bids against “The Nigerian Nightmare.” Between the two, Edwards believes Usman is “the better fighter,” but Covington is “a little more aggressive.”

Leon Edwards works out at Fearless MMA on December 7, 2023. (Ryan Carse/Zuffa LLC)
Leon Edwards works out at Fearless MMA on December 7, 2023. (Ryan Carse/Zuffa LLC)

He also pointed out Usman’s “more chill” demeanor compared with the trash-talking Covington. The grating personality of “Chaos,” however, made things a bit more straightforward for Edwards.

“He’s an opponent who was easy to do a training camp for,” Edwards said. “It’s easier to get up in the morning and run, so I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to compete against him, and I’m going in there for the finish. I just don’t really like his character— the character he puts on to the media, anyway. We’re just two different human beings and two different men, and I think that will show on Saturday night.”

How To Watch UFC 296 From Your Country

As UFC 296 represents the organization’s final event of 2023, Edwards has a chance to make his bid for Fighter of the Year if he can make a definitive statement in Las Vegas. Regardless, a year that included main event assignments in London’s O2 Arena and Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena is stuff combat athletes dream of doing. It was a little more than four years ago when the London fans booed Edwards in favor of Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson when the two dueled at UFC Fight Night: Till vs Masvidal. At UFC 286, though, the UK fans gave their champion his flowers.

Headlining in Vegas, which Edwards called “every kid’s dream,” is just another notch on that title belt, the reminder to everyone, including Edwards himself, that he is the best in the world at present. To get to all-time status, Edwards has some work to do. He intends to beat every record St-Pierre set, proposing that he could add another title to his resume before he decides to “walk off into the sunset as the best of all-time.”

It's a long road ahead, but that’s just familiar territory at this point. Edwards wouldn’t want it any other way.

UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 16, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass