“You're not black, you're from the Bahamas.”
Yves Edwards can chuckle about that statement now, but it still hasn’t lost its ability to make him shake his head in wonder.
“I don't know how where I'm from changes the color of my skin,” said the longtime lightweight contender who may be best described as the best 155-pounder in the world when the UFC didn’t have the division in the Octagon.
And when he was in those prime years, introducing everyone to Thug-Jitsu along the way, those were the kind of comments he heard, sometimes even before he joined the punch for pay ranks in 1997.
“I think it was probably different for me than it was for a lot of African Americans,” he said. “I can't say for sure because I didn't have their experience, but that was one thing that stood out early for me.”
It was one of many things that did for the Nassau native, who arrived in Texas as a teenager in 1992.
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“It was a huge culture shock,” admitted Edwards. “I'm from an island that's 29 by 7 and when I leave the island, there are about 200,000 people on it. And then I come to Houston and it's a city of four million people. I visited before but living there was when it set in, and there's a bunch of things that I had not noticed in prior visits. This is 1992 in Texas, and there are people driving around in pickup trucks with AK-47s hanging in the rear windshield. They're also riding around with confederate flags. To this day, there's a corner that's not very far from my daughter's house, and where I had my house when I was in Texas, where on any given Saturday, you can drive by and the entire corner is just lined with confederate flags that are for sale, and people are driving in and flying them off of their car. You see that in South Florida also.”
Edwards, now 44, never forgot those days, and how could he? That’s not to say he was living in fantasyland back in the Bahamas, but in his new home, things were quite different, and not in a good way.
“Part of the problem for me was, because I grew up in a place where everybody was the same, I approached a lot of situations different than I know some Black Americans would,” he said. “I did not have that foundational, institutionalized racism as a part of my upbringing. I've always known I was Black, ever since I was a kid in the Bahamas, but I literally have never had a gun pulled on me until I was in America. I was in America for maybe six months before walking across a parking lot and this guy is driving through the parking lot really quick and I'm not moving fast enough for him, so as he drives by, he yells out of the window to a 15-year-old, 'Hurry the f**k up, n***er.'”
Comments like that will scar, but Edwards soon found some sense of peace through martial arts, mainly a kung fu school about two miles away from his high school. But even then, less than a year into his stay in Houston, there were instances that stuck with him.
“I'm walking one day and right next to this kung fu school that I go to, there's a police storefront for the Houston Police Department,” Edwards recalled. “And I'm walking by a light about half a mile away and this White cop sees me and he points to me and he shoots me with finger guns. I'm like, 'Oh, he got me,' and I shoot him back and I'm laughing about it. And I'm walking and I have this big trench coat on and nunchucks in my pocket, which are illegal in Texas, don't ask me why.”
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Edwards didn’t give the encounter any mind until he and stepfather watched a movie about the Black Panthers and a similar situation took place, but the kid didn’t shoot back. Edwards told his father.
“He sat me down and had a real talk with me. And it didn't sink in until we had this conversation after seeing that scene in the Black Panthers movie.”
What sunk in is that what some may see as harmless may not be depending on the circumstances, and while Edwards has always been a gentleman and ambassador for his sport, he’s also held back in situations where he would have normally defended himself but didn’t.
“With that understanding is how I've approached a lot of situations where I could potentially get into a fight with a White kid or a bunch of White kids,” he said. “I'm gonna be the one that you look at first. I'm gonna be the troublemaker, defending myself or not. So there's been too many times that I've walked away. I get angry about these things; I don't like that feeling. And that's a real thing.”
It’s draining, and almost hard to fathom if you’ve never lived it, but Edwards has. Thankfully, most of that negativity didn’t get into his professional life other than the usual nonsense through social media and message boards, giving him a sort of safe place in the midst of an opponent trying to punch him in the face.
“I've had those instances, but I've never had those instances within the sport except hearing inside the cage, ‘Kick his black ass' or s**t like that, but nothing to my face, and that's probably because I was a fighter. A lot of the time it was outside of the sport. Most of the racial things that I got were emails, DMs, messages on message boards. There was very rarely something to my face around the mixed martial arts scene. So, for me, most of those interactions came outside of the sport. And you make a choice in those moments because there's gonna be consequences for you, him and / or both.”
These days, the retired prizefighter is a proud grandpa and a new father, and if that’s not enough (good) work, he’s also staying busy outside the home with a number of projects.
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“I've been training a lot, thinking about competing again - just grappling tournaments,” he said. “That seems like that's a whole lot of fun. I am building another podcast that's gonna be a lot of fun and I'm excited about that. And I'm doing a little bit more acting. I just filmed a short with Din Thomas, so we're both dabbling in that acting world and we're gonna take the same drive that we brought to MMA to getting in front of the camera.”
It’s two of the good guys of the game getting together while making a smooth transition to life after fighting. And in the process, letting a new generation know that it’s a good thing to be proud of who you are.
“I remember seeing Apartheid on the news as a kid in the Bahamas,” Edwards said. “I remember being angry about it because I could imagine what it would be like to be in a place and be threatened just because of the color of my skin, to be looked at as less than just because of the color of my skin. But I never thought somebody was in a better position than me because of the color of their skin because of where I came from. I was raised to believe in my value and go for what I wanted.”