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Winning is no longer enough for Leon Edwards

Winning is no longer enough for Leon Edwards

Leon Edwards speaking a UFC media day

The Shawshank Redemption has held IMDB’s #1 spot for what, 15 years? More? Whatever the exact figure, it’s a long time, and deservedly so – it’s pretty much the perfect film.

It entirely fulfills the construct of what the perfect cinematic representation of the human experience should be; Andy Dufresne, unfairly judged, struggles through misfortune and hardship to the literal light at the end of the tunnel. But something about it doesn’t sit quite right.

It’s only partially satisfactory to the audience, not really loved.

Perhaps it’s Andy. When he does make it out, our applause is appreciative and dutiful, not rapturous. Maybe he’s just not that likable?

To say the same of Leon Edwards would be unfair. But if you were sitting in London’s O2 Arena around 9:30 pm on March 16 of this year, you’d think he’d offended most of the building.

It wasn’t the amount of booing that was surprising, rather that there was booing at all. The hometown boy, riding a six-fight winning streak in the sport’s hardest division, is getting this treatment? Granted his opponent that night – the Icelandic-Irish cross, Gunnar Nelson’s uniquely loyal and vocal fanbase had a strong turn-out, but even the home-crowd were participating.

Tickets for the UFC’s yearly journey to London are gold-dust, so fans always expect the card’s participants to pay their pound of flesh; the faster and more brutal, usually the better.

Back in his BAMMA days, victories of that ilk were rife; five fights, five finishes (two submissions, three TKOs), but his UFC campaign hasn’t been as explosive. It’s been more a case of chipping away at a seemingly immovable object, with a small sharp tool.

Leon Edwards strikes Gunnar Nelson with a left elbow
Leon Edwards strikes Gunnar Nelson with a left elbow (UFC/Getty Images)

April 11, 2015 – It only took Leon Edwards eight seconds to record his first UFC victory.

The bell rang, his opponent, Seth “The Polish Pistola” Baczynski met him in the center, immediately throwing two ‘jab jab cross’ combinations – both disdainfully blocked by Edwards.

Baczynski drops his hands to throw a front kick, bang. Edwards lands a flush straight left, drops two more for good measure on the prone Pole and is up and walking away before referee Grant Waterman can intervene.

He had secured the second-fastest KO in UFC welterweight history in his opponent’s backyard. Six months prior he had dropped his UFC debut to Claudio Silva, but now “Rocky” could feel like he had arrived. What’s more, if he got the $50K Performance of The Night bonus, life would take on a whole different meaning.

“That would change my life forever,” he told the immediate post-fight scrum. “I’d be able to commit to full-time MMA without worrying about money or anything.”

Up until that night, 23-year-old Edwards worked at his gym, Birmingham’s Team Renegade, teaching classes and personal training sessions to finance his fighting career. But this was him making it, and he was in.

That was March 2016.

In the three years and change since, Edwards has fought nine times, coming out the right side on eight; the only blip being a decision loss to now-champion Kamaru Usman a week before Christmas 2015.

But somehow, Edwards has not faced a welterweight ranked better than #13.

Luque, Tumenov, Cerrone, Nelson; all have fallen to Edwards, and still, he remains outside the inner circle. Was it something he said?

Looking back, it very well could have been. Edwards’ first ‘big’ win came over now fully-fledged title-prospect, Vincente Luque – then in his promotional infancy – back at UFC London 2017. What’s next for him, the media asked. “Donald Cerrone,” Edwards replied.

“There’s no specific reason,” he said. “I wanna keep climbing. I’ve just beaten the number 13 guy in the world so I’d like to just keep improving to get to where I want to get to, which is the title so as long as it’s another opponent above me, I don’t mind.”

A workman’s attitude DuFresne can relate to.

“Just keep chipping away, a lot of people talk shit but as long as you perform in the cage that’s all that matters,” he added.

He wanted to stay in Europe that year; flying his team out to the USwas out of the question financially and outweighed the returns of featuring on a showcase card. July’s UFC Glasgow was an option, then another before the year’s end.

Welterweights ended up headlining the Glasgow card, but Edwards didn’t – Gunnar Nelson instead getting the nod after his Performance of The Night win over Alan Jouban, on the same UFC London card Edwards took the decision W over Luque.

No matter, keep chipping away – eyes on the prize.

Next for Edwards was the lower-ranked fighting Flintstone, Bryan Barbarena, in Rotterdam, September 2017. Edwards again got the win, again by decision. It was a hard-fought victory; surviving an early knockdown and having to grind out to the final bell.

Post-fight, Edwards was adamant a top 15 opponent was next. It had to be didn’t it? The four-fight win streak demanded it.

What’s more, six months removed from UFC London, Edwards knew it was time to fight state-side to get eyeballs on his career. He was happy to “keep chipping away,” but Europe was starting to feel like a confined space from which he needed to break free.

His goals for the next step: Donald Cerrone, a top 15 opponent and a spot on a US card.

Again, none materialized – progress was slow, to the point of being unnoticeable. How long would this purgatory last?

Had Andy DuFresne had a pneumatic Jackhammer, he’d probably have drilled the 19 feet to freedom in a few very loud hours. Had Edwards swung for the fences in the Octagon and dropped heat on the microphone, he may have got some of his wishes. But in both cases, what good is the risk if the threat of defeat is so large?

As he said before, “a lot of people talk sh*t but as long as you perform in the cage that’s all that matters.” – right?

Leon Edwards attempts a left punch against Gunnar Nelson
Leon Edwards attempts a left punch against Gunnar Nelson (UFC/Getty Images)

Enter Darren Till. The scouse scrapper’s UFC tenure began only six months after Edwards’, and yet their 2015-2018 journeys are chalk and cheese.

Not in terms of Octagon results; Till running 4-0-1 and Edwards 7-2 are pretty comparable, but Till seemed to have an ethereal force behind him. It’s not as if he was a one-man wrecking crew, with only one finish in his first four. But while Edwards’s progression coasted, Till caught a wave.

There’s no doubt that he has a compelling background. But he’s by no means the only one with a colorful story to tell. Edwards embodies an immigrant success story; born in Jamaica, surrounded by UK gang culture in his youth – a compelling narrative, should he choose to share it.

But it was Till who was pipped for stardom. The man in the cage and the man on the microphone knew each other well and worked in concert to win him attention. He was making noise in the town of welterweight. And when a new gunslinger shows up, the powers that be roll out the sheriff.

And there it is, the power of personality. Till stole Edwards’ long requited showdown with Cowboy in November 2017. Securing the Cerrone match-up, and the resulting second-round TKO officially handed Till his stripes. He was in.

Edwards knew he’d missed the boat, sticking to the quiet grind. He kept winning, beating Peter Sobotta some four months after Till’s victory over Cowboy, but he wasn’t happy. And in a way, it was sort of his own fault.

“Darren somehow leapfrogged me to get the Cerrone fight,” he said at the Werdum vs. Volkov post-fight presser. “I feel like I’m the number one welterweight in the world.”

Asked if he was happy for his countryman’s success, he clearly wasn’t.

“I don’t care, fair play to the man you know, fair play to him. I don’t care.”

“I’m trying to prove that you don’t have to be in the states to try to ‘improve’ yourself. You’ve got everything you need here (the UK).”

As he said it, he knew he something had to change. Europe simply didn’t have the gravity to attract the division’s biggest stars; titles were earned and won in the states.

“The top 10 guys are refusing to come over to the UK, I feel like I’ve got to go to the states and hunt them down,” he conceded.

When Edwards finally did get the Cowboy fight, it played out in the fashion we have become accustomed to; Edwards took the fight the full five rounds to a unanimous decision win under the dazzling lights of Kallang, Singapore. Okay, so he hadn’t matched Till’s performance. But both men were suitably bloodied to indicate an ‘exciting’ fight had occurred. If Edwards could get on the microphone and throw some smoke, maybe he’d get some steam.

What followed was a mixed bag. Edwards asked for Masvidal at UFC Birmingham; a great fight by all accounts but something of a ‘right time, wrong place’ scenario for his title aspirations.

Leon Edwards lands a left hand inside the UFC octagon
Leon Edwards throws a left punch (UFC/Getty Images)

But some momentum was building. The match-makers gave him the co-main event position in March’s UFC London 2019, and another name – Gunnar Nelson.

The night as a whole was a real doozy for Edwards. His entrance, marred by boos from his own fans. The fight, dominant but in a non-explosive fashion. The resulting split decision win, surprising, unjust and somewhat unhelpful to his cause.

Darren Till was supposed to be the star of the night. It ended up being Jorge Masvidal, a fight with whom Edwards had been calling for. His knocking out of Till aside, March 16 was the resurrection for Masvidal’s aura and the birthplace of his most viral moment (pre-flying knee) – the ‘three-piece and soda.’

And here we see the problem clearer than ever before. You can bet the casual fan knows the Masvidal ‘three-piece’ – but could they name who he gave it to?

Throughout his career, Edwards has done mostly all the right things in the octagon; relentlessly chipping away at the opposition given to him. When we think of long roads to titles, it seems like he’s been fighting forever. But in reality, he hasn’t. His PR and post-fight approach just make it seem that way.

This coming weekend, he has his chance at validation; a stateside encounter with Rafael Dos Anjos, who is running hot with a capital ‘h’ after submitting Kevin Lee in May and represents the division’s creme de la creme. But let’s say Edwards does win, even by stoppage – the welterweight division doesn’t suffer quiet grinders gladly. There is simply too much personality. On his current MO, even with a win, the title shot he’s been doggedly pursuing for six years could be just as far away.

A big performance in the ring is the foundation, but it needs some salt, some spice, something to provoke. The time for “chipping away” has gone, think Expendables over Shawshank.

Ironically, Cerrone’s comments after his dance with Edwards and the resulting reaction to them, summed up Edwards’ time in the UFC better than he ever has been able to.

“I love this s*** man. I love it, I love it, I love it”.

Serenaded to the raucous Singapore crowd by Dan Hardy, feathered-Stetson raised aloft; Cerrone had won everything but the fight – an appeal so universal, it does the matchmaking for him.

People love the fighter, not necessarily the winner. Edwards has been the consummate victor for the last three years, but for the fight for fan adoration. Inside the cage, it’s not any fault of his own. He’s there to win, and win he does. But let’s remember that this sport is, whether we like it or not, part performing art.

Edwards, much like DuFresne, will probably get a shot at his goal in the end and when it happens, we can all appreciate the monumental struggle it took to get there.

But are we thrilled about it?



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