Leon Edwards: ‘This is the new school of MMA – I’m able to do it all’

Interview: Birmingham welterweight takes on Nate Diaz this weekend as the UFC turns a non-title, non-main event bout into a five-round fight for the first time

Alex Pattle
Tuesday 16 November 2021 11:51
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<p>Leon Edwards in action in March</p>

Leon Edwards in action in March

In the years since the inception of MMA, the perception of the sport has changed significantly, with the violence on display in the ring perceived as much less primitive than it once was. The MMA fanbase, however, can still be tribal.

‘Hardcore’ fans often exude a loathing for their ‘casual’ counterparts that verges on snobbery, but ahead of Leon Edwards’ fight with Nate Diaz this weekend, the more committed followers of the sport are entitled to some incredulity.

The week-in week-out watchers will tell you that Birmingham-based Edwards is going to systematically, perhaps surgically dismantle the superstar standing on the opposite side of the UFC Octagon, and that he will secure a welterweight title shot against Kamaru Usman in the process. Any belief in Diaz from the casual viewers will profit from the Stockton native’s profile, enhanced significantly by his submission victory over Conor McGregor in early 2017 and the classic rematch that followed soon after.

That belief in Diaz will also be bolstered by the impression of Edwards, a near-inversion of his UFC 263 opponent’s. The Jamaican-born Briton’s reputation lacks reach because it is founded almost entirely on his in-ring abilities – which he executes with versatility and a clinical edge – and because he is more than happy to let those qualities take precedent over any verbal vitriol.

EXCLUSIVE: How MMA turned my life around – Leon Edwards

That is not to say, however, that Edwards’ confidence isn’t apparent in conversation. “Nate’s a tough, durable opponent, he’s been like that since the start of his career. But I just feel this is the new school of MMA – I’m able to do it all,” Edwards says ahead of his clash with Diaz this Saturday.

“I can strike, I’ve got great jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kickboxing, boxing. It’s gonna be an interesting fight, [but] I’ll be ready for wherever the fight goes.”

There will be a historic element to the contest, which marks the first time the UFC has turned a non-title, non-main event bout into a five-round fight.

“More of a beating for him, longer punishment for him,” Edwards (18-3) says. “He takes a lot, he can give as much as he can take. I know everyone is picking me to win, obviously I’m picking myself to win as well. I might go out there and smoke him in a round, or it might be a tough fight for five rounds, but I always see myself victorious.”

Nate Diaz last fought in November 2019, losing to Jorge Masvidal via doctor stoppage

Edwards, 29, last tasted defeat in 2015, when he was outpointed by current welterweight champion Usman. He responded by winning eight fights in a row, only to see his momentum halted not by an opponent but rather by bad luck.

After dominating former lightweight titleholder Rafael dos Anjos in July 2019, Edwards’ match-up with former welterweight king Tyron Woodley in London was cancelled at the last moment due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the months that followed, Edwards was scheduled to face rising star Khamzat Chimaev on three occasions, but the Russian-born Swede was forced to withdraw each time due to his struggles with Covid. In March this year, Edwards finally returned to the ring and was excelling in a main event against Belal Muhammad – a late replacement for Chimaev – until an accidental eye poke by the Briton left his opponent unable to continue. The bout ended as a no contest.

Edwards was then scheduled to face Diaz in May in a quick turnaround, but the Californian suffered an injury that forced the bout to be scrapped. It will, however, finally take place in Glendale, Arizona this weekend. That is the plan, at least.

“This is the fight that will put me where I belong,” says Edwards, who is set to earn a rematch with Usman if he wins here, benefiting from the unranked Diaz’s star power rather than any stature the 36-year-old has in the 175lbs division. “Everyone knows Nate. This is a guy that I grew up watching – him and his brother [Nick].

“After the fight in March, I was chilling and my manager phoned me and went: ‘You wanna fight Nate?’ I was like: ‘Yeah...’ Nate just phoned the UFC, saying he wants to fight me. I was like: ‘Perfect.’”

Edwards en route to victory over Donald Cerrone in 2018

For all the roadblocks that have interrupted Edwards’ momentum recently, his relative inactivity in that time does not compare to that of Diaz. The American last fought in November 2019, losing to Jorge Masvidal via doctor stoppage, three months after outpointing Anthony Pettis in what was Diaz’s first fight in exactly three years.

Edwards expects no hesitation from Diaz this Saturday, however, given his opponent’s experience. Diaz (20-12) began his professional career in 2004, aged 19, before debuting in the UFC in 2007. His meeting with Edwards at UFC 263 will be his 33rd pro bout.

“I don’t think Nate ever comes out to fight timid,” Edwards says. “He’s always shown up in shape, comes to have a fight. [But] if I go out there and be myself, I win the fight – let alone making a gameplan to beat him. If I can frustrate him, it’s is gonna be even worse for him.

“I don’t want no blood-fest if I can help it,” Edwards laughs, hinting at the typical nature of Diaz’s fights. “I’m going in there to put him away, to hurt him. I wanna get a stoppage in this fight and prove something to the UFC, to the world.”

Edwards wants to leave no doubt that he is worthy of a rematch with Usman – this time with the title on the line – “in September or October”. Since the pair last fought, Usman (19-1) has won 12 in a row, extending his win streak to 18. That run has seen him claim the welterweight belt and defend it four times, breaking records along the way.

So what has changed since Edwards fought Usman six years ago?

“Everything,” the Briton insists. “When I fought Usman, I was a young 23-year-old. I’d just come into the UFC, was learning my way. I am now a veteran in the UFC, I’ve fought many different styles, and I just feel I’m a totally different person from what I was back then.

Kamaru Usman knocked out Jorge Masvidal in April to retain his title

“And everything Usman does is predictable. I won’t lie, he has improved, but he’s fallen in love with his striking and I think that will probably be his downfall.”

The recognition that would come with a UFC title win – or even a victory over Diaz – is not something about which Edwards has ever been especially bothered. Instead, the 29-year-old’s focus throughout his career has been on inspiring kids in Birmingham and keeping them off the streets, where he spent much of his youth. Alongside Liverpudlian UFC middleweight Darren Till and former UFC light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa, Edwards is leading a youth mentoring programme that has seen the UFC partner with UK charity OnSide.

“It means everything to me,” Edwards says. “I know where these kids are coming from, I’ve been there and done it. This is a passion of mine. I’ve lost many friends to knife violence – either them doing it or being stabbed. If I could save just one kid, why wouldn’t I?”

As he works outside the ring to help change and save the lives of young people, Edwards will attempt to rescue some momentum inside the Octagon, though the setbacks he has faced over the last 18 months have taught him to adapt his approach to the sport.

“What I’ve learnt to do is not connect my life to results,” he says. “I connect my life to the work I put in. If I put my aim into the results, it’d break me, because there have been so many ups and downs in the last year-and-a-half,” Edwards adds, despite his distinct lack of defeats.

“So, you have to refocus yourself and just control what you can control. Eventually, when I do fight, the result will come.

“If I sit around and mope and feel sorry for myself, the days will pass me by. I have to keep improving.”

Watch UFC® 263: ADESANYA vs. VETTORI 2 main card live from 3am as well as late prelims, which start at 1am, on BT Sport 1, with early prelims live exclusively on Fight Pass from 11pm this Saturday, 12 June.

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