One year ago, Leon Edwards was preparing for a headlining bout against former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in front of thousands of people at The O2 Arena in London, his first UFC main-event opportunity on home soil in the United Kingdom.
Obviously, the event never took place, given that the world is still in various states of shutdown due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But for Edwards in particular, mid-March 2020 was topsy-turvy as the March 21 event was announced six days in advance to have shifted across the pond to a to-be-determined U.S. location.
The Birmingham, England-based Edwards said last year he had “three or four hours to get to the airport” in London, without knowing the destination and lacking assurance he could return home amid rapidly-forming travel restrictions. So, he did the sensible thing and pulled out. One day later, that event was scrapped, becoming the first of five that would no longer take place in 2020 as the globe regrouped.
Fast forward to Saturday, and Edwards (18-3, nine finishes) is once again poised to headline a UFC Fight Night on ESPN+, this time with no fans in attendance at UFC Apex in Las Vegas against Belal Muhammad.
But even the intervening 12 months have seen “a lot of ups and downs and frustration,” Edwards told The Post over the phone on Tuesday. His original opponent, prospect Khamzat Chimaev, was forced to withdraw because of his prolonged bout with the effects of COVID-19. This came after the two originally were to headline a Dec. 19 event which was scrapped as both men came down with the virus.
While Edwards has gotten back to competition faster than Chimaev — who appeared to signal retirement last month amid anguish from his illness, although UFC president Dana White maintains the 26-year-old has not ended his career — the well-regarded welterweight own contender said his battle with coronavirus was “quite bad” beginning around the time the calendar flipped from November to December. His lungs weren’t operating well enough to maintain any sort of training schedule.
“I lost like 6 kg [13 pounds],” Edwards said. “… I had a full two weeks off [training] that the doctor recommended.”
Edwards says he’s back at full strength, with his weight and lung capacity returning to normal. That opened the door for the bout to be rebooked for Jan. 20 but was again postponed to this weekend to give Chimaev more time. But even the Chimaev booking was not ideal, as Edwards had been chasing some of his fellow top contenders at 170 pounds. Those opportunities against recent title challengers never materialized.
“Before the Chimaev fight [was scheduled], we were pushing for [Jorge] Masvidal, pushing for Colby Covington,” Edwards said. “These guys, they kept turning me down.”
Edwards accepted the Chimaev fight as a means of simply returning to activity, with his most recent victory over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos coming back on July 20, 2019 — nearly 20 months ago at this point. It’s for that reason he remains on Saturday’s card against Muhammad (18-3, five finishes), who has won eight of nine but none against top-ranked competition.
Regardless, Edwards says he’s approaching the Muhammad bout with the mentality of a championship fight. A winner of eight in a row and 10 of 11, he would like to get himself a rematch with the man who handed him his lone blemish over the past six years: welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. In Edawrds’ mind, a finish might not be enough to prove he deserves to be the next title challenger.
“I have to go out there, [and] I have to prove my case to everybody,” Edwards said.
When asked by BT Sport if Edwards would earn the next title shot with a “spectacular show” on Saturday, White replied, “100 percent.” While that’s far from a guarantee — and past pre-fight proclamations like this from the UFC president haven’t always held true — it’s nonetheless an indicator of how much the 30-year-old has riding on this one.
Neither Edwards nor Muhammad is considered to be a reliable finisher. Each has competed 12 times in the octagon, with a combined four bouts ending within the distance. While Edwards’ first UFC victory in 2015 came by way of eight-second KO, the remaining finishes among the two men each came in the third round. In other words: Settle in for this weekend’s five-round main event.
Of the two, only 32-year-old Muhammad has been stopped in his career — a first-round KO at the heavy hands of Vicente Luque. Edwards believes he can become the second man to put away the Chicago native, whom he praised for his durability.
“I feel I have the tools to finish him,” said the well-rounded Edwards.