Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. Leon Edwards fights Kamaru Usman on August 20 at UFC 278.
Why? What if? Those are the questions I ask myself every day.
What if my dad didn’t bring me to the United Kingdom? What if my gym never opened in the Erdington neighborhood of Birmingham, England? It’s just mad — it’s a crazy thing.
Why was I the one who made it off the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, who escaped the killing, the drugs and the poverty when so many others didn’t?
I don’t have the answer, really. But I do know I have a purpose. It’s not just to be a UFC fighter or the future welterweight champion of the world. It’s more than that.
I was born in Kingston. I lived with my father, my mother and my brother, Fabian, in a wooden shack with a zinc roof. It wasn’t a one-bedroom; it was one room, period. In that room was the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom. We had one bed that we all slept in. That was most people’s upbringing where I’m from.
It was tough, but as a kid, it just seemed normal because everyone around you was living the same way. I was still happy as a kid. My mom and my dad provided me with most things I wanted in life. It was never a sad story.
I realized as I got a bit older why I was the first kid in my neighborhood to have a remote-control car and a bike. My father was involved in, let’s just say, questionable activities. Everyone would show him respect. I knew he was important in the community. I knew what he did — everyone knew what he did.
Because of my father, I was somewhat protected. But Kingston was crazy. It was filled with crime and gangs. The road you lived on was your “lane.” That’s your area and you can’t go anywhere else. You’re constantly beefing with people down the road from you. At night, you couldn’t go down those other roads. Everyone is broke, but they’re still warring over territory. It’s probably the poverty and hunger that does it to men. It’s mad.
As a kid growing up in Jamaica, all you see is crime, drugs, killing, shooting, poverty. Day in and day out. I’ve never seen someone get shot in front of my face, but I’ve seen people who were hit with bullets running to get away.
Killing became normal to me as a kid. Hearing gunshots was normal; it did not faze me. When you’re playing outside in Jamaica and you hear gunshots, you don’t run and hide. You just look, and if it’s nowhere near you, you carry on with your day. That was it. It is a part of life. We didn’t know any better.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my father moved to London, where his mother was living. My dad sent for us — my mom, Fabian and me — when I was about 9 years old. We moved to Aston, a crime-ridden neighborhood in Birmingham. My dad stayed in London and we saw him on some weekends. He bought us a house, and my mom worked cleaning jobs to support us.
Aston was in a constant gang war. There was the Johnson Crew and the Burger Bar Boys. They were rivals, and violence constantly broke out between both sides. I fell in with the younger kids.
I didn’t plan to get into a gang. It’s just what you did. It was a means of survival. People don’t understand that your options are limited when you don’t know any better.
When I was 14, my father was murdered. He was shot and killed at a nightclub in London. It was something to do with money. I don’t know what exactly. It was some mad s—, but I knew that it could happen.
But that didn’t make it any easier. It f—ed me up. It pushed me more into gang life and crime, toward the negative. My mid-teens were my darkest years.
My crew was involved with fights, robberies and stabbings. We sold some drugs. We smoked weed and drank, a bit. I was arrested a few times, for fights and having a knife.
It was mostly fighting. I fought to defend friends, I fought to intimidate and I fought because of beefs. I fought all the time. That’s why my nickname is “Rocky.” I got that from school. That’s before I got into MMA. I got it just from scrapping in the streets.
There were a few things I did during this time that I truly regret. It’s hard to believe it was me who did it. It’s like a different life. I don’t like talking about it. And I try every day to make up for them.
When I was 17, my mother and I were walking in Erdington, the part of Birmingham we moved to after Aston. There was a gym being built there, Ultimate Training Center. They were going to train MMA fighters. My mom wanted me to join to get me off the streets. I didn’t really know what MMA was. There wasn’t much of it in the UK at the time. My mom could barely afford to pay membership fees, but somehow she made it work.
I’m truly grateful for what she did for me. I didn’t see it when I was a kid, but now I’ve got a little boy, as well. Now I know she did what she had to do to survive. I never went without something.
I was training two to three times per day, every day. A few months in, I asked the gym manager if I could work there teaching younger kids and not have to pay dues. He agreed.
I had my first amateur fight eight months into training. Then I won four fights in one day, winning a tournament at the gym. From then on, I stuck to MMA. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was a natural at it. I believe this is what God put me here to do.
My friends started to train in MMA too. I was in the gym so much, they followed me there. Most of the young black kids in the neighborhood, they were coming in too. They were seeing my success and trying to follow my path. I’m very proud of that. That’s one of my main things: When you see someone successful who came from where you came from and now he’s doing good in something, you want to follow it. I showed them a different way.
“There were a few things I did during this time that I truly regret. It’s hard to believe it was me who did it. I don’t like talking about it.”
UFC welterweight Leon Edwards
In 2014, I won the BAMMA welterweight title in London, and I signed with the UFC later that year. Once you see a different way of life, you get a different vision of life. For me, now, I travel a lot, and I see more people in different ways of life. You learn from each of them. It opens your brain up to so much. Now I can pass that down to my family, to my son, to everyone around me.
My son, Jayon, is 6 years old. My main motivation is to leave something for my kid that I never had. I know what it feels like to be where I was. That’s why I push so hard day in and day out — to give him and my whole family the best life I can.
It’s an amazing thing to have achieved what I’ve achieved coming from where I’ve come from. The people I knew back then have taken a totally different path. Somehow, I’ve made it to this position in my life, to be able to give back. Now my brother, Fabian, is doing the same thing fighting for Bellator. I’m very proud of him.
I do everything I can for my family and others, because I know what could have been. There were people I knew who are still stuck in that situation I was in, and they’re either dead, in prison or dead broke. That could have happened to me. That was the life. I’d probably be in the same position they’re in if things didn’t work out differently. I still don’t know why it did.
That’s why I go back to my old high school, Aston Manor Academy, and talk to the kids. I tell them where I started and that where you start doesn’t matter, it’s where you end up that matters. You can control your life. You don’t have to be what anybody wants you to be. Control your life and you can be anything in life.
I’m in the process of buying a home in Birmingham. And I’m like the bank for my family now. I try to give them everything they need. My mother is trying to open up a Jamaican restaurant. Two weeks ago, I flew my grandmother — my mom’s mother — to Birmingham. She’s almost 80 years old, and it was her first time out of Jamaica. Can you believe that? When I get back from the fight, I look forward to spending more time with her. I want to show her London and Buckingham Palace. All that tourist stuff.
I never dreamed of being a top-10 fighter in the world as a kid. Never. That wasn’t even a thought in my head. To come now to be where I am, it’s f—ing mad. It’s crazy.
I know what my future holds. I truly believe I’m made to be in this position, this is what I’m here for and this is what I’m meant to be doing. This is the way it’s supposed to happen. I know one day I’ll be UFC champion.