Troublemaker to history-maker

Edwards eyes MMA legend Cerrone's scalp to cap first UFC event as headliner

Leon Edwards working out with his trainer ahead of tonight's UFC Fight Night Singapore event at the Indoor Stadium, where his opponent Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is going for a record 21st UFC victory.
Leon Edwards working out with his trainer ahead of tonight's UFC Fight Night Singapore event at the Indoor Stadium, where his opponent Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is going for a record 21st UFC victory.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

It will be a moment to cherish for British mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Leon Edwards when he makes his grand entrance at the Singapore Indoor Stadium tonight.

The 26-year-old will headline an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event for the first time at this year's UFC Fight Night Singapore. Facing him in the Octagon - an unforgiving steel cage that is 9m wide and 1.8m high - is MMA legend Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone from the United States.

It will be Edwards' highest-profile fight to date - he has had nine UFC fights, winning seven of them - and the 1.82m fighter is eager to make his mark.

"For me, headlining Fight Night Singapore means everything," he told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview recently.

"It means all my hard work is paying off and I'm progressing in my career. I'm only 26 years old, so to be coming to Asia and headlining with a big name in this sport like Cowboy... It's amazing to see how far I've come. I'll go out there, prove my case in this fight and look forward to bigger things after this."

To headline a UFC event is "like a dream" for Edwards, who endured a tough childhood after his family emigrated to Birmingham from Jamaica when he was five.

"Finding my way in the country as an immigrant was quite difficult," said the welterweight (up to 77kg) fighter. "I knew no one around the area and, in Erdington where I grew up, there was a lot of gang-related stuff.

"I've been arrested a few times for fights and little stuff like that, and I was kind of leading to that (gang) path until I got into MMA when I was 16."

Growing up in Erdington, Edwards said he got his nickname "Rocky" in school for needing no second invitation to get into a scrap. "I was always that friend that jumped in first in fights," he said, sheepishly.

Edwards attended the same secondary school as former English Premier League and Championship club Stoke's striker Saido Berahino - who was also born outside England, in Burundi - and is proud of his current country of residence.

He believes the current wave of young British fighters, like himself and Liverpool's Darren Till, 25, are proving they can mix it with the best the United States has to offer.

Edwards' rise in the UFC - he is currently the 13th-ranked welterweight - has been relatively quiet, but he will certainly make a lot of people sit up and take notice if he manages to beat the 1.83m Cerrone.

The 35-year-old American is a grizzled veteran of the sport, and is gunning for a record 21st UFC win.

Cerrone, usually laid back before fights, lost his cool recently after Edwards repeatedly mocked him by calling him "old" and "slow".

"He's going to come out hard, strong and cocky. This is a five-round fight so all the attention will be on him. He is the one fighting a legend," said the 11th-ranked welterweight, whose UFC record stands at 20 wins and seven losses.

"He will get tired and this old dog will take over and show him how to do it. I will finish him in the second or third round... I will knock him out, choke him out, make him quit."

Edwards, however, is confident he will be the one with his hand raised in the Octagon tonight.

"My prediction is I'm going to have to finish off Cowboy, and I'll be sprinting out from the first bell," he said. "He's been finished many times... by lesser opponents with weaker punches than me, so there's no reason why I can't go out there and put this man away."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2018, with the headline 'Troublemaker to history-maker'. Subscribe