LAS VEGAS -- UFC welterweight Leon Edwards has won eight consecutive fights since 2016. The last time he lost was on Dec. 19, 2015, and that was to current champion Kamaru Usman, who happens to be the only welterweight with a longer active UFC win streak -- 13 straight -- than Edwards.
Heading into Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event against Belal Muhammad, Edwards would seem to be in a very secure spot. UFC president Dana White has indicated a win could elevate him into a championship bout, although there are several factors at play at the top of the division.
When asked what he feels is on the line for Edwards this week, his manager, Tim Simpson, said "everything." Edwards' coach, Dave Lovell, feels like it is a little bit of a "no-win situation," as Edwards (18-3) is already 10 spots ahead of Muhammad (18-3) in the UFC's rankings. Edwards is No. 3, Muhammad No. 13.
"When Leon does beat him, they'll say, 'Yeah, what did you expect?'" Lovell said. "We would have preferred someone in the top five, but nobody wanted to fight him. So, fair play to Belal for stepping up and accepting the fight."
Following Edwards' last win -- a dominant decision over Rafael dos Anjos, the UFC's No. 4-ranked welterweight at the time, on July 20, 2019 -- no one could have predicted his next fight would not take place until March 2021, against an opponent outside the top 10. Those two dots just don't connect.
And over the past two years, Edwards has been linked to some of the biggest matchups in the division. A main event against a former champion, a title fight, a series of high-profile dates against one of 2020's biggest breakouts. None came to fruition.
"It will be 20 months this weekend since his last fight, and he hasn't suffered a major injury," Simpson told ESPN. "Usually when people are out that long, it's an injury. It would be a shame if, after all this, this is the fight we end up with and he lost."
So, what happened? Why was Edwards out for so long, and why did he miss those opportunities?
The answer is mostly bad luck. Over the past two years, Leon Edwards has been one of the unluckiest fighters in UFC history.
Rewind to January 2020, and things were looking up for Edwards, although nothing had come easy. In his postfight interview after beating dos Anjos, Edwards called for a fight against ranked contender and fan favorite Jorge Masvidal. He also wanted Colby Covington and former champion Tyron Woodley, who had lost his championship to Usman months before. For months, none of those fighters reciprocated the interest.
"Leon just kept losing a popularity contest," Simpson said. "Jorge didn't want him. Colby has never wanted him. Everyone realizes he's a super-tough fight, but his name recognition hasn't been enough for them to take the fight."
Edwards waited five months for a fight to materialize, and eventually one did. A big one. In January 2020, Woodley accepted a main event against Edwards on March 21 in London, approximately 125 miles southeast of Edwards' hometown of Birmingham, England.
"That last five months of 2019 was just us struggling to get a fight and everyone saying 'no,'" Simpson said. "Just to get Woodley to that point was massive.
"But we finally got the fight he deserved, and things were favoring his way. It would have been Leon's coming-out party. That annual London event in March is such a marketed event, and to headline it is an honor. And we renegotiated his contract before that Woodley fight, which would finally take him into the upper echelon of fighters making big money."
But on March 16, 2020 -- five days before the London event was scheduled to take place -- the UFC canceled several cards due to the coronavirus pandemic. No fighter was more impacted by the London cancellation than Edwards.
"I've been dreaming about headlining a UFC event in my home country since I started MMA," Edwards said at the time. "To get the opportunity to headline London and have it taken away from me, I was devastated."
Two months later, Woodley appeared in a main event against Gilbert Burns in Las Vegas. Woodley would lose every round in a fight that continued what has turned into a steep downslope in his career. Burns, meanwhile, catapulted up the welterweight rankings with the win.
"That was a ball-breaker, my friend," Lovell said. "[Edwards] had done everything in camp; he was on point. We believe he would have done exactly to Woodley what Burns did to him in their fight. But obviously, the world went into lockdown, and that was it for us."
Usman: Fight Island
In mid-June 2020, around the time the U.K. began to ease itself out of a three-month lockdown, the UFC offered Edwards a title fight against Usman on July 11 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
At first glance, the offer seemed like a gift, but in reality, it was actually more bad luck. Edwards was in no position to accept the fight, but in turning it down, he gave anyone who didn't want to see him moving forward ammunition to criticize him. It created this easy narrative: "This guy turned down a title fight. Why does he deserve anything?"
"The UFC was working on a title fight between Jorge and Kamaru, but that broke down," Simpson said. "We had 4½ weeks to take it. This was right in the middle of the U.K. lockdown. It wasn't like in the U.S., where guys were finding places to get work in. If he had been caught in a gym in the U.K., that gym would have been shut down.
"He'd also already fought Kamaru and lost, years ago. He needs a full camp to fight him again. If he were to come up short to Kamaru again, the chances of ever getting a trilogy fight with him would be almost impossible. So, as long as Usman were champion, Leon's chances of fighting for a title would be very slim. When you factor that in, it didn't make sense to take it."
After Edwards declined the shot, the UFC pivoted to a matchup between Usman and Burns. But that fight fell through at the last minute when Burns tested positive for COVID-19, which brought the UFC and Masvidal back to the negotiating table.
Masvidal ended up taking the fight and lost a clear decision to Usman at UFC 251. Because of Masvidal's popularity, however, and the fact he took the fight on such short notice, some speculated that he might be a candidate to challenge Usman again in the near future.
Edwards was not on board with that. "I don't think Jorge will leapfrog me," he said in September.
Let's make it happen, it's the only fight that make sense for me outside the championship, everyone else in the top 5 already booked so let's get it @ufc @UFCEurope @seanshelby @danawhite pic.twitter.com/kAIBKiJaY5— Leon 'Rocky' Edwards (@Leon_edwardsmma) August 5, 2020
Chimaev: Vegas, Fight Island, Vegas
Amidst a global pandemic, no fighter elevated his or her brand more in 2020 than 26-year-old Chechen-Swedish welterweight Khamzat Chimaev.
Chimaev (9-0) was a virtual unknown when he made his UFC debut on July 15, 2020, on Fight Island. He persuaded the UFC to book him in two fights (including one at middleweight) in a span of 10 days, and he dominated both. A star was born.
That star power only increased in September, when Chimaev knocked out Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds at a UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. White immediately said he would waste no time in booking Chimaev against an elite welterweight, even though he was only 3-0 in the UFC and hadn't fought a ranked opponent.
The elite welterweight the UFC came up with was Edwards.
"What I never liked about that situation was they half-badgered Leon into taking that fight, because they dropped him out of the rankings when they were trying to make it," Lovell said. "That really riled Leon up, because everybody in the division -- the Masvidals, Colbys -- they were all sitting down and refusing to fight him."
Eventually, Edwards' team came around on the idea of fighting Chimaev. A win over Chimaev would earn Edwards some things he has struggled to get. Attention. Clout. Respect.
"The UFC booked it on Dec. 19, which was the last card of 2020," Simpson said. "That's always an interesting one, because there's a big break of three to four weeks with no fights, so people tend to watch it.
"Khamzat was red hot, and that's why we took the fight, because there was so much hype around his name. Leon has never struggled with athletic success; he has struggled with commercial success. And that was obviously going to fill that void for us."
Three weeks before the fight in Las Vegas, however, Edwards' bad luck struck again.
Edwards was forced to withdraw after testing positive for COVID-19. The 29-year-old would lose about 12 pounds in a matter of days, before making a full recovery.
Another setback, but when you come from the mud you learn to put everything in perspective. This virus has affected many lives and families much worse than mine. Looking forward to getting this rebooked soon, thank you all for the well wishes— Leon 'Rocky' Edwards (@Leon_edwardsmma) December 2, 2020
The bout was reset for the following month -- in an even bigger spot. It was scheduled for a midweek UFC Fight Night card on Jan. 20 on Fight Island, sandwiched between the UFC's debut on ABC and a UFC 256 pay-per-view headlined by Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier.
"The Jan. 20 card was almost better, because it was three days before Conor's card," Simpson said. "There was so much media there, riding the wave of the Conor fight."
This time, it was Chimaev who withdrew due to a positive COVID-19 test, which resulted in another rescheduled date. Edwards wanted to remain on the Jan. 20 event just to get back in action, but the UFC elected to keep his matchup against Chimaev intact. They'd both had COVID-19 now, after all. The fight would be set for March 13.
On Feb. 11, just over one month ahead of the fight, Simpson woke up in Dubai to three missed calls from the UFC. Chimaev was out again, due to lingering medical effects.
"I was annoyed. This is the third time getting rescheduled to fight this guy," Edwards said at the time. "Once I found out the reason, I had it in December and had lingering effects as well. What could I say? Main thing is health. My next thought was, 'What's our next option?' That's my aim, is to stay on and compete on this card."
Before booking Muhammad as Edwards' opponent, the UFC looked into several other options, ranging from Covington to Stephen Thompson to unranked star Nate Diaz. After not competing for 20 months, Edwards was willing to fight anyone -- and the No. 13-ranked Muhammad was the one who agreed.
"I'm out here risking it all to prove to the world I'm No. 1," Edwards said. "If I believe I'm No. 1, it doesn't matter who is No. 2 or No. 3, line them up and I'll beat them all. I treat every fight like a title fight, and I'm not looking past Belal Muhammad. If I go out and, God forbid, lose to this man, all the talk about No. 1 contender or title shot talks goes away. I am fully focused."
Respect for Belal for stepping up when no one else would. March 13 I show I am the best in the world. #StrapSeason— Leon 'Rocky' Edwards (@Leon_edwardsmma) February 18, 2021
Muhammad: Las Vegas
Simpson has spent hours upon hours on the phone, working with the UFC to try to get Edwards the best fight possible. So, as much respect as the entire team has for Muhammad and his willingness to take the fight, it's disappointing to Simpson to not have corralled a name like Masvidal or Covington. That is what he believes Edwards deserves.
But every fight is an opportunity, even if it's not the one you would have asked for. And on Saturday, Edwards has an opportunity to remind everyone why he's ranked where he is and why he considers himself the best welterweight in the world.
"He's only 29 and coming into his prime," Simpson said. "Having the ability to take 18 months off and not be injured, and build a new body and skill set, it will be interesting to compare him to what he was before. How often does a professional athlete get to put everything on pause and come back in a new body with a new skill set?
"There's a thought there by Leon that this was all part of a bigger plan, and he's looking at it as a time of improvement, rather than time wasted."