Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman: In Birmingham’s inspiring rise to the top of the UFC

As you walk across a courtyard, past a garage and through the front door of Team Renegade MMA Gym in Birmingham, a large banner catches your eye.

“Welcome home, champion,” it reads, referring to UFC welterweight champion Leon Edwards.

Edwards, 31, spent his entire 14-year apprenticeship in his hometown of Birmingham.

However, he moved there from Jamaica at the age of nine experienced a tragedy after the death of his father, This caused a “spiral effect” that took Edwards into the world of gang violence in Birmingham before finding a way out after joining an MMA gym at the age of 17.

It is this experience that has made Edwards determined to achieve his goal of becoming the UFC champion while remaining loyal to his team and his community in Birmingham.

“I decided to do it from Birmingham because there are kids with similar stories to mine, maybe even worse,” Edwards told BBC Sport.

“When I was young I wanted to be like my father and be a gang leader and be involved in crime and stuff like that because that’s all I’ve seen. But if the kids here can see me now and think, oh look Leon came from a similar background to what we did and look what he’s achieved…’

“My mentality was to not just think about me, but to help the kids who come behind me [in Birmingham].”

In August, Edwards avenged a 2015 loss to Kamaru Usman to become only the second British champion in UFC history, after Michael Bisping in 2016.

On Saturday at UFC 286 in London, he will face Usman for the third time and defend his belt for the first time in what is billed as the greatest British MMA fight ever on home soil.

Edwards first discovered his potential at the Ultimate Training Center [UTC] Gym in Erdington, Birmingham, but it was after joining Team Renegade about five years ago, just 13 miles away, that he blossomed into a champion.

What is behind the rise of Edwards and Team Renegade?

Team Renegade started out as a jiu-jitsu gym, but morphed into a center for MMA after Edwards’ UTC gym closed in 2018.

Edwards along with Tom Breese, a key member of Team Renegade, and a few others decided to make the gym their home.

You never looked back.

Not only did Edwards become champion and extend his unbeaten streak to 11, the gym has also promoted his brother Fabian just before a middleweight title fight in Bellator and teammate Arnold Allen to the edge of featherweight gold at the UFC.

Team Renegade’s system works a little differently than most MMA gyms, and this has contributed to the success of its fighters, says Fabian.

“It’s crazy because we’re kind of our own head coaches,” he told BBC Sport.

“A lot of gyms have a trainer you talk to who ties it all together, while here everyone tends to talk in a group. That feels special.

“It helps everyone to have an open mind because sometimes you have a head coach and one guy says, ‘No, that’s the way – you have to do it this way’. But you’re so blind to all this. Otherwise you don’t grow as fast or as strong as you should.”

Team Renegade is Edward’s hub where he refines the many aspects of MMA and brings them all together, but he travels elsewhere for specialized coaching in those disciplines.

For Muay Thai, he travels to a Corefit UK – a gym run by trainer Henry Cleminson in Birmingham.

As you walk up the stairs to the gym, you can hear countless punches as athletes practice their punching routines before being greeted by a boxing ring and a room full of youngsters.

On the wall facing the youth is a poster promoting Edwards’ 2018 fight against Donald Cerrone.

Edwards is already inspiring the next generation of fighters in Birmingham.

“Success breeds success. When you have a line of people who all have the same goal, that atmosphere emerges. This old set of irons sharpens irons,” Cleminson told BBC Sport.

“For MMA, Renegade’s system works really well because there are so many strings on the bow. You can’t have an ego. We [the coaches] listen and adapt and have a really good relationship.

“The effect on the city is absolutely huge. If Leon or Fabian come in here, [the youngsters] Love it. They are good role models.

“A few people at the supermarket recognized me and I’m like, ‘That’s crazy they even know who I am.’ It’s great to see Leon’s billboard [in Birmingham]. There’s a real buzz in the city.”

“I’m the best in the world and I’ll cement it”

In the August fight, Edwards landed the first-ever takedown against Nigeria’s Usman in 15 UFC fights before defeating him with a stunning headbutt in the fifth round.

Usman, 35, was the UFC’s pound-for-pound fighter at the time and was on a 20-fight streak.

Usman dominated much of the fight, just as he did during their 2015 contest, but Edwards and other pundits point out that the high altitude in Salt Lake City is taking its toll on the Brit’s cardio.

The trilogy fight is the UFC’s first numbered event in the UK since 2016, in which Bisping defended his middleweight title against Dan Henderson.

Edwards says he’s bringing the confidence he gained from his devastating KO win in August to the fight.

“Now I know I can knock you out, I know I can trip you up,” he said.

“I think he’s going to come out and do what he normally does. Try heavy wrestling, heavy boxing and stuff like that.

“I’m the best in the world. I’ve been saying it for a long time. This year I’m going to cement it in stone.”

Meanwhile, Usman has downplayed Edward’s comments and says all the pressure is on him.

“Leon speaks from an ordinary perspective. He’s with ordinary people who have done ordinary things,” Usman told BBC Sport.

“But I’m not ordinary, I’m extraordinary. I have to prove it to myself and I have to prove it to him.

“It’s about victory or defeat for him. I was master. I’ve dominated the division, including him.

“For me, it’s not about winning or losing. I definitely stand by my legacy and have done everything I needed to do in the sport. Now I’m just having fun. A jolly Usman is a dangerous Usman.”

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