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Leon Edwards v Kamaru Usman: Inside Birmingham Gym’s Inspiring Rise To UFC’s Summit



Leon Edwards v Kamaru Usman: Inside Birmingham gym's inspiring rise to the UFC's summit

As you walk across a yard, past a garage and step through the front door of Team Renegade’s MMA gym in Birmingham, a large banner immediately catches your eye.

“Welcome home, champ,” it reads, in reference to UFC welterweight champion Leon Edwards.

Edwards, 31, has spent his entire 14-year career training in his home town, Birmingham.

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He moved there from Jamaica around the age of nine but experienced tragedy following the death of his father, causing a “spiral effect” which led 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 which made Edwards determined to achieve his goal of becoming UFC champion, while staying loyal to his team and community in Birmingham.

“I made a point to do it from Birmingham because there’s kids with similar stories to me, maybe even worse,” Edwards tells BBC Sport.

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“When I was young I wanted to be like my dad and be head of a gang and be involved in crime and stuff because it’s all I’d seen. But if kids here can see me now and think ‘oh look, Leon has come from a similar environment like what we did, and look what he’s achieved…’

“My mentality was to change it from just thinking about me, and help the kids coming behind me [in Birmingham].”

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

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On Saturday, at UFC 286 in London, he will face Usman for a third time, making the first defence of his belt in a bout billed as the biggest British MMA fight to ever take place on home soil.

Edwards first discovered his potential at the Ultimate Training Centre [UTC] gym in Erdington, Birmingham, but it was following his move to Team Renegade around five years ago, just 13 miles away, where he blossomed into a champion.

What is behind the rise of Edwards and Team Renegade?

Team Renegade started off as a jiu-jitsu gym but morphed into a hub for MMA following the closure of Edwards’ UTC gym in 2018.

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

They have never looked back.

As well as Edwards becoming champion and extending his unbeaten streak to 11, the gym has also nurtured his brother Fabian to the verge of a middleweight title shot in Bellator, and team-mate Arnold Allen to the brink of featherweight gold in the UFC.

Team Renegade’s system works slightly differently to most MMA gyms, and this has contributed to its fighters’ success, says Fabian.

“It’s mad because we’re kind of like our own head coaches,” he tells BBC Sport.

“A lot of gyms have one coach who you speak to, who brings it all together, whereas here everyone tends to speak in a group. It feels special.

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“It’s helping everyone be open-minded, because sometimes you’ll have a head coach and the one guy is like: ‘No this is the way – you have to do it this way’. But you’re so blinded to all the other ways you don’t grow as fast, or as much as you should.”

Team Renegade is Edwards’ hub where he fine-tunes the multiple aspects of MMA and brings them all together, but he travels elsewhere for specialist coaching in those disciplines.

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

Walking up the stairs towards the gym you can hear countless thuds as athletes practice their striking, before being greeted by a boxing ring and room full of youngsters.

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On the wall looking over the youngsters is a poster promoting Edwards’ fight against Donald Cerrone in 2018.

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

“Success breeds success. If you have a series of people all with the same goal, it’s creating that atmosphere. That old phrase iron sharpens iron,” Cleminson tells BBC Sport.

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

“The effect on the city is absolutely huge. When Leon or Fabian come in here, [the youngsters] love it. They’re good role models.

“I’ve had a few people in the supermarket recognise me and I’m thinking ‘this is mad they even know who I am’. It’s great to see the billboard of Leon [in Birmingham]. There’s a real buzz in the city.”

‘I’m the best in the world and I’m going to cement it’

The bout in August saw Edwards land the first ever takedown on Nigeria’s Usman in 15 UFC bouts, before finishing him with a stunning head kick in the fifth round.

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

Usman did dominate large portions of the fight, just like he did during their contest in 2015, but Edwards and fellow pundits point to the high altitude in Salt Lake City affecting the Briton’s cardio.

The trilogy bout headlines the UFC’s first numbered event in the UK since 2016, where Bisping defended his middleweight title against Dan Henderson.

Edwards says he is bringing the confidence earned from his devastating knockout win in August with him into the fight.

“Now I know I can knock you out, I know I can take you down,” he said.

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

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

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

“Leon is speaking from an ordinary perspective. He’s around ordinary people who have done ordinary things,” Usman tells BBC Sport.

“But I’m not ordinary, I’m extraordinary. I get to go prove that to myself and prove that to him as well.

“It’s win or bust for him. I’ve been champion. I’ve dominated the division, including him.

“It’s not win or bust for me. I definitely stand by my legacy and I’ve done everything that I needed to do in the sport. Now I’m just having fun. A fun Usman is a dangerous Usman.”

Source: BBC Sport

Hammed Tajudeen is a graduate of Osun State Polytechnic, Iree with Higher National Diploma (HND) in Mass Communication

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