When Leon Edwards (19-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC) defeated Rafael dos Anjos to run his winning streak to eight, he believed he'd finally done enough to merit a welterweight title shot and rematch with the last man to defeat him in the octagon — reigning champ Kamaru Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC).
Usman had won the belt in March, dominating Tyron Woodley at UFC 235 to run his own UFC winning streak to double digits, and the two felt destined to cross paths once again in the near future.
But weeks turned to months and eventually turned into years, with Usman sandwiching a third-round stoppage win over Gilbert Burns between tandem victories over both Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal, all while additional hurdles and obstacles continued to be stacked in front of Edwards.
"It got to a point where I told him to stop messaging me unless it was Kamaru!” Edwards said with a deep laugh when asked about getting fight offers from his management over the last three years, and handful of days before he faces Usman for the welterweight title in the main event of UFC 278.
Instead of a championship opportunity, the tail end of 2020 brought multiple dates opposite Khamzat Chimaev, the breakout star of UFC Fight Island who burst onto the scene but had yet to face a ranked opponent. Edwards said yes anyways, multiple times, but the fight never materialized as each dealt with positive COVID tests and the bout eventually fell by the boards.
The last time they were paired off and the fight fell apart, Belal Muhammad, a 34-year-old Chicagoland native that had won eight of his last nine fights, replaced Chimaev. Edwards again said yes without hesitation, but after dominating the opening round, the bout was halted 18 seconds into the second frame due to an accidental eye poke.
Three months later, Edwards stepped in against Nate Diaz in the first non-title, non-main event five-round fight in UFC history, pushing his unbeaten streak to 10 with a unanimous decision win over the durable, popular veteran.
"I've had to change my mindset as far as thinking, ‘Why aren't these opportunities going my way?' and just start thinking like, ‘Maybe this is a perfect time for you to improve your skill set, improve yourself as a martial artist and as a man?'” explained Edwards. "I definitely feel like I've improved over these last three years — physically, skill set-wise, and mentally as well.
"I was going through it at the time, and it was frustrating, and obviously I would have liked an opportunity sooner, but now I feel like this is the perfect time for us to fight. My skill set has grown, my strength has grown, and I'm 30 years old now, going into my prime, so I feel like now is the perfect time for us to compete.”
As much as Saturday's main event is a second meeting between the two standouts, it's an entirely different fight, as well.
Usman's twin battles with Covington and Masvidal were sequels — the second encounters quickly following behind the first, with little having changed from their first meeting.
In Hollywood terms, they were the next installment in a franchise – Fast 7 & 8, respectively, for example – but this weekend is more like a franchise being rebooted. Seven years is a long time between meetings, and during that time, both men have changed dramatically.
"I'm not approaching this as the fight we had seven years ago because we're two different people, two different fighters,” said Edwards, who carries a 19-3 record with one no contest into Saturday championship finale. "It's a brand-new fight.
"I think it's a good matchup for me and that styles make fights. I think the way he competes, the way he fights matches, the way I compete, and I fight, I think he has improved – his striking has improved – but so have I. I've improved my striking, my grappling, my all-around mixed martial arts game.
"I've had my time to level up, to get better, physically and mentally, and now is the time to go out there and prove everyone wrong,” he added. "They're ranking him as the pound-for-pound (No. 1), so I want to go out there and starch him.”
While this weekend is the culmination of a long wait to finally run it back with Usman, it's also a memorable stop on a long, winding lifetime journey for Edwards.
"It would mean the world to me, but not just to me – to my family and my team; for what we've been through and how far I've came, not just in my career, but in life,” said Edwards, who was born in Jamaica, immigrated to England with his family, and only discovered mixed martial arts after beginning to venture down the same dangerous path his father traveled before his death when "Rocky” was 13. "I've always said I feel like I've lived two different lives – from being born in Jamaica to immigrating to the U.K. – and now I'm about to fight for the most prestigious title in mixed martial arts, a sport that I didn't know existed until the age of 17, 18.
"It's been a wild ride – a mad road and a mad life – and Saturday night, I'll go out there, be victorious, and top it all off; put the icing on the cake.”
And how does he do what no one else in the UFC has been able to do to this point?
"I just have to go out there and be myself,” he said effortlessly. "This won't be a striker versus a grappler matchup like it was in the first fight – it's two different fights.
"If I go out there and mix it all up, be a mixed martial artist, I truly believe that I will be victorious.”
This story first published at UFC.com.