‘A Darren Till crowd booed me at the O2 – he’s now gone and I’m a UFC Champion’

When pushed on his last appearance at the O2 Arena, a wry smile comes over Leon Edwards’ face.

“How times change, right,” the UFC world welterweight champion laughed. The year is March 2019 and the Birmingham fighter was the co-main event at UFC London. A Brit competing in front of a home crowd, particularly in the UFC where fights on these shores seldom happen, could normally expect a rapturous reception and the backing of their fellow countrymen.

There was partisan adulation and piercing cheers. But not for him. For his opponent Gunnar Nelson. The Icelandic submission specialist took all the adulation, leaving Edwards with all of the boos.

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“That was a Darren Till crowd,” Edwards giggled, while speaking on behalf of Wow Hydrate. “We were back and forth on Twitter and that’s the reason why the crowd were booing. It’s mad how much has changed in that short period of time. Now Darren Till isn’t in the UFC anymore, I’m the world champion. It’s crazy right?”

Till and Edwards enjoyed a huge rivalry in 2019. Till fought Jorge Masvidal in the main event, but the Liverpudlian was originally booked to fight Edwards.

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“This wasn’t the f***ing main event to make, him and Jorge, it was me vs. him [Till], who’s the best welterweight in the UK? That’s what should’ve happened, not Jorge,” Edwards said in the press conference leading up to the event. Till very promptly replied: “Listen, I just know one thing, I’ll put a hole in your face.”

Edwards impressively out-grappled the grappler to secure a split-decision victory. Four years later, Edwards is the one returning to the O2 Arena. No hole in his face, but gold around his waist. Till, on the other hand, is not only absent from the event card, he is not even part of the UFC.

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After confirming his departure from the division at the start of March, he was removed from the UFC’s rankings pool. He insists he has “big plans to execute” before, in Terminator style, saying “i’ll be back”. It remains to be seen if he does ever make a return.

Edwards will return to the same arena as that surreal evening in 2019, but things are very different. The ear-bursting cheers many were expecting the first time will almost certainly be behind him. Instead of Nelson, he will be up against a wounded and angry Kamaru Usman.

Edwards looked tired as he entered the final round of his bout against the Nigerian Nightmare. Out of nowhere, he connected with a vicious head kick which brought the unbeaten champion crashing down to the mat. It was an extraordinary way to become only the second British champion in UFC history.

Edwards most likely knows he will be home favourite when he steps into the O2 Arena. However, there is only one tiny section of support he craves. “Whether it is boos or cheers, most of my career I have been on the road,” Edwards added. “I have been the away fighter, I have been used to whatever the crowd reacts to, it doesn’t bother me as much.

“I’ve never lost before in the UK, I have always performed better when my family and friends are there. For me, that is the most important thing. I don’t think the whole crowd affects me and my performance in any way. I’m focused on the job at hand which is going out there, taking out Usman, again, and securing my championship."

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