Thinking back to the moment between Rounds 4 and 5, Leon Edwards’ boxing coach, Dave Lovell, has to compose himself, overcome with emotion.
If there was any moment for Lovell to lose hope, it was in that one minute, when the fighter he considered one of his sons wouldn’t look at him, just as he had stopped looking at his opponent, UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, after dropping three straight rounds in UFC 278’s headliner.
Lovell had whispered his personal round score to Edwards after each frame, documenting a see-saw from challenger to champ as the title fight played out. The coach didn’t want anyone to hear what he thought about who was winning; it was his way of keeping his charge on track, a proprietary secret.
After Edwards blew three straight rounds, making it 3-1 for the champ, he didn’t care who heard what he had to say.
“Stop feeling sorry for your f****** self! What’s wrong with you?!” Lovell yelled.
“I’m not!” Edwards replied.
“Well, c’mon then!” Lovell fired back.
In the dozen or so steps between corner and cage, the coach said a little prayer for Edwards, he said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. They’d come a long way together, and they faced the biggest opportunity of Edwards’ career. Edwards had trained six months for the fight, Lovell said, waiting out one of the many turns of bad luck that plagued his road to the belt. He was prepared, or so the coach thought.
“I just wanted him to go out on his shield,” Lovell said through tears. “I didn’t want him to go out like a lamb.”
Many years ago, when Lovell decided to become a boxing coach, he took a vow never to use and abuse the people who put their trust in him. He’d seen that part of the business as a fighter — up-and-comers tossed into mismatches or sacrificed to fill a card. If one of his fighters was going south, not doing what he was supposed to be doing, he would let them know.
“I don’t blow smoke up anybody’s ass,” he said. “I just tell my fighters how it is. I’ve made friends and broken friends along the way, but it is what it is.”
Lovell had little idea what he was getting into, however, when he agreed to be Edwards’ coach. When a friend introduced him several years earlier to videos of early UFCs, Lovell thought it was a barbaric spectacle. When he watched the young Edwards sparring, he wondered whether MMA fighters were allowed to hit the body, because everyone just seemed to be head-hunting.
Eventually, he learned to love the arts in mixed martial arts, and he joined the corner of a young fighter from Birmingham via Jamaica. A friendship developed between Edwards and his sons, and then a bond formed that led them to the highest levels of MMA competition.
On that Saturday night in Salt Lake City — a city Edwards didn’t even know before the title fight was booked — Lovell knew something drastic needed to be done. He’d never seen Edwards in such a state. Other corners could give all the technical advice they wanted. Edwards needed something more.
“I knew this kid’s buttons needed to be pressed,” Lovell said. “I needed to wake him up.”
Of the many videos that surfaced in the wake of Edwards’ spectacular knockout of Usman, one showed Lovell watching a cellphone as head coach Henry Clemenson explained the welterweight champ’s tendency to dip his head to the right in exchanges. The natural counter, the coaches agreed, was a left high kick, thrown at a specific angle.
Lovell apparently pushed the right buttons on Edwards. But that kick didn’t come from nowhere.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” Lovell said. “Coach Henry, we had drilled that.”
And now, Edwards is the new UFC welterweight champion, the man to dethrone the pound-for-pound best Usman one fight before breaking Anderson Silva’s consecutive win record — four title defenses shy of George St-Pierre’s title reign.
Lovell, meanwhile, is a viral hit, the darling of fighters and athletes around the world who resonated with his emotional plea in the title fight. His sons helped him set up an Instagram account — not that he knows how to work it well, being of the old-school and just happy to send texts.
It doesn’t take a millennial to understand the impact of Edwards’ win, though. In the Erdington section of Birmingham, a place Lovell said is known for poverty and violence, the paint is still drying on a mural of the newly minted champ.
“On Saturday, we’ll go down and take pictures and let the world see what this kid has done, as a young Black kid from Erdington, a deprived area, this is what you can achieve,” Lovell said. “This now has put him on the stage where the youth are going to look up to this kid and think, ‘I can be like that. Why not? He’s come from where I’ve come from.’”
When the UFC decides pay-per-view locations, it’s rare for a fighter to have much of a say; Las Vegas is the de-facto choice when the promotion wants to cash in. But in the case of Edwards vs. Usman 3, UFC President Dana White said he’s already working on venues for the trilogy to take place in the U.K.
Lovell, of course, would love to see the trilogy take place at Birmingham’s Aston Villa, a 42,000-seat arena where he said the financial impact of the UFC’s presence will be felt.
He would definitely like to compete closer to sea level. He attributes Edwards’ lapse not to his mind, but the oxygen in shorter supply at 4,000 feet where Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena resides. The only person not bothered by the altitude in their dressing room was bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili, a Georgia native known for his Tasmanian energy levels. Everyone else was struggling.
“That, to me, now, was the factor,” Lovell said.
“We all knew he was on point, so to see him start gassing like that, at first, I couldn’t work it out.”
Wherever they go, however, Lovell will be in Edwards’ corner, calling it like he sees it, ready to dispense the advice that pushes the right buttons. Things are only going to get more hectic from here — the champ will have to defend the belt.