I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Looking back now, it was poverty really. My father was the head of the gang in the area I grew up in, but we lived in like a wooden hut with a zinc roof. We didn’t have much, but everyone around you was in the same situation, so as a kid you didn’t feel it. My next-door neighbour was in the same situation and so was the guy down the road.
But I had a fun childhood from what I remember. My dad came to the UK, to London, early on and would send us stuff like money, clothes and toys. It was alright, you know – my parents did everything they could to give me a good childhood. I have some bad memories from where I grew up... I’d seen guns and people being shot from a young age, but I also have fond memories of being in Jamaica. I was a happy kid.
Some time after my dad came to live to London – when I was eight or nine – he sent for me, my mum and my little brother Fabian. He then brought all three of us to Birmingham and we lived in Aston for about three years, went to Aston Manor school, then moved to Erdington. That’s where I grew up, became a teenager.
The two biggest gangs were the Johnston Crew and the Burger Bar Boys. When you went to school, all the kids’ older brothers were in a gang. To get to your bus stop to get home, you had to walk past the parks and all the gang members. You could get robbed, they could take your phone off you, stuff like that.
It was one of those things: You either become a victim of the gangs or you protect yourself, so all your friends end up in gangs. I wouldn’t say it was unavoidable, but it would be hard for you in school if you weren’t in a gang... I think in my first year of school, someone got stabbed.
But having been born in Jamaica, stabbings were the least of your worries, so when I came to the UK and was in that sort of environment, I kind of understood it. It was what I was used to: being around gangs and people doing wrong. It was a natural way for me to go, because it was what I grew up in.
My dad got killed in London when I was 13 years old. I was in bed when my mum got the phone call to say he’d been shot. From there, this kind of rebellious side came out of me. You’ve got no father figure at home, your dad gets killed... I think that was the main turning point for me to start going deeper and deeper into gang life, following my friends and getting into trouble. What else could I do? I grew up in this life from a young age.
And my brother was doing the same exact thing. We never sat down and talked about it, but everything I did, he did – he was just copying what I was doing.
When I was 16 or 17 years old, there was a local MMA gym called UTC being built in my area. I was walking past one day with my mum, and she just randomly said: “You should give this a go.” It wasn’t even open yet, but I knew the reason she was saying it was to stop me hanging around on the streets and getting into trouble.
She signed me up, it was like £60 a month. Even though I knew she couldn’t afford it, somehow she found the money. For her, I stuck to it, and the more I stuck to it, the more I started liking it. The more I started liking it, the more it kept me away from hanging around on the streets.
MMA turned my life around and showed me a different path. I started meeting new people, different people. After doing that, your brain opens up to different opportunities in life. When you’re a young kid and all you’re seeing is badness around you, all you’re thinking is “criminal, criminal”. Your brain is not developed enough to be wired to different opportunities. That’s what MMA did for me: It opened my brain up. It kept me on the straight and narrow.
The affirmation of people saying: “You’re good, you can do this, you’re sick...” When you get that kind of attention and positive reinforcement as a kid, you want to do more and keep improving. You want to be there every day. People were saying: “You can get to the UFC if you stick at this.” It was like a family setting and everyone was chasing the same dream and talking positively. The energy kept me in it.
All my friends that I used to hang around with, they’re now in the gym – they’re training in MMA and talk about it more than me! They watch every fight, they know everything about it. They’re all family men, they’re married and have kids, they run businesses. And because my brother had been following in my footsteps, I’m even happier that I could give him a different route to go. He fell in love with MMA, stuck to it and has done wonders with it, fighting in Bellator. I’m happy that I was one of the first ones to take that big step into doing something positive.
My number one motivation is my family, my little boy. He’s eight, I’ve spoken about my childhood with him briefly, he’s been to Jamaica and seen where I lived... but I haven’t been into details about what happened to his grandad. I just want to provide a better life for him than what I had as a kid. I never want my son to fight, I want to be able to give him what he wants from life. I want to give him the opportunity to choose and do whatever he wants with his life.
Obviously one of my other main motivations is to become a world champion from the UK, to achieve this goal while still training in the UK and give back to MMA after what it’s done for me. I’d love to do it for the kids in the UK. It’d speak volumes if I did it. People would say: “Look, Leon did it and he lives in Birmingham, so we don’t have to move to America to be able to do it.” It’d feel so close that they could touch it.
I’ve started a charity that’s kicking off soon as well, with Darren Till and Jimi Manuwa, partnering with the UFC. I just want to give back to where I came from and give something to the kids that are growing up like I did. There’s many kids like me, from broken homes and coming off the streets. Helping the kids from Birmingham, from the UK, is one of my main motivations, that’s one of the reasons I fight so hard.
I wouldn’t say I want to be a role model, it’s just having a heart. Knife crime’s big in the UK, and if I can do something to save someone’s life or make them put the knife down, why wouldn’t I? I’ve been in those situations before as a young man. Three or four of my friends are doing life in prison because of stabbings or shootings, murder. So, if I can save one person’s life or just help them, I’ll do it.
I know I won’t be able to change the whole UK – these problems have been around for generations – but if I can help anyone, why wouldn’t I? If you can open a mind up to other ways of life, you can probably save that person’s life.