Jon Wertheim: Workmanlike Frankie Edgar readies for shot to regain title
The New England Patriots lose to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI and, for all eternity, they are the runners-up. Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder fall to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals and there's no guarantee they'll ever get another shot at the title. Tiger Woods? He may or may not win another major championship. But either way, he'll have to surmount an entire field. No one is automatically placing him in a final round.
Combat sports are different. For better or worse -- and we would argue better -- there is often the possibility of a rematch, the chance either to avenge a loss or prove that an initial upset was really no upset at all. Sure, there's an undeniable commercial element to the rematch, an attempt to manufacture a rivalry, a way to induce a champion to fight a challenger by ensuring a "do-over" in the event of defeat. But there's also something gallant about the concept. Let's double the sample size and really determine superiority.
In the UFC, nobody does the rematch quite like Frankie Edgar. It was two years ago that Edgar, then a modestly-known lightweight from New Jersey -- heavy on substance, light on style -- took on the decorated champion B.J. Penn, a member of the UFC's Mount Rushmore. The fight was held halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi and it had a certain Ali-versus-Foreman-in-Zaire feel to it. In the face of heavy odds, Edgar decisioned the champ to win the lightweight title, marking one of the bigger upsets in the promotion's history. At least, it seemed that way at the time.
When the two fought again barely four months later, Edgar again won by unanimous decision (taking every round on all three judges' cards), defending his belt. It was a characteristic Edgar performance: workmanlike and technical and tough. The kid from Jersey neutralized Penn's ground game with superior wrestling, movement and stamina. The doubters were issued a gag order. The first fight was suddenly recast. "The rematch was great in that sense," says Edgar. "[Penn] was a champion and he should have a right to try to get his belt back. But for me, it was a way of saying, 'It wasn't a fluke.'"
In 2011, Edgar was next challenged by Gray Maynard, a former Michigan State wrestler, who'd beaten Edgar earlier in their careers. In what was less a UFC battle than a 25-minute of sanctioned assault and battery, the two brutalized each other for each of the five rounds. Proving his chin was hard enough to cut diamonds, Edgar survived three first-round knockdowns, and seized control of the latter rounds.
It's not often that fight fans approve of a draw. This draw was generally considered the fight of the year. It meant that Edgar would hang on to his belt, if barely. It also meant that a rematch was inevitable. When Edgar and Maynard fought again at UFC 136 in Houston, the champ again survived first-round target practice and ended up knocking out Maynard in the fourth. As Dana White, the UFC's inimitable frontman, waited for the fighters to arrive at the postfight press conference, he couldn't contain himself. (Not that he ever does, anyway.) "The little [expletive] did it again. He [expletive] did it again!" White enthused. "Can you believe this?"
In 2012, the rematch dynamic changed for Edgar. In February, he was beaten by Benson Henderson, a lanky refugee from the WEC promotion, surrendering the belt in the process. Edgar's blood hadn't dried and he promptly called for ... a rematch. The UFC abided, so Edgar has spent the last few months preparing for another go-round with Henderson on Saturday at UFC 150. "I seem to keep finding myself in this [rematch] position, whether I like it or not," he says. "But it's OK. You win [rematches] based a lot on adjustments you make, so you don't want to focus too much on the other guy. He's going to give a different look, anyway, most likely. So it's better to work on your own technique."
Unlike so many fighters who ratchet up the tension (and pay-per-view buys) of a rematch by framing it as a personal feud, Edgar expresses what is, at worst, shrugging indifference toward Henderson. "He seems like a nice guy and I definitely respect him as a fighter," Edgar says. "It's competitive -- it always is -- but I have nothing against him. Honestly, I don't know him well enough to say 'I don't like this guy.'"
Doesn't he want some level of animosity, real or imagined? "Nah, I've never been like that," he says, in pitch-perfect Jersey-ese. "It's like a baseball pitcher going against a batter. You do what you gotta do, that's all. I've never been your typical fighter in that way."
Actually, Edgar is your typical fighter in approximately 0.0 ways. He grew up as the oldest of three siblings in Toms River, N.J., not exactly an MMA hotbed. Edgar was a fiercely conventional kid in a fiercely conventional town. The adjacent wealthy beach communities fire Toms River with a certain underdog sensibility, and Edgar figures this might have served him well later. But otherwise there was nothing to suggest he was a future world champion. He didn't get into many fights or much trouble. He was a fine wrestler in high school and competed on the mat all four years at Clarion College in Pennsylvania. He qualified for nationals, but was no champion.
While Edgar grew up an old-school UFC fan, when the organization went underground for a spell