Frankie Edgar has faced possibly the toughest challenges of any UFC Lightweight Champion in the history of the promotion. Now that he's trumped B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard twice, there's plenty of reasons fans and pundits can stop doubting him. [Image via a.espncdn.com]
Everyone had their doubts.
Frankie Edgar isn't the kind of fighter who screams "division dominance" like the imposing Anderson Silva or outright frightening Jon Jones. He's not a master game-planner like Georges St. Pierre or Dominick Cruz. But in his title defense last night at UFC 136 against long-time rival Gray Maynard, Frankie Edgar proved why he should finally be recognized not as an undersized underdog, but a credible threat to new challengers.
That "Iron" Chin
It's ironic that Frankie Edgar's initials (and favorite t-shirt design) represent iron, because he has endured over 18 long rounds of stand-up wars with two of the division's best punchers. Don't let the fact that it was 2007 since "The Bully" knocked out an opponent fool you -- his heavy hands have played key roles in wins over Nate Diaz, Roger Huerta, and Jim Miller. For B.J. Penn's part, Edgar was the only lightweight that "The Prodigy" couldn't finish during his championship reign.
If those two couldn't crack Edgar's chin, Ben Henderson and/or Clay Guida certainly won't, as they lack the stopping power — as do most other lightweights in the current title mix. When Gilbert Melendez makes the jump to the UFC, his solid striking would be the next best test for Edgar's chin, as "El Nino" boasts an impressive 11 KO or TKO marks out of 17 wins. Bottom line, don't count on Edgar losing by knockout in his next fight unless Maynard actually broke something during the first rounds of those last two fights.
Insanely Deep Cardio
If someone put Frankie Edgar on a hamster wheel, he could power a car for a trip to the Moon. However, that's the penchant for many lightweights, as they simply don't tire. Although this is one of Edgar's biggest assets, he'll be matched step-for-step by Henderson or Pettis, and Guida might give his feet friction burns while outrunning Edgar.
Even if Edgar's next challenger stalks him down the whole fight, they have little choice but to chase him around the Octagon, lest the champ uses the brief punching breaks to fuel his air tanks.
Crafty Ground Defense
While no one should have to worry about getting submitted by Edgar, a bigger problem is dragging/knocking him to ground and keeping him there for a finish. While Maynard, Matt Veach, and Sean Sherk have proven that Edgar isn't impossible to take down, the champion's ability to scramble to his feet is ridiculously helpful in keeping him from getting blanketed. B.J. Penn couldn't sink a rear-naked choke on Edgar after completely having control of his back, but it's feasible that anyone among Henderson, Pettis, Shinya Aoki, or Joe Lauzon could pull off that submission win.
What we learned from the last two fights? Ground-and-pound makes Edgar stronger. It's bizarro physics.
Footwork, Head Movement, & Footwork
Dana White said last night that Frankie Edgar moves like a boxer, and the comparison couldn't be more fitting. If you listen to Edgar's cornermen, they're always telling "The Answer" to use angles and keep his head moving. Coupled with his deep gas tank and solid chin, getting a bead on Edgar in the stand-up is tough, and Maynard practically had to take his rival's head off to trim the constant shuffling.
Luckily for his challengers, everyone can keep up with Edgar here. Maynard was able to stay in Edgar's face with no issues, after all, and he's not a quick fighter. Henderson and Pettis are excellent at both chasing with and avoiding strikes, while Greg Jackson has scarily honed Clay Guida's rabid movements into incredibly effective "mosh-pit style" cage control.
Good Hands & Stopping Power (?)
Frankie Edgar's stand-up is vastly disrespected, and Maynard paid the price with a KO loss. However, "The Bully" was lucid enough to quickly protest the stoppage, so we can still toss around questions about Edgar's punching power. Simply put, most fighters will still continue to swarm Edgar, because they don't fear his volume-over-power "pillow" hands.
Stopping Gray Maynard on punches is a huge accomplishment for such a small lightweight — but Maynard's chin has only been in danger against Huerta. Kenny Florian, Nate Diaz, and Jim Miller weren't exactly knockout wizards themselves. Any KO wins against Henderson, Guida, or Pettis will be hard to come by for the champion, given his opposition's high resistance to damage, and Edgar's effective, but questionable-in-strength boxing technique.
So, what's the solution to "The Answer"?
Well, that's a tough call — being able to strong-arm Frankie Edgar on the mat or in the pocket definitely used to be the most effective strategy, but the New Jersey native is using his speed and technique to cover-up those deficiencies in his game. And some, like his chin, may no longer be a factor against anyone else but the hard-hitting Gray Maynard. Whoever faces Edgar next will have the tough task of outrunning him, working a flawless clinch game, and beating him up against the Octagon's fence.
Given that criteria, I'm thinking Ben Henderson.
[McKinley Noble is a staff editor at GamePro and an MMA conspiracy theorist. Follow his Twitter account for crazy talk, 1990s movie references, and general weirdness. Or you could just stalk him on Google.]