It's amazing how much one fighter can affect a weight class.
In the case of the 155-pounders under the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) banner, the fighter in question is Frankie Edgar. Almost two years prior and halfway across the globe from the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion's homebase of Las Vegas, Nevada, Edgar battled against B.J. Penn -- a man who many thought would be buried with the title being contended -- for 25 minutes.
In the dry Abu Dhabi heat, the New Jersey native outboxed and outworked "The Prodigy" and won a controversial decision at the end of the night. Four months later, "Iron" earned a more one-sided and decidedly less questionable nod from the judges.
If there was any doubt left in the Middle Eastern desert about his superiority over "The Prodigy," Edgar erased it in Boston.
The Lightweight division was blown wide open. "Iron" had removed Penn as the constant in the 155-pound equation and any number of fighters -- all thought to have no chance at beating the Hawaiian and becoming champion -- suddenly became title contenders.
One such fighter was Gray Maynard. "The Bully" held the distinction of being the only man to best Edgar and on the night the New Jersey native solidified his place as lightweight champion, Maynard punched his ticket as number one contender after defeating Kenny Florian.
Their bout at UFC 125 was the first "Fight of the Year" contender for 2011. Less than 24 hours into the New Year, the two lightweights battled it our for five rounds and placed the bout of the shortlist for when MMA media outlets began tabulating year-end awards. Edgar survived the first five minutes -- an utter shellacking -- but the 10-8 scorecard on all three judges' scorecards factored into a split draw after 25 minutes.
A third fight was needed.
Before "Iron" steps inside the Octagon to take on former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) champion Ben Henderson at UFC 144 later tonight (Feb. 25, 2012) in Japan, we take a look at Edgar's third bout with Maynard. It was a fight where the New Jersey champion put to rest yet another series of doubters. Many thought he couldn't defeat Penn. He did. And maybe thought he couldn't best Maynard.
He did that, too.
The fight starts off like their first and second. The faster Edgar jabbing away and circling around while the more heavy handed Maynard stalks him. Two minutes in, "The Bully's" gameplan pays off as a vicious uppercut connects and knocks more than a few screws loose from Edgar's skull.
The champion staggers around the Octagon, trying to compose himself. He lands a stiff jab that stops the challenger in his tracks but Maynard continues pressing forward, undaunted by Edgar's offense. A perfectly placed cross from the Xtreme Couture fighter catches the champion on the jaw and suddenly it seems like a replay of their UFC 125 bout.
Edgar is stumbling around, legs seemingly unstable underneath him while Maynard throws everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at "Iron." Punches and knees from the challenger find their mark and Edgar does everything he can to survive. The uppercut continues to find its mark and by the end of the round, Edgar's face is a bloody mess. It looks like Dana White will be wrapping championship gold around a new man in Houston.
Perhaps not wanting to expel any unneeded energy, Maynard takes his foot off the gas going into the second round. He realizes -- thanks to his previous bout with Edgar -- that championship bouts are often a marathon, not a sprint. While it allows "The Bully" to preserve his conditioning, "Iron" also finds himself regaining his composure from the first round beating he just received.
The champion begins to find his rhythm. He sticks and moves likes he did against Penn. The glassed-over eyes are clear, the buckled knees are now solid. He begins to fight his fight. He continued the performance into the third round but after 15 minutes of action, the champion had to expect he had only evened up with his challenger on the scorecards.
By the time the penultimate round begins, Edgar begins to pull even further away from Maynard. Putting together combinations, slipping punches and connecting with stiff punches, "Iron" begins chipping away at the armor surrounding "The Bully." Halfway through the round, a "Frankie" chant erupts among the Houston crowd.
While Maynard begins to slow down under the weight of nearly four rounds of action, Edgar doesn't lose a step. In fact, the champion seems to be getting faster. He dives in for a takedown, attempting to wrangle a leg from Maynard but "The Bully" defends perfectly. In the ensuing scramble, Edgar lands a ... well, a Maynard-esque uppercut and the challenger is stunned. A big right hook staggers "The Bully" against the cage. An even bigger right hook drops him to the mat. A handful of almost perfunctory punches on the ground end the fight.
Edgar and Maynard shared nearly an hour worth of fighting. After 15 minutes, three men decided "The Bully" had done enough to earn a victory through the rules of a sport. 25 minutes later, three other men decided -- once again through the rules of a sport -- that a winner couldn't be decided.
Twenty more minutes passed and sport was out the window.
It came down to only Edgar and Maynard. A knockout -- the most basic form of conflict resolution -- was what put the rivalry between the two lightweights to rest. No sport, just two men ... two fighters.
And it was "Iron" Frankie Edgar -- the champion with immeasurable heart -- who came out on top.