UFC 144 fight card: Frankie Edgar vs Ben Henderson prediction, preview and breakdown

UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar (L) peers deep into the soul of Ben Henderson (R) at the UFC 144 weigh-in on Sat., Feb. 25, 2012, at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Photo by Esther Lin via SBnation.com.

Forever underrated despite being an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) world champion, Frankie Edgar brings the ruckus with a chip on his shoulder and the tireless desire to prove that the guy in front of him simply doesn’t want it as badly.

And who can argue?

Since taking the title from B.J. Penn, he’s proven to be one of the most improved products in mixed martial arts (MMA), showcasing a nifty, ultra-busy stand up style that mixes in great movement, footwork and a work rate that few can match.

Small for 155 pounds, he finds a way to win, with an outstanding sixth sense of what to do in a crisis, be it a mat scramble, dangerous exchange, or simply having his bell rung by Gray Maynard so badly that the most rational cageside bettors would lay 3-1 he wouldn’t finish the round.

But thus far, he always has, and he still holds the belt because of it.

His opponent in the UFC 144 main event tonight (Feb. 25, 2012) at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, Ben Henderson poses a compelling challenge. With his southpaw stance, improved striking and power, he’s steamrolled three UFC opponents, showing the kind of complete game that’s much better than the relatively one-dimensional one that won him the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) belt.

Punishing wins over Jim Miller and Clay Guida showed Henderson to be, perhaps, the most overpowering grappler presently in the UFCs Lightweight division.

Follow me after the jump for a complete breakdown of the UFC 144 fight between Frankie Edgar vs Ben Henderson:

The Breakdown

Henderson’s improved stand up has come a long way in recent fights, proving serviceable enough for him to present a credible threat on the feet, which has opened up his great takedowns and suffocating top game. "Smooth" makes excellent decisions from that position -- witness how brutally he worked over the incredibly tough Jim Miller, delivering vicious elbows in spots, improving position in others, and giving a real clinic on how to control, punish and demoralize a world-class opponent.

He also looked outstanding in his decision win over Clay Guida, one of the toughest outs in the division. Henderson’s phenomenal upper-body strength is one asset, backed by tree-trunk legs that make him incredibly hard to take down. He’s also submission-proof, with freakish flexibility. Henderson is a fighter who has really come into his own since going on a 3-0 run in the UFC, hence him landing a title shot here.

The Pick

Henderson has stated that catching Edgar is the hard part, while taking him down -- once locked up -- is not. But therein lies the fallacy – Edgar’s blend of movement, angles and timing on his strikes is a kind of impenetrable rhythm, somewhat like bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, albeit without as many crazy feints and bodily histrionics.

Edgar avoided most of Maynard’s takedown attempts because he never stays in front of his opponents, unless he's whapping a quick strike or combination, and then he vanishes. Edgar’s ability to explode out of tie-ups and to scramble will be key because it’s Henderson’s crushing upper-body strength that will be integral to him slowing down the bout, pressing Edgar against the cage, and draining him of energy.

To say nothing of taking him down and holding him there, which is where Edgar could absorb significant damage. Gameplans are everything when you’re the smaller fighter, and Edgar’s key priority is to win the battle on the feet. Henderson’s left kick is a thudding one, and his weapon -- he doesn’t try to do more than he should standing, which is throw quality strikes and then close the gap to force a wrenching, clinching, eventual ground fight.

Over five rounds, it’s not hard to see Henderson winning a couple rounds, and certainly not ringing Edgar’s bell. The former WEC champ is incredibly gifted and strong, and he’ll land more on the feet than most people would think, especially give his southpaw stance, which he uses smartly to attack on straight lines, which is the lefty’s natural advantage.

But, Edgar’s deeper realm of the stand up game – kicks, combos, angles and tireless rhythm – will eventually force Henderson to take medium and low-percentage shots as the bout wears on. Expect Henderson to get a takedown or two early, but few fighters scramble up and away from their back as quickly and effectively as Edgar. "The Answer" will rally hard down the stretch in a close fight, landing more on the feet as the fourth and fifth round drag on, with Henderson tiring from chasing him and trying to corral the elusive champ.

They will let it all hang out in an epic fifth round, with Edgar mixing in takedowns and some gut-check style flurries to take a memorable decision win to retain his title.

Edgar via decision

Be sure to join MMAmania.com this evening for LIVE, detailed UFC 144 results of all the "Edgar vs. Henderson" pay-per-view (PPV) action. It will include blow-by-blow coverage of the Facebook video stream, FX "Prelims" bouts, and of course, the PPV broadcast. We'll start RIGHT HERE at around 7:30 p.m. ET and carry straight on through early Sunday morning.

See you later!

Jason Probst can be reached at www.twitter.com/jasonprobst and at jason@jasonprobst.com.

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