Two of the best 155-pounders on the planet will meet and the UFC lightweight title is on the line tomorrow night (February 25, 2012) as UFC champion Frankie Edgar takes on former WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson in the main event of UFC 144 in Saitama, Japan.
Frankie Edgar has finally started to come into his own as champion after putting on a serious of some of the best displays of heart in UFC history last year in both of his "Fight of the Year" candidates against Gray Maynard. You can never count him out of a fight and that's why he's champion right now. He's hoping to win decisively on Saturday night and not have to rematch his opponent. for once.
Ben Henderson was an afterthought when he entered the UFC after losing his WEC title, but three straight big wins in a row, including two against top title contenders earned him his shot at the championship belt. He's been on a mission ever since he was brought over and he's staring at the end game on Saturday night.
Will Edgar have "The Answer" for Henderson's grueling pressure-based attack? Can Henderson slow down Edgar's speed and footwork long enough to land his own attack? How does each elite lightweight secure a victory on Saturday night?
Let's find out:Frankie Edgar
Record: 14-1-1 overall, 9-1-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Gray Maynard (UFC 136), B.J. Penn 2x (UFC 113, UFC 118), Jim Miller (Reality Fighting 14)
Key Losses: Gray Maynard (UFC Fight Night 13)
How he got here: Frankie Edgar has been a perennial underdog. He never won a state championship, falling just short twice and did the same thing at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. He made the transition to fighting professionally in late 2005 and in just the sixth fight of his career, he was already making his debut in the UFC.
He competed as a lightweight because the UFC didn't have a featherweight division yet and won his first three fights impressively against top competition like Tyson Griffin, Mark Bocek and Spencer Fisher. His momentum was halted by the bigger, stronger Gray Maynard in April 2008, but that loss only fueled him to improve.
Just one year later, Edgar put on the best performance of his career against former lightweight champion Sean Sherk, outstriking his bulkier foe and stuffing the elite wrestler's takedowns. After an impressive stoppage of the then-undefeated Matt Veach, Edgar was handed a title shot because Gray Maynard hadn't defeated Nate Diaz decisively enough.
Edgar made the most of his opportunity, utilizing his speed and conditioning to outpoint the plodding B.J. Penn at UFC 113 in Abu Dhabi to shock the world and win the UFC lightweight title. He proved his victory wasn't a fluke by dominating Penn in the rematch at UFC 118, blasting the ex-champ with more powerful strikes, adding kicks and even takedowns to his arsenal.
His next defense was against Gray Maynard at UFC 125 last year and after surviving a horrible first round in which he was dropped four times, Edgar bounced back in Rocky-esque fashion to win three of the remaining four rounds and force a draw. He squared off with Maynard once more last year and this time, he took care of business after a rough first round to score a fourth round knockout victory.
In Ben Henderson, Edgar will be fighting a fresh opponent for the first time in nearly two years.
How he gets it done: Edgar's key to victory is his speed. He's got terrific footwork and tight, technical boxing. He's fast enough to dive into the pocket, land punches and exit at angles to get out of the way of his opponent's attack. He can definitely outpoint Henderson in the striking department if he's on his game.
What Edgar has to avoid is a defensive lapse early in the fight as he has tended to be a slow starter. They key for him is to find a rhythm in his stand-up and get comfortable out there as quick as possible. Once that happens, he's nearly impossible to stop.
Footwork and movement is going to be vital for Edgar as Henderson's biggest threat is the takedown and clinch. He needs to avoid getting cornered or surrendering a takedown at all costs as "Bendo" is big and strong enough to keep him in one place for an extended period of time.
If he can avoid those takedowns and accumulate some damage with his punches, he might get to the point like in the Maynard fight where he's comfortable enough to start throwing with some real power. Henderson doesn't have the best striking defense so there's a real possibility that Edgar can take over in the later rounds and put a beating on him with his superior boxing skills.
Record: 15-2 overall, 3-0 in the UFC
Key Wins: Jim Miller (UFC on Versus 5), Donald Cerrone 2x (WEC 48, WEC 43), Mark Bocek (UFC 129)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (WEC 53)
How he got here: Ben Henderson was a two-time All-American at Division II Dana College while earning a double degree in criminal justice and sociology. Instead of pursuing a career with his degree, he tried out amateur cagefighting, compiling a 2-1 record and loving the sport enough to make it his job. It didn't take him long to be noticed. Henderson was fighting for Mark Pavelich's MFC within 18 months and earned an invite to the WEC just over two years into his professional career.
He was thrown into the fire immediately, earning stoppage victories over Anthony Njokuani and Shane Roller which earned him an interim WEC lightweight title shot against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone at WEC 43.
Henderson was still green at the time, but he gutted through a multitude of submission attempts from the former bullrider, using his wrestling to outscore him positionally in what was voted Sherdog's 2009 "Fight of the Year." With the victory, he became the interim WEC lightweight champion.
He unified the titles by defeating incumbent champion, Jamie Varner with a third round guillotine choke and would once again have to face Cerrone for the title at WEC 48, the first and only pay-per-view the promotion ever attempted. In what was expected to be a repeat of their first epic war, the "Smooth" one, choked out Cerrone in less than two minutes to defend his belt.
Henderson would fight one last time for the WEC against the upstart Anthony Pettis. We all know how that played out, with the kick heard 'round the world. What some may forget, was the fight was incredibly close, entirely up for grabs until the final minute of round five.
In his UFC debut, Henderson put on a strong showing against submission specialist Mark Bocek and he followed it up with the most impressive victory of his career, a three round domination of then-number one contender Jim Miller at UFC on Versus 5. With the victory over Miller, he earned a match against Clay Guida and put on a show en route to another dominant and very exciting decision victory to earn his crack at the championship.
How he gets it done: Henderson has the overall skills to keep this fight standing if he wants to, but when was the last time you really saw someone put Frankie Edgar on his back and keep him there? If anyone can do it in the UFC lightweight division, it might be "Bendo."
I feel that the former WEC champ should have an advantage in the clinch, as this is an area where his size and strength advantage will benefit him the most. If he can cut off Edgar's escape routes along the fence, he could definitely wear on "The Answer" over the course of five rounds and really tire him out.
Henderson put a real beating on Jim Miller and Clay Guida when he scored takedowns and had his opponents trapped against the fence. He's got some ferocious knees
In the strand-up, Henderson would be wise to avoid regular exchanges in the pocket as his defense still needs some work. He definitely should try to keep from plodding around and letting Edgar utilize his movement and footwork to outmaneuver him.
Henderson is the stronger man, so if he can close the distance and try to tire Edgar out with pressure, that could be key for him.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest factor for this fight has to be speed. Can Ben Henderson keep up with Frankie Edgar for up to five rounds? He's big and strong, but how effective are those attributes going to be against someone as quick as Edgar who's going to be darting all around the cage? If Henderson can't cut Edgar's escape routes off and close the distance either with clinch or takedown attempts, it could be a very long night for him.
Likewise, if Edgar can't avoid being pinned against the fence or remain off his back, out in the open, it could feel like he's drowning slowly, except he'll also be getting punched in the face.
Bottom Line: This is such an intriguing stylistic match-up. It's all about speed versus strength and size. Both men are masters of their craft and watching them try to impose their will against each other for potentially up to five rounds is going to be a real treat. It's tough to remember the last time either of these men were in a boring fight as they've accumulated a large amount of post-fight bonuses recently. Even if Henderson can keep Edgar in the clinch or score takedowns, this fight should still be very exciting as I expect reverses, sweeps and some very active strikes over the course of 25 minutes. I have incredibly high expectations for this fight so stay tuned.
Who will come out on top at UFC 144? Tell us you predictions in the comments below!