The stakes couldn't have been any higher in the main event last night (Feb. 25, 2011) between Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar and former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) lightweight champion Benson Henderson in the headlining bout of UFC 144 in Saitama, Japan.
Edgar, competing in his fifth title bout, had finally begun to grow on the UFC fanbase with his underdog spirit and for the first time in the past two years, he was actually favored to win a championship fight.
Perhaps that was his undoing.
While Edgar had built a reputation as the undersized hero, it may have finally caught up to "The Answer" last night against the bigger, stronger and more powerful Henderson.
So what was the turning point for the "Smooth" one? And where do both elite lightweights go from here?
Follow me after the jump for our Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar UFC 144 post-fight review and analysis:
Edgar got off to a strong enough start, dancing around Henderson's short punches and "catching" most of Henderson's kicks. I'm using "catching" in quotes because even though Edgar got a hold of Henderson's leg, it was usually on the rebound after "Bendo" had landed a strong kick because the challenger wasn't recoiling his leg fast enough.
Another key sequence were Edgar's brief takedowns, similar to the first B.J. Penn fight where he would score a takedown and immediately pop back to his feet. Henderson had a nifty trick where he would allow Edgar to get a back body lock standing while rising back to his feet and he would force the champ to back off.
Edgar again seemed in control during the second round, but then something happened which completely shifted the momentum of the entire fight. After landing a nice takedown and actually staying down to throw strikes, Edgar decided to back off and stand over his opponent. Just as the champ was about to drop down for a big strike, Henderson timed it perfectly with a beautiful upkick in which the heel of his foot landed flush on Edgar's face, breaking his nose and stunning him badly. He swarmed Edgar and pounded on him in the final 10-15 seconds of the round.
This was a huge moment because while Edgar was able to recover, Henderson now had the momentum and unlike Gray Maynard, he wasn't going to get tired and slow down. Henderson actually continued to press the action for the remainder of the bout and this time, being bigger, stronger and more powerful was an important factor in the fight.
While none of the final three rounds were blowouts for either man, Henderson's constant pressure and ability to land heavy significant strikes were vital. Edgar's left eye was swelling nearly shut, his nose was leaking like a faucet and he was bleeding out of his mouth as well. That's not to mention the heavy kicks and knees to the body that Henderson had also been landing all night.
Edgar had his moments, landing some nice takedowns throughout the fight, and he did get inside and score points with some nice left and right hands which landed flush on Henderson, but none of that ever seemed to faze the challenger. Even when Edgar landed a big power strike, not only did Henderson's face show no marks, he didn't even seem like he was stunned temporarily. On top of that, his takedowns were seemingly ineffective because he was not able to do much damage with them, usually being forced to back off.
Lastly, Edgar, despite catching at least 10-15 kicks throughout the fight, seemed to do next to nothing with them each and every time. He tried to sweep out Henderson's legs a couple times but got denied. He tried to land big kicks of his own but they seemed ineffective and he was simply too small to explode forward and land a big punch as well.
Thus, I wasn't very surprised when the judges' scorecards were announced which unanimously sided with Benson Henderson, crowning the "Smooth" one as the new UFC lightweight champion.
For Frankie Edgar, this was simply a case of fighting someone bigger, stronger and actually able to keep up with him for five rounds. Unlike B.J. Penn or Gray Maynard, Ben Henderson didn't slow down as the fight wore on. He also wasn't plodding forward the entire time, instead stalking Edgar and attacking constantly. The now former champion was never able to get into a good rhythm because Henderson would sneak in a big strike and keep the blood flowing.
There are several fights to make for Edgar, all of which would be incredibly entertaining. Dana White has been hinting that "The Answer" could be dropping down to featherweight soon, which would be his more natural weight class. If he does that, I wouldn't be surprised one bit if he immediately challenges Jose Aldo for the 145 pound title. If he's too stubborn and remains at lightweight, a rematch with Henderson isn't entirely out his of the picture, although it's not likely. The final option would be a fight with Clay Guida, who hasn't fought since losing a potential number one contender fight to Henderson last fall. Any of those match-ups would be thrilling.
For Ben Henderson, this was a tremendous performance. I didn't give his striking nearly enough credit heading in and he proved me wrong. He never backed down from Edgar and his constant pressure and ability to land powerful strikes for five straight rounds was a key factor in him winning the belt. His conditioning was on point like usual and that also contributed to his victory.
Next up for "Bendo" would most likely seem to be a rematch with Anthony Pettis, the last man to beat him. I'm sure he'd love to have an opportunity for revenge for being on the receiving end of "The Showtime Kick" highlight for the past year. Other possibilities include the upcoming winner of the Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller fight, although that's pretty far away or potentially even a rematch with Edgar, although that's probably least likely of the three.
Can I get an "Amen?"
So what did you think, Maniacs?
How did you score the thrilling title fight last night? Who would you like to see Henderson defend his new lightweight title against next?
For complete UFC 144 results, including blow-by-blow, fight-by-fight coverage of the entire event as well as immediate post-fight reaction click here, here and here.