So the question for Frankie Edgar is... "Can you keep it?"
The UFC Lightweight Title, on the line this Saturday at UFC 125, is quietly one of the most interesting stories in sports this week. While some new fight fans may just be warming to what die-hards have always known (that 155 lbs. may be the most exciting weight division in MMA), the extra intrigue surrounding the last UFC offering of 2010 is about conquering impossibilities. It’s hard to dislike the blue collar quality in Gray Maynard, but it’s simply impossible not to love the story surrounding Frankie Edgar and his recent run at rarefied air.
Frankie Edgar has sequentially come in as 1) a huge underdog as challenger, 2) a sizable underdog as champion, and 3) a returning champion but again considered an…underdog? Talk about no respect!
Well, at least the books this time out imply that odds-makers are becoming wise to Edgar’s amazing ability to defy them. Edgar comes in as the underdog again partially because even some of the greatest champs in the history of combat sports have lost to fighters that history ultimately deems as substantially inferior in the long run. The explanation is known inside the fight game as “unfavorable style match-up” syndrome.
This may be Frankie Edgar’s biggest challenge to date - as if beating B,J. Penn twice within the span of one year wasn’t enough. For most fighters, those victories would be their Mt. Everest, or their proverbial “I can die in peace now” moment, but Frankie Edgar is simply too young, too quick and too motivated to rest on top of the mountain and allow "experts" to convince him he is a short-term title holder. The mission, should Frankie Edgar choose to accept it, is to continue to baffle the experts and fans alike by beating bigger and stronger guys. The next name on the victim list: Gray Maynard.
It’s Maynard’s sheer strength advantage and fierce ground-and-pound style that has him as the slight favorite going into tomorrow’s main event. The previous meeting between the two cage-fighters (which Edgar lost) is also logically responsible for the slight spread in the odds. But there is plenty of distance between this fight and the first meeting, and I don’t consider the first outcome as much of an indicator at all. Both fighters are substantially improved from the first meeting, but I would have to argue that Edgar’s improvement standing, both in foot movement and in precision striking (not to mention head movement and defense), is the most notable growth factor in either fighter.
And then there is confidence. Don't minimize it as a factor! You can forget any perceived lack of confidence on Edgar’s part due to his loss the first time out against Gray Maynard. There are not many trials on Earth that can test your constitution and confidence like attempting to beat a Hall-of-Fame fighter to take his belt. What about subsequently being called an undeserving champ and a fluke? Then again, how about repeating the "fluke" win in a far more impressive fashion given a second opportunity? If confidence is a factor in this fight, it is in Edgar’s favor. He should be riding a tsunami of mental strength and cool into a highly charged title fight atmosphere where that sort of thing matters most.
The electricity of the event will not necessarily be a negative for Gray Maynard, as he does have a robotic nature to his brand of grind, and he may be one of the least likely fighters under contract to "get spooked." Still, the only fighter of the two that we can be certain is at home under the brightest of lights is Frankie Edgar. He shocked us and proved it to us twice... and that memory should be fresh. You better believe Frankie Edgar is still hungry with an eye on a permanent move to the next level. The next level is the role of dominant UFC Champion.
I have Frankie Edgar keeping his title by a close but not razor-close decision. The difference will be Edgar’s still-improving footwork and accurate, effective striking.