A Look Back at Frankie Edgar's Career, MMA's 'Almost Man'

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 25, 2019

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08:  (R-L) Frankie Edgar punches Gray Maynard during the UFC 136 event at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

It comes in the form of audible ad copy, a promo piece for Saturday's upcoming UFC 240 pay-per-view. So some amount of hyperbole can be expected. Fight promoters, if they can be counted on for nothing else, are generally pretty good at getting your blood racing and your credit card in hand.

But this was something beyond the normal "these two guys don't like each other" and "this is the toughest fight of his career" rhetoric that has become UFC's stock-and-trade as they've perfected their audience pitch.

There is a scintilla of sincerity in comedian-turned-announcer-turned-podcaster Joe Rogan's voice as he attempts to put one of the main event's participants into historical context.

"Frankie Edgar," Rogan says of Max Holloway's challenger with his trademark bombast, "is truly one of the greatest fighters of all time."

It's a bold claim.

Some fighters don't require much scrutiny to establish their bonafides. No one carefully scours their Wikipedia pages or adds up their opponent's win/loss records to try to compare strength of schedules. The true greats don't require that brand of analysis, because their place in history is so obviously secure.

It doesn't take much thought to immediately place GSP on the list of the sport's all-time greats.
It doesn't take much thought to immediately place GSP on the list of the sport's all-time greats.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Georges St-Pierre? Of course. The former welterweight mainstay who returned from retirement to triumphantly raise the middleweight title into the air walks among the immortals. So do the seemingly unbeatable Jon Jones, the graceful Anderson Silva and the stoic heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko

But Frankie Edgar? That assertion is going to require a bit more exploration before I'm willing to buy the premise UFC is selling. And sell it they have. For years, since his surprise victory over then lightweight kingpin BJ Penn in 2010, it's been a part of nearly every Edgar fight.

The UFC will proclaim him among the best to ever do it. His opponent will talk about what an honor it is to share the cage with him. His losing record in title tilts (Edgar is 3-4-1 in bouts for the UFC championship), the fact that only one fighter on the card tomorrow night was even competing in the UFC the last time Edgar held gold more than seven years ago, are the kind of facts conveniently left out of the press releases and carefully worded interviews.

Edgar is a very good fighter. Even a great one. His is a style built on athleticism and explosive quickness, blending boxing, wrestling and a preternatural ability to predict exactly what his opponent is going to do even as the action moves at ludicrous speed. 

At his best, Edgar is a counterpuncher with swift feet, an even faster shot, and incredible resiliency and courage. His is a game of misdirection. His famous "knee tap" takedown looks just like a jab until it is too late for a foe to react quickly enough to avoid it. His body shot mimics a double leg takedown—a devastating weapon he shoots underneath an opponent's missed punch with startling speed and verve. 

I actually admire Edgar a lot. I remember interviewing him after his first UFC fight in 2007. He'd fought Tyson Griffin, a tough prospect at the time, and surprised a lot of people with his lighting speed and developing striking game after fewer than two years in the sport. As impressive as those tools were, it was his stubbornness and heart that had captured my attention.

Edgar survived Griffin and impressed onlookers.
Edgar survived Griffin and impressed onlookers.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Griffin had captured him in a tight kneebar towards the end of the bout, a fight finisher if I'd ever seen one. Edgar, rather than quit, accepted the pain, lived with the damage, and hung in until the bell rang to secure his victory.

"I felt I was up on the judge's scorecards and knew there wasn't a lot of time left," Edgar told me. "That isn't to say I would never tap, but I was willing to let him pop my knee out, to give that up, to get the 'W.'"

Lots of athletes have the tools to win. Few have the fortitude. Edgar has it, something he proved again a few years later by coming off the mat three times in the first round of a title defense against Gray Maynard to earn a split draw. Maynard's was a man-sized whooping. That Edgar weathered it is a testament to his gumption. 

"If Frankie Edgar gets out of this round," Rogan shouted into the MMA ether, "it will be incredible."

He did. It was.

But it's also telling that Edgar's finest moment came in a fight that some, including one of the judges, believed he lost. It's emblematic of the fact his simply isn't the record of an all-time great. 

Edgar has been on the precipice of greatness many times. He's almost earned a place among the best of his generation. But Michael Jordan isn't Michael Jordan because he almost won a handful of NBA titles. Roger Federer isn't on the shortlist of tennis gods because of all those times he came close to taking home a Grand Slam trophy.

Winning the big ones is what distinguishes legends from those who were merely great. And Edgar, simply put, hasn't done nearly enough of it to qualify.

Even his three victories in UFC title bouts, wins against Penn and Maynard that are diamonds in a resume filled with lesser stones, raise eyebrows. In the first Penn fight, eight out of nine members of the media scoring the fight believe the champion deserved to retain his title.

Most observers had Penn winning a close fight.
Most observers had Penn winning a close fight.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

That means the legend of Frankie Edgar is built on a flimsy base—and only gets wobblier. 

In the years since that bout, Penn has gone just 1-8-1, becoming a fighter fans loathe to see step into the cage, so far past his prime that it is lost in a haze. Few can even remember the days when he was a dominant presence.

Maynard, likewise, fell on hard times, his wrestling prowess not quite good enough to control the action on the mat and his striking just good enough to encourage him into relying on it in losing efforts. He's gone an unremarkable 3-7 since pushing Edgar beyond his limits. 

JE Snowden @JESnowden

MMA Math is a dangerous academic discipline, but there's no doubt that Frankie Edgar caught both fighters he holds championship wins against just as their careers fell off the tracks. https://t.co/gpDdfZlqOO

While MMA math is a dangerous subject to study and parsing a win based on subsequent results dubious at best, it's worth noting that even Edgar's greatest accomplishments are shrouded in doubt.

Not that he hasn't had plenty of chances since to earn the place in history some seem all too willing to simply gift him.

Time and again, when given opportunities, he's failed to deliver. And I don't use the term "given" lightly. Since losing the lightweight championship to Benson Henderson in 2012, Edgar has fought for a UFC championship three times.

Twice those opportunities have come after losing his previous fight. The third time he was easily dispatched by Jose Aldo, who was the first to figure out that Edgar struggles when he's forced to chase rather than play the rabbit leading unsuspecting, often larger opponents, into the brier patch.

The great Jose Aldo beat Edgar twice.
The great Jose Aldo beat Edgar twice.Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Even this bout against Holloway is only one-fight removed from a disastrous 2018 fight with Brian Ortega, who knocked Edgar out in the first round. I suppose it's only fitting that the twilight of Edgar's career would also include a questionable title shot or two to match the dawn.

None of this is meant to dismiss Edgar's chances in this fight. At 37, the athletic advantages he's relied on throughout his career are fading. Injuries have limited him to just three fights in the last three years. The clock is ticking louder than ever, the end an inevitability. 

Randy Couture won a title fight at 44 and Michael Bisping finally achieved his dreams of UFC glory at 37. With respect, neither was fighting an athlete quite like Holloway, arguably the greatest fighter his weight class has ever known. 

Over an over again, fighters like Edgar have proved that anything can happen when dangerous men are locked in a steel cage with only a pair of four-ounce gloves, some chutzpah and their wits to see them through. If anyone could defeat father time, a younger, taller, more technically sound foe and even his own doubts and past failures, it would be Frankie Edgar.

But I wouldn't bet on it. 


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. 


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