Frankie Edgar made his 6am flight back to New Jersey Sunday. And as the UFC lightweight champion walked to his seat, you would have mistaken him for any other passenger on the plane if not for the bumps and bruises of his previous night’s work displayed on his face.
There was no loud entourage, no championship belt slung over his shoulder, so you could forgive those who looked at the pride of Toms River and wondered what he was up to on Saturday night. Two such folks mumbled to each other. One said, ‘he must be one of those MMA guys.’ The other responded, ‘he probably won, because the loser wouldn’t make his flight.’
Edgar didn’t hear the comments, and if he did, you can guarantee that he wouldn’t respond. It’s not his way. But if he did choose to respond, he probably would have just smiled at being called ‘one of those MMA guys.’
His dance partner on Saturday night, Gray Maynard, would likely agree with the man he shared 25 minutes in the Octagon with at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. As a resident of Las Vegas, he didn’t need to make a flight this morning, so there’s no need for talk of winners making flights, and losers sleeping in. When the 155-pound championship bout was over, a draw verdict was rendered, so there were no winners, no losers, only talk of what happened over the course of those five rounds and what will happen in the next five or less that they fight.
It’s been said over the years in boxing that a draw is like kissing your sister, and while Edgar keeps his title belt and Maynard keeps his unbeaten record, the idea that there was no resolution to their rematch Saturday night is something that will likely haunt both fighters in the coming weeks. There’s no getting around that, nothing you can say to soften that blow; yet for those of us watching what amounted to 25 minutes of high drama, it was a night that should have reminded you why you began watching the sport in the first place.
Before the addition of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions to the UFC, the lightweights were long considered the “little men” of the organization, yet with a mix of speed, technique, and intensity, the 155-pounders would more often than not deliver excitement like few others. Edgar and Maynard did their share over the years, Edgar in bouts against the likes of Tyson Griffin, Hermes Franca, and Matt Veach; Maynard against Joe Veres, Rob Emerson, and Dennis Siver.
But the popular water cooler jab at both men leading up to Saturday’s bout was that they weren’t “finishers”, that their championship bout wouldn’t hold a candle to more visceral undercard bouts, let alone some of the championship epics of years past. Edgar had fights go the judges’ scorecards in six of his last seven bouts; Maynard, seven in a row. Forget that they were engaging in fights against top level competition, the equation was decisions=boring. Try telling that to Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, Randy Couture and Minotauro Nogueira, or Jens Pulver and BJ Penn, three pairs of UFC superstars who engaged in distance level wars for the ages.
For Edgar, the knock was that his stick and move style wasn’t going to crack an egg, let alone a world-class fighter’s chin. Yet what people don’t realize is that Edgar doesn’t need to cut weight to make the lightweight limit like most of his peers do. That means on fight night, he could be giving up 15 to 20 pounds. Yet he still gets in there with bigger, stronger fighters who could probably send him packing with one shot. It reminds me of what one of my boxing mentors, Mike Katz, told me one time about former heavyweight boxing champion Chris Byrd. He called Byrd the toughest and bravest fighter in the sport. I raised my eyebrows, only thinking of Byrd as defensive wizard and slipmaster. Katz explained, saying that Byrd went into every fight knowing that he couldn’t hurt his opponent, yet he still made that walk up the steps and won more often than not, armed only with his smarts, guts, and two fists. Edgar faces similar hurdles every time he steps into competition, but you won’t hear that out of his mouth.
That’s a fighter.
So is Maynard, and in a recent conversation he told me that drama is nice for the movies and television, but he’s not in the drama business; he’s in the domination business. He’s not looking to have a rock ‘em sock ‘em fight or roar back from the brink of defeat to win by spectacular Rocky-esque knockout. He’s in a fight to beat you up from the opening bell to the last, or better yet, when the referee pulls him off. If you don’t get off one shot or gain one dominant position on him, that’s the point. He’s not looking for 12-11 baseball slugfests; he wants a two-hit shutout.
So as Edgar and Maynard were called to the center of the Octagon for the start of round one, there was no question that they were going to leave it all out there – not for your entertainment, but for themselves. Both were born with a competitive gene that means you give it everything you have in whatever you do that involves a winner and a loser. It could mean a championship prizefight, a video game with your little cousin, or a game of checkers. For guys like Edgar and Maynard, winning is part of their identity, and dealing with the alternative is something they don’t even want to address.
This was evident after Maynard dropped Edgar with a left hook in the opening stanza. It was probably the first time anyone saw Edgar in trouble, let alone rocked. Maynard moved in for the finish, and Edgar did everything in his power to avoid it. Edgar was running on pure instinct as his legs didn’t want to obey what his brain was telling them, and Maynard furiously emptied his gas tank in order to end the bout. For the former Michigan State University wrestling standout, the fight went from a five round marathon to a 30 second sprint. There was no saving it for later; he was going to finish now. For his part, a bloodied Edgar stumbled and tried to get his wits back as he was on the receiving end of more solid power punches than he had probably absorbed in his last five fights combined.
Through it all, no one would have complained if referee Yves Lavigne would have intervened and halted the bout, but the Canadian veteran pulled off the hardest job in sports with grace. It’s often said that the best referees are the ones you don’t even notice in the ring or Octagon, and that you can call 100 fights perfectly, but if you make a bad call in the 101st, you’re a pariah. In a championship fight especially, you want the fighters to decide the fight, and Lavigne did that, giving Edgar the ability to decide his own fate. If Edgar wanted out, he could have just put his hands up on the mat and let Maynard fire away, or he could have turtled up and let Lavigne halt the fight. He didn’t and you wouldn’t expect him to, and just when things seemed darkest for Edgar, he would put his hands out, scramble, or do something to let the world know that he wasn’t ready to give up his belt yet.
When the bell rang, the crowd roared, both for Maynard’s power punching assault and for Edgar’s undeniable heart. It was a crowd that thankfully stayed away from the chants for an elbow or for one of the fighters to “kick his ass, Sea Bass”. Whether the members of the crowd were cheering for Edgar or Maynard, they were watching the fight and reacting to the ebb and flow of the bout. That’s a good sign for the New Year.
As round two commenced, you would have expected that one more clean shot from Maynard would have sent Edgar back on a one way trip to Wobblesville, but that shot never came. Instead, Edgar again showed the heart that will be his trademark as he roared back to clearly win the second round. In the days and weeks following this bout, that will likely be the focus – Edgar’s comeback from a truly horrific first round. But what about Maynard? What about him going all in for the knockout in the first five minutes and still having 20 minutes left to fight? Try holding your hands up in a defensive posture for three minutes. Not easy. Now do it for 25 minutes with someone trying to punch you, dump you on your head, or choke you. This is what Maynard did on Saturday night, and he survived Edgar’s punches, a couple cuts, a thudding slam, and a guillotine choke attempt while still getting his licks in. Heart? Edgar’s got it, but Maynard’s right there with him.
Before the third round, UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, one of the most soft-spoken athletes you will ever meet, yelled at his fighter, Maynard, with an intensity that reached all the way to press row.
“Just beat him up, you don’t need the knockout,” said Couture. “You just gave him that round.”
Couture has forgotten more about championship fights than 95% of fighters will ever know, and if he had the opportunity he probably would have grabbed a pair of gloves and jumped in the Octagon himself Saturday. But that would not be the case, and the only way a fighter can learn about fighting in a championship bout is by doing it. Frankie Edgar got his education in his title-winning effort against BJ Penn last April. When he met Penn again four months later, it was a different, better, more confident fighter, and he won even more convincingly the second time around. Maynard, a competitive athlete since he was barely out of diapers, would have to get his championship lesson, like all fighters, on the job.
And while many say that fighters are born, not made, I’d like to think that they are equally born and made. If you’re a fighter, you’ve got something inside you that separates you from everybody else. But to become an elite fighter, a world champion, you have to learn how to build your game, learn new techniques, and adapt under enormous pressure. Only instruction, listening, and hours in the gym will build that type of muscle memory. So when Maynard’s takedowns were stuffed by Edgar, he had to go to Plan B. When Edgar’s head was rattled by Maynard’s strikes in round one, he had to find a way to survive while the challenger chased after him with bad intentions. The Edgar and Maynard who both made their UFC debuts in 2007 wouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to the 2011 versions. That’s not luck.
The final verdict wasn’t luck for the fighters either, though both would probably call it bad luck. In a sport where judges’ decisions are met with the anticipation of an IRS audit or root canal, Saturday’s final tally was one most wouldn’t find fault with. Many thought Edgar pulled off the miracle comeback, and just as many felt Maynard had done enough to win his first world title. Some just said, ‘hey, it was a great fight, it could have gone either way, let’s call it even.’ So when the decision came back as a draw, it was just. Of course Edgar believed he won, while Maynard felt the victory should have been his, but that’s what fighters do, and they both had valid cases. Yet in making those cases, the two lightweight standouts did so with their characteristic class.
It’s not what you expect from professional athletes these days, and that’s a sad commentary in and of itself, but in the Octagon and outside of it, Edgar and Maynard proved that they’re not who many say they are – they’re even better. And if Saturday night’s bout was a precursor for what we can expect in 2011, it’s going to be a good year.
So yeah, Frankie Edgar is one of those MMA guys, but that’s a description he and Gray Maynard wear proudly.
Thoughts on a Fight Well Fought
As Edgar and Maynard were called to the center of the Octagon for the start of round one, there was no question that they were going to leave it all out there