While he has lost a match during that stretch of time -- losing to Georges St. Pierre in a welterweight fight in Jan. 2009 -- it's hard to imagine who can beat Penn at 155. Frankie Edgar gets the next opportunity at the lightweight championship at this weekend's UFC 112 in the promotion's maiden voyage to Abu Dhabi.
On paper, Edgar is a longshot; Penn is around a 7-to-1 favorite according to most sports books. Though he's constructed a strong 6-1 record in the UFC (and 11-1 overall), Edgar is a smallish lightweight who cuts very little to make the 155-pound limit. He is not a hammer-fisted puncher, doesn't share nearly the submission pedigree as Penn, and isn't big-match tested. So does he have a realistic chance to win?
It will certainly be an uphill battle for the New Jersey native. His primary strengths are his crisp boxing and an effective wrestling game. Unfortunately for Edgar, there is a good chance both of those weapons will be nullified or at the least, muted. Penn might actually be the best straight boxer in the lightweight division, and his takedown defense is extremely difficult to penetrate.
One thing we can confidently say about Edgar in pointing to his upset potential is that he has yet to get blown out in a fight, and in fact, often tends to surprise. From his shocking UFC debut upset win over Tyson Griffin onward, Edgar's earned respect by finding ways to win fights that many thought unwinnable. So he's unlikely to be overwhelmed by the moment against Penn.
Even when he lost a unanimous decision to Gray Maynard, it was mostly due to a steady diet of takedowns rather than any prolonged damage. Edgar's best bet here is outworking Penn with sharp striking. He needs to work his way in, land something, and clear out. Leg kicks might be a good idea to keep Penn at bay as well. That's easier said than done, as most of Penn's lightweight opponents have learned. Kenny Florian was on fire when he faced Penn, and at the time, he actually favored a muay thai style heavy on kicks. He had a couple of good moments, but Penn was able to find his target repeatedly, connecting on 57 percent of his strikes, according to Compustrike numbers. (Florian landed just 43 percent.)
It was the same story for Diego Sanchez, against whom Penn landed 51 percent of strikes. Even the notoriously hard-to-hit Georges St. Pierre absorbed 62 percent of the strikes Penn unleashed.
Edgar is good enough to connect from time to time, but in order to outpoint Penn, he's going to have to be consistent in outworking him. If he had a game-changing right hand, Edgar would at least have that to draw on; few lightweights do, and Penn happens to be an exception to the rule. Even though Edgar dropped his last opponent Matt Veach en route to a win, Penn has an iron chin, and Edgar's only finished two of his last seven opponents. Those two factors make it much more likely that an Edgar win would require going to a decision rather than forcing any kind of stoppage.
To do that, he'll have to outland Penn, and as the statistics show, Penn lands at a very high rate.
Adding to the matchup trouble, Penn hits much harder than Edgar does. He's floored opponents from Jens Pulver to Joe Stevenson to Sanchez, so Edgar is constantly going to be moving into and out of danger zones when trying to engage.
Unlike some of Penn's aforementioned victims, Edgar does bring an element that could pay dividends, and that's his wrestling pedigree. It will be interesting to see if he tries to mix in takedowns. Many fighters don't even bother, because Penn's takedown defense is so frustrating it's often not worth the effort. Others try to no avail, draining their own energy in the process. Sanchez went 0-for-19 in the category in a lopsided loss; Florian was 0-for-6. Edgar though, is more natural in his striking to wrestling transitions than either of those two, and that will give him a better chance at success should he try it.
Edgar has shown tremendous stamina throughout his career, but even if he's able to frustrate Penn early and get into the late rounds, he'll find that the champion's conditioning is no longer a wild card. In the past, Edgar's conditioning might have been an issue for Penn in a five-round fight, but that hole in the champion's game has been closed, as evidenced by his last fight, when he was the fresher man against the ever-charging Sanchez even in the fifth round.
In any objective analysis, you have to give Penn the edge is most major categories of this title fight. He's a more powerful striker, has excellent and accurate hands, is murder on the ground and has loads of experience in big-match situations. The only thing going againt him is the pressure to win as a big favorite.
The window for Edgar to win is a small one. It is there but good luck fitting through it. Penn has the edge in key categories and seems focused enough to ensure he'll be at his best. Edgar is a very game fighter, and I don't expect to see him steamrolled. It will take some heavy offense over the first few rounds before Edgar begins to wilt, and Penn finds a way to finish around the fourth round.