No one is scared of Frankie Edgar. Not really. No one in the UFC seems especially terrified of him, of what he might do to them, of the ways in which a fight with him might forever alter their lives and/or faces. That’s just not the kind of champion he is, and he knows it, even if he doesn’t know exactly why.
Fighters worry about him, maybe. They’re concerned. They know that Edgar keeps finding a way to win -- somehow -- and that’s a problem. Still, it’s not the kind of thing that keeps them up at night or keeps fans enthralled by his dominance, and even Edgar can’t quite explain why that is.
"I don’t know," he told MMA Fighting. "Maybe it’s because I’m a smaller guy. I’m not supposed to win."
According to the oddsmakers, that was true until very recently. The first time Edgar fought B.J. Penn for the UFC lightweight title, Penn was a 7-1 favorite. Even after Edgar beat him via decision to claim the belt, Penn was still somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3-1 favorite in the immediate rematch. Edgar won that fight too, this time even more convincingly than the first, but he was still a slight underdog when he defended the belt against Gray Maynard some four months later.
It wasn’t until the third fight with Maynard, which Edgar would go on to win via knockout, that he finally entered a title fight as the (slight) favorite. Even now, coming off arguably the biggest and most decisive win of his career, he’s just barely a favorite -- currently hovering at -130, according to most oddsmakers -- to beat Ben Henderson in Tokyo at UFC 144.
At a certain point, how do you not take this personally, if you’re Edgar? How do you resist the urge to smack the oddsmakers and experts upside the head with your championship belt, WWE-style, and ask them why you don’t get the same respect as the rest of the UFC title-holders?
Only, for better or worse, that’s not the kind of fighter Edgar is. He seems more inclined to laugh and shrug than launch into the Rodney Dangerfield ‘no respect’ schtick. Maybe he hasn’t made a believer out of everyone, he admitted, but "[t]hat doesn’t bother me. I think the longer it took people to come around, it means the more proving I had to do. And once people do come around, I feel like they’re going to stick with me longer."
Besides, there’s not much you can take away from a champion who’s 14-1-1, and has avenged the loss and the draw with a dramatic knockout victory.
"You can’t deny what I did," Edgar said. "I beat B.J. Penn twice, and a lot of people considered him the best lightweight ever. Then I beat Gray, who had never been beaten before. Not only did I beat him, I stopped him."
And yet, even Edgar will admit that the public perception does have some effect, however slight, on the way he perceives his own title reign. This weekend’s fight in Tokyo will mark the first time in over two years that he’s fought someone not named Penn or Maynard, which, for a while there, turned his training into a real mental grind.
"I think that’s why I didn’t really get caught up in [being the champion,]" he said. "I remember coming home with the belt and getting a call from Dana [White] pretty much that next day saying, ‘You’ve got to fight B.J. again.’ I never really even got to settle in to being the champion. I had to get ready to defend it. ...Then I was the underdog my past few fights, so I never even got a chance to feel like a champion. I felt like I constantly had to prove myself, and I kind of still feel that way today."
But how long can that go on? If he beats Henderson, thus defending his title against its third consecutive challenger, who can still doubt him? Who can still look at him and see a champion on borrowed time?
Maybe the better question is, who still sees him that way now? If wins over Penn and Maynard aren’t enough, what will be?
Perhaps we’ll find out soon enough, but in the meantime it doesn’t seem to be bothering Edgar all that much. He’s had plenty of time to get used to it. At this point, maybe he wouldn’t even know how to be that terrifying, dominant champion who the fight world reveres. Maybe he wouldn’t want to be.