There was no secret recipe to Ben Henderson's title win over Frankie Edgar aside from hard work. As the fight went on, it was clear that Henderson had done his homework. He understood most of Edgar's preferences, ramped up his own aggression and had come into the bout as always, in great shape.
Of all three, the last factor may have been the most important because of what it allowed him to do. Edgar himself is something of an athletic dynamo who never seems to tire or show fatigue, even in the midst of previous wars. So to beat him in a five-round fight, you have to be able to match him step for step. That was largely what Henderson did in February, and what he'll have to do again to successfully defend the UFC lightweight championship at Saturday night's UFC 150.
Since most of the first fight was standup-oriented, Henderson did two things to disrupt Edgar's usual offensive rhythm. The first was beat him with footwork. Henderson was very mindful of taking the center of the cage, and using it to cut off Edgar's angles. In that way, he was controlling the action and corralling Edgar to places where he wanted. The other factor was his use of kicks. Henderson, who comes from a Taekwondo background, has always been a heavy utilizer of kicks, and did so against Edgar to great effect, minimizing his side-to-side movement.
All of this added up to make Henderson only the second man to out-land Edgar in a UFC fight (B.J. Penn in Edgar-Penn I was the other), with the final strike count being 100-81.
It's not like the rounds were lopsided, however. After each man connected on 13 strikes to start the first round, Henderson out-landed him in all of the following rounds, by totals of three, six, five and five, respectively. Differences like that over the course of a five-minute round can be virtually indistinguishable, so beyond it, Henderson made his impression with power.
Edgar has always been a finesse fighter who uses his light feet to get into and out of range with combinations. He did the same against Henderson. Meanwhile, Henderson was thwacking him with kicks to the body and straight left hands. His significant strikes -- notably, a jarring second-round upkick -- largely made the difference in perception.
That will be a difficult perception to overcome in the rematch for Edgar. His advantage has always been in conditioning and footwork, but Henderson is one of few fighters in the world that can both equal the first and slow down the second. That leaves Edgar with many adjustments to make.
Fortunately for Edgar, he's been tasked with the challenge of back-to-back rematches before.
Against Penn, he went from a narrow decision to a blowout. Against Gray Maynard, both first rounds looked remarkably similar, but in the second fight, he knocked out Maynard in the fourth round after a fantastic wrestling to striking transition.
If Edgar is to beat Henderson, the fight may be won in those kinds of 50/50 positions. Edgar has shown an aptitude for taking advantage of them. In the first fight, he caught many kicks and punched Henderson while he was a stationary target.
The biggest advantage Edgar showed in his first fight, surprisingly, was his wrestling. He took Henderson down five times in the fight, and in four of the five rounds. In many situations where a fighter gets a takedown and striking is otherwise close, the round's scoring swings in his favor. But Edgar couldn't hold Henderson down. He was too big and strong, and since he shows no fear of being submitted, he takes chances with his escapes from the bottom.
Those are opportunities Edgar must capitalize on this time around. If he gets Henderson on his back, he needs to keep him there to score points. In this matchup, smarting fight will work out better than fighting brave.
The unknown the second time around rests with which side will make the best adjustments. Conventional wisdom is that the loser has more to work with, because there will be more obvious mistakes to correct. Edgar knows what Henderson did to limit his effectiveness, so will he come in with some tactic that disrupts Henderson's ability to cut him off? Likely. Maybe instead of lateral movement, he chooses to come forward more. He did fairly well in those exchanges the first fight, and it also opens up the takedown lanes.
On the other hand, that also offers the taller Henderson the chance to jump the guillotine, as he did during the fourth round of their first fight. Given his previous success with the move -- he's tapped Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner and Anthony Njokuani with it -- that's no small deterrent to coming forward.
So, really this fight is dependent on the changes that Edgar makes. Henderson came into the first fight and took away some of his keys to victory. Having done it for the majority of the bout, there is no question he can do it again. It is Edgar that will have to adjust. He's proven he can do it in the past, but I just have a feeling that Henderson has his number. He understands footwork enough to realize he can cut off Edgar's path, and that will probably hold true even with some minor adjustments. Unless Edgar can use takedowns to keep Henderson grounded, I think the rematch goes the same way as the original, and Henderson wins a decision.