Ever since Frankie Edgar - an undersized lightweight - shocked the world when he upset B.J. Penn twice to both win and then retain the title, one of the most intriguing potential fights in the UFC looked to have been Edgar against the most dominant featherweight in history, Jose Aldo.
But until now, Edgar had been content to stay at lightweight, even with much prodding by UFC President Dana White to drop down. Aldo has stayed at featherweight, even with occasional teases of moving up, and ultimately deciding against doing so.
When Edgar announced a few weeks ago he was moving down to 145, it opened the door for the fight to finally take place in 2013. And then suddenly, last week, bad luck became good luck, and next year is coming early.
Erik Koch, scheduled to face Aldo for the title on Oct. 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the main event of UFC 153, went down with an injury. Edgar, scheduled to make his featherweight debut in December, got the call, and with a short turnaround from his Aug. 11 split decision loss to lightweight champion Benson Henderson, jumped at the opportunity to face Aldo on his home court.
One unique aspect of the two plus years of speculation regarding a potential match up is that Edgar (14-3-1) cut so little weight, while Aldo (21-1) cut so much. Aldo, fighting a weight class down, was probably the bigger man. When he'd get in the cage he was in the low 160s, and in most cases seemed bigger and stronger than his opposition. Edgar barely cut, fighting at 155-158 pounds in the 155 division, and was always the smaller guy, although he was only truly out muscled once, four years ago in the first Gray Maynard fight.
It's not officially the elusive champion vs. champion match, which would be the first of its kind since welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre showed how much size mattered when he brutalized lightweight champion B.J. Penn in early 2009. But many, perhaps most, would argue that it really is given the consensus Edgar should have gotten the decision over Henderson in their Aug. 11 clash in Denver that the judges went the other way in.
Because of that Edgar will be attempting to become only the third fighter in UFC history to capture a championship when coming off a loss, something done previously by Carlso Newton once and Randy Couture twice.
Edgar is quick, and has both strong boxing and wrestling. His key as a lightweight is that his wrestling and strength was enough to neutralize the size advantage of most of his opponents, and he was quicker than any of them. He also had a level of stamina that even fighting bigger men, he was there for as long as the fight would go, and got stronger as time went on. But now, he'll be fighting men who can match him in speed.
But what breaks him out of the pack is guts, heart and durability. He knows how to win the tough ones, although the judges may not have agreed his last time out. But while always being the smaller man in the fight, he's never been finished in his career. That statement that can only be fully appreciated if you've seen the first round of his second and third fights with Gray Maynard. And in a statement that also can't be fully appreciated unless you've seen both Maynard fights, his recuperative powers are off the charts. After being brutalized early on, by the second round in both fights he was already fully recovered and taking over control.
Aldo, on one of the most impressive winning streaks ever in the sport, is a completely different fighter. The Brazilian has as much fighting talent as anyone in the sport. If he's got any weaknesses, nobody has found them yet. With the exception of a fight in Toronto where a combination of being ill and a bad weight cut sapped him of his stamina late against Mark Hominick, putting him in legitimate trouble in the final round, he's dominated every fight he's had since arriving on the national scene four years ago. His only professional loss came in Brazil just after his 19th birthday. His perfect 11-0 record under the Zuffa umbrella puts him in a category with only Anderson Silva.
Nobody has been able to get the better of him standing, with a striking game set up by low kicks that nobody has yet to be able to effectively counter. His takedown defense is second-to-none, blocking 95 percent of opponents takedown attempts, according to Fightmetric.com. In his last fight, Chad Mendes, the best wrestler in the division, looked futile in attempts to get the fight to the ground. And they say his ground game, as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, that he's only shown glimpses of the past few years, is just as strong.
But there are always questions regarding opposition. It's hardly that guys like Urijah Faber, who had a lengthy run as the top featherweight in the world, or Kenny Florian, a good enough lightweight to get two title shots who moved down like Edgar, or Mendes, aren't top level opponents. But the evolution of the sport made it so the lightweight division is so much deeper in talent. There's little question Edgar has far more cage experience against tougher opposition.
For years, 155 was the lightest division in major promotions. Even when featherweights started being put in the spotlight with World Extreme Cagefighting and Faber getting regular television exposure, the gap in money and opportunities in being a lightweight and a featherweight swayed heavily to the bigger division. A number of fighters, Edgar being the perfect example, who today would enter the sport at featherweight, stayed as small lightweights, because it was the only way to make it to UFC.
The fact Edgar would move down, particularly right after showing that with any kind of luck he could be lightweight champion today, speaks volumes about the gain in both prestige and opportunity in the featherweight division. With a win, Aldo will answer every bit of lingering doubt that his complete domination of the division is because he's as good as he appears, and not that the guys who would really test his mettle were competing a weight class up.
Aldo is favored, solidly, with most lines coming in around 9-to-4. Edgar has never faced anyone with the kind of complete striking game as Aldo. Henderson scored well early in the last fight with low kicks and Aldo is at a different level. Aldo appears to be nearly impossible to take down, blocking 95 percent of opponents' attempts in his last 11 fights. But there was a time when people thought the same about Penn as a lightweight, and Edgar took him down a number of times in their two fights.
If there's something to look for in Edgar's favor, it's handling adversity. Edgar has fought bigger, tougher guys, and is proven in a dog fight that he won't mentally break and will actually get stronger. With Aldo, like any fighter so dominant all the time, they are unproven in the ability to survive and come back when things look bad, And while Edgar having the shorter camp may play a factor, Edgar is a rarity in UFC competition in that he really does get stronger and busier as the fight goes on.
Statistically, Edgar lands more on average as the fight goes on, to the point his fifth round output averages nearly double his first round output, which is almost unheard of. Aldo, who hasn't been in as many long fights, has a more typical pattern, starting off strong and slowing down as the fight goes on.
Aldo may also have to deal with frustration. Edgar's movement has led to opponents only connecting on 28.1% of their strikes against him, the fifth lowest of any fighter in UFC history.
But for Edgar, it's hardly a walk in the park. Aldo may be smaller than most of the opponents he's used to facing, but he's more complete and more skilled than any prior foe.
In the end, while this isn't likely to be a box office bonanza, when it comes to a fight that will really answer a number of questions about where two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world really stand, it can be argued this is the biggest fight so far this year.