Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
LAS VEGAS -- If things had gone differently, if Frankie Edgar hadn't insisted against all odds that he was a world-class lightweight and stubbornly gone about proving it, we would have seen this fight already. For years, he's ducked, dodged and otherwise evaded questions about his true weight class, even if most of us innately knew the answer. Edgar was a dreamer and an overachiever, but in this era of extreme weight cuts, he was also most certainly a featherweight. As success came, so did the ability to hold off the move that was considered by many to be an inevitability.
It's finally here now, Edgar (15-3-1) attempting to follow in the footsteps of Randy Couture and B.J. Penn by becoming only the third man to win UFC championships in two divisions. That Edgar may join that rarefied air is shocking considering how lightly regarded he was upon debuting in the UFC back in 2007 Unlike Couture, who arrived on the scene with an international reputation from his extensive wrestling history, and Penn, who was one of the most heralded signings of the early Zuffa era, Edgar was just another guy brought in to fill an empty slot on a card. He was a massive underdog in that first fight, and the trend continued on even as he elevated himself towards the top of the division. For example, he was considered knockout fodder for Penn when he was slotted into his first-ever title match, and has been an underdog in five of seven title fights he's been penciled into, including the UFC 156 main event with Jose Aldo.
Still, no one takes him lightly anymore. While champion Aldo (21-1) remains the betting favorite at slightly less than 2-to-1 odds, that's only because of his dynamic fight skills and near-flawless resume. Whatever the numbers say, the UFC 156 main-event should be packed with intrigue and action.
Aldo, as always, comes in on a tear, having won 14 fights in a row, including his most recent, a first-round knockout of Chad Mendes. Despite that streak, he walks into the fight with little real momentum, having sat on the sidelines for nearly all of 2012 for various reasons including a motorcycle crash that caused a foot injury. When he steps into the cage against Edgar, he'll be competing for the first time in 386 days. In a division where speed and footwork are at a premium, that is a very real concern and could certainly be a factor.
Aldo, after all, is known for both. The Muay Thai stylist boasts some of the fastest and most powerful limbs in mixed martial arts. His explosion comes from a centered base and his danger comes from a perfectly rounded standup game. The champion is not only technically proficient, but he also mixed up his offense well, changing his opponents sight lines by attacking every level, from head to body to legs, and with whatever appendage he has available. He can jab, he can throw the low kick, he can punch to the body. Eventually, coming behind those leads is a hellraiser of a right hand that is adept at ending the night.
Of these weapons, perhaps the most important against Edgar will be the leg kick. It is an Aldo speciality, and it's a strike that lightweight champion Benson Henderson had success with against Edgar. In their first fight, he landed 13. In their second bout, he landed 17. Those kicks can score points with the judges and also slow Edgar down. Edgar's game is very reliant on movement, and any small differences in speed make him a more available target. That's one of the reasons Henderson was able to land more significant strikes against Edgar than anyone else had ever done; 87 in the first fight, and 64 in the second.
Aldo also has another weapon that he hopes to successfully wield against Edgar: his takedown defense. According to FightMetric, Aldo has defended 95 percent of the attempts against him, a ridiculous number that is a great clue to his success. If you can't beat him on your feet, and you can't take him down, then what? A few fighters -- Kenny Florian, Mark Hominick and Jonathan Brookins -- have been able to get Aldo to the mat -- but only Hominick was able to keep him there for any extended period of time.
Edgar has made a habit of winning close rounds with late takedowns. Against Aldo, it's no sure thing he can do the same. True, none of those aforementioned fighters has Edgar's reputation as a wrestler, but despite that reputation, he only completes 37 percent of his takedown attempts. That's a poor percentage (even Aldo lands 60 percent), but Edgar's tenacity tends to wear on opponents to the point where he will get them to the mat at some point. In his six title fights, for example, Edgar scored 14 takedowns, and those came against strong wrestlers like BJ Penn, Gray Maynard and Henderson. Will Aldo put up more or less of a challenge? That aspect of the bout will be an important battleground.
Another question is whether Edgar's speed will translate to featherweight. In his division, his speed was a major asset. Is he any faster than Aldo? He certainly utilizes more movement, making his opponents come to get him. Edgar says he believes that he might actually be quicker than he was at 155.
As his secret weapon, Edgar brought in Edson Barboza, the lightweight highlight reel who resembles Aldo in the striking department. That should help Edgar acclimate in the cage in a short amount of time.
The fight though might ultimately come down to firepower. Aldo just has more of it. We've seen Edgar hurt by Maynard and Henderson, and I'd venture to say that Aldo, despite being in a lower weight class, has more power than either. His damaging strikes are much more likely to score points than Edgar's. But if he doesn't? Things could get interesting late. After being sidelined for a year, Aldo's conditioning could be a question mark, and we know that Edgar never goes away willingly. His stamina is his ultimate forte, and if Aldo fades as he did against Hominick, it could spell trouble.
Edgar has surprised us many times, and he may make me eat crow here, but given the skill sets of both, I see Aldo's explosive striking as the deciding factor. Aldo wins a decision, and then maybe we start speculating about his chances of becoming the man to join Couture and Penn as two-division champions.
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