NEW YORK – Frankie Edgar’s career has been a tale of mandatory sequels and improbable trilogies. In his Gray Maynard series, which began in 2008 and ended in two title clashes three years later, Edgar went 1-1-1, meaning a rare quadrilogy fight -- to the horror of everybody except maybe Maynard -- could be justified at some point in the future.
Against Benson Henderson, the man who took his lightweight belt, Edgar is a winking 0-2. Henderson won the belt semi-unemphatically in Japan in early 2012, which was close enough to set up the redo, and then defended it against Edgar still less emphatically in late 2012. To this day that split decision loss is enough to start a spirited argument about the state of judging in MMA at dinner parties.
Then there’s Edgar’s greatest works: His series with B.J. Penn.
When Edgar first fought Penn back in April of 2010, there was at least one well-known MMA writer who half-joked that Edgar -- the little guy from Toms River, New Jersey who’d been masquerading as an undersized lightweight -- might be the first real casualty in the Octagon. In any case, he was installed as a no-hope underdog, a mere formality for Penn to run through. Edgar not only held his own in Abu Dhabi at UFC 112, he flew back with the lightweight belt to a hero’s welcome.
And he defended that belt four months later against Penn at UFC 118 in Boston. Playbacks have been Edgar’s norm ever since. In the Penn-Maynard-Henderson sagas, Edgar is now 3-3-1.
Which brings us around to Edgar-Penn III. Edgar is just beginning the media rounds again for his July 6 fight with B.J. Penn, just four months after coaching opposite of him on The Ultimate Fighter 19. Penn, perhaps more than any of the others, has beaten a trail up and down Edgar’s brainstem for a long, long time.
At a UFC media luncheon at Flatiron Hall in New York, Edgar said that though this particular rematch materialized out of left field, the chance to coach on TUF was alluring enough.
"[Fighting Penn again] honestly didn’t cross my mind," he said. "There were talks of me coaching the show, possibly against Urijah [Faber], but he was 135 and I was 145, so we said maybe at catchweight? Dana [White] doesn’t like catchweights, so I thought the opportunity passed. Then a couple of weeks later Dana said B.J. Penn wants to fight you again. Why don’t we do a show? I was like…all aboard, I guess. I’m pretty easy."
The novelty of the third Penn fight is that it will be contested at featherweight, which is a place Penn has never gone in his storied UFC career. There’s also the division of years since the last time they fought.
"I don’t know about the weight class, but just the time that has elapsed," he said. "It’s been four years, and I think I’m a much better fighter than I was then, and much more confident. It’s like the older I get the more comfortable I get in my own skin of the person I am and the fighter I am, and I think that’s making me a better fighter."
Both guys have gone down meandering roads since they last fought. Edgar finally dropped down to 145 (after years of persuasion) and ended a three-fight skid against Charles Oliveira at UFC 162. The 35-year old Penn opted to continue on as a welterweight, and went 1-2-1, his last appearance a unanimous decision loss to Rory MacDonald to end 2012.
The one common theme that seemingly never goes away is the hard-to-predict state of Penn’s motivation. Edgar dealt with this line of questioning plenty a few years ago when he and Penn fought, and he’s dealing with it again, these days with seasoned patience.
"You know, whenever you hear about B.J. it’s is he motivated now, this or that, and for me it’s something you live every day, motivation and wanting to put the work in," Edgar said. "It’s not something where you wake up one day and say, you know what? I’m going to start being motivated. So I can’t really speak for him, but for myself I know I’ve been in the gym [pretty much] every day since we fought, and I’m always motivated."
Edgar said that on the set of TUF, which wrapped up filming in November, Penn was already walking around at around 165 pounds, which to him indicated that he was motivated enough. And as a self-confirmed "yes man" when it comes to the UFC -- "especially when it’s Dana calling you up and asking," he laughs -- Edgar says he’s pretty at home giving Penn a mulligan under these new circumstances.
"I think B.J. knows the opportunity that’s at hand, and it’s a chance to get back at me and get a little resurgence in his career," he said. "He’s kind of been on the down side the last couple of years at 170 and I think he sees a little light in this opportunity.
"And anytime you fight B.J. Penn it’s a very big fight."