Frankie Edgar says failure to make it onto The Ultimate Fighter 5 was a blessing in disguise

USA TODAY Sports

After layoff of exactly one year, former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar finally gets back into competition against legendary B.J. Penn after the current season of The Ultimate Fighter finishes airing.

When Frankie Edgar goes back into the cage in less than two weeks, a lot of things will be familiar.

The date, July 6, will be exactly 365 days since his last fight, and to the week of the nine-year anniversary of his first MMA experience, in essentially an underground fight in the Bronx. The city, Las Vegas, was the site of his previous two fights and will be his seventh time in Sin City of his 22 career fights. Edgar's opponent, B.J. Penn, is someone he's shared 50 minutes in the cage with in two lightweight championship fights in 2010, both of which he won via decision.

The year delay between fights, the longest of Edgar's career, has made him hungry even though he's facing someone he's beaten twice. And while Edgar won both the previous fights, Penn today is considered a legend of the sport as the first true lighter weight superstar in the U.S. Edgar really isn't talked of in the same terms, although one could make a strong case he should be.

The Toms River, N.J., native quietly has amassed a 16-4-1 career record, including a two-year run as lightweight champion even though he was probably giving away 15 to 20 pounds in the cage almost every time out. Last year he came close last year to dethroning Jose Aldo, one of the most dominant champions in UFC history, for the featherweight title, and now he's hoping a win against Penn gets him another shot.

"It's been a year, that's enough to get the juices flowing," Edgar said on Monday's MMA Hour in an in-studio interview with Ariel Helwani. "I don't want to lose the third time out. The first two times, I wasn't supposed to win. Now, I'm supposed to win."

Edgar knows that Penn is motivated, not having fought in 19 months, and then as a welterweight. Penn agreed to drop down two weight classes because he badly wanted another shot at Edgar.

In their first meeting, Edgar won a close decision in what was at the time one of the biggest title match upsets in UFC history. People were skeptical, even though it was a five-round decision and in no way a fluke, and Edgar was still an underdog in the immediate rematch. The second fight saw Edgar's speed and conditioning make a difference in a far more clear-cut decision.

"I think he knows this is his last chance and he's preparing the best he can," said Edgar. "It's good to have some concern. He's still B.J. Penn."

Edgar's role coaching the currently airing season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) against Penn led to the long layoff, even though he wasn't injured. And while he won't say doing the show was a bad decision, Edgar isn't clamoring to do it again.

"I don't want to say it wasn't worth it," he said. "What's done is done. But I don't know if I'd do it again.

"The show went smooth, it was six weeks. It's the time away from fighting. I wouldn't want to do that again."

Unlike many others who were on the show in the past, not only has Edgar watched every episode on Wednesday nights, but he also has no complaints about what passed for the finished product after editing.

With the season now coming to a close, UFC President Dana White has gone on record saying TUF 19 was the worst season to date, although he made it clear he didn't blame the coaches. White said he felt the fighters didn't have the motivation of fighters in previous seasons.

"That's Dana being Dana," said Edgar.  "He says things when he gets emotional. When I'm coaching the fights, I'm emotional because I want my guys to win. I thought the fights were a little better, but now watching, the fights weren't as eventful as I remembered."

While Edgar would still recommend TUF to a young fighter looking for a way into the UFC, his time on the show brought back early career memories that started out bad but in the long run ended up happy.

A former wrestler at Clarion University, who by his own admission never did as well in his primary sport as he'd hoped, Edgar was an unbeaten lightweight with a handful of fights in New York (on an illegal show) and New Jersey when he tried out for TUF 5 with training partner Kevin Roddy. He went in with the attitude that he would make it, and then it didn't happen.

"I was heartbroken," Edgar said about the experience. "I made the first two cuts. I went with Kevin Roddy. I thought I'm getting a call. I stayed positive. I think positive. Before we had landed (from the tryouts), he got a call for a physical. I was waiting, but I didn't get that call. I was pretty torn up."

Edgar joked that maybe producers filled the spot for a wrestler who lacked personality with Gray Maynard, who years later went on to be Edgar's biggest career rival.

Regardless, it ended up as a blessing in disguise.

A month later, Edgar was called to face Tyson Griffin at UFC 67, who at the time was a name fighter. Edgar won a close decision in a fight of the year candidate. Because of how exciting the fight was, and because there were so many fewer shows then, Edgar instantly became a name fighter himself.

Less than a year later, after having negotiated a new contract, he gave up his job as a plumber and his life changed, for the better.

"I drive past job sites and say, 'Thank God that's not me.' Fighting's always something different, always traveling. I'd have been a guy who every day would have been on the job at 7 a.m., 9 a.m. break, noon break, go home at 3:30. Every day the same time. (Now) I feel like I don't work."

As things turned out, Edgar had to put his personal life on hold of late, as his first daughter was just born three weeks ago during the hardest portion in his camp.

"My wife's a trooper," he noted. "I told her, July 7th, I'm your guy. Until then, you're kind of on your own. I'll get the paybacks after the fight for sure."

Edgar never won a wrestling state championship in high school, and while he went to nationals four years at Clarion, he never placed. He remembers watching the early UFC's at the age of 13 and seeing Dan Severn and Royce Gracie. But as far as getting into the sport, he never thought about it until his senior year in high school, while watching the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and seeing Josh Koscheck on television. Koscheck went to Clarion's rival, Edinboro College, and was a genuine college star. The two knew each other when Edgar was starting college and Koscheck was finishing.

He decided to start training in MMA, but at the time figured he was going to end up working in his father's plumbing business.

He'd only trained three weeks when he fought Eric Ursek on July 10, 2005 in The Bronx, and it was a very different world than the UFC he'd be fighting in a few years later.

"It was an illegal show," Edgar said. "There was no ambulance, no weigh-ins, no rounds, we did one 15 minute round.

"There were 50 people there, no weigh-ins and no rules. I head-butted him in the fight. I knew it was legal. The gloves I wore were the same gloves I was wearing for three weeks. I didn't wrap my hands."

Edgar won in 3:38. He got a takedown and moved to mount, then finished Ursek with strikes on the ground, but not before a knee to the face broke Edgar's orbital bone and his face blew up after the fight.

His pay for the night was $160, not because he won, but because he sold 16 tickets and got $10 for each tickets sold.

"If I sold no tickets, I'd have made no money."

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