LAS VEGAS - He was all but an afterthought over the weekend. His arena entrance Sunday was greeted with a lusty round of jeers from a crowd who desperately wanted to see B.J. Penn recapture his glory for one night. He went about his role in the closest thing mixed martial arts will ever see to Larry Holmes vs. Muhammad Ali with business-like precision.
But as the dust settles on a surreal evening, one fact remains: Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar is still a major factor in the featherweight division, and he could very well be on the path to another title shot.
Edgar had been out of sight, out of mind for the past year, as he filmed what was originally rumored to be a season of The Ultimate Fighter coaching against Urijah Faber, but ended up being Penn.
After putting on such a ruthless, efficient clinic against Penn before winning via third-round TKO, however, Edgar is right back in the top of the mix at 145 pounds. Since dropping featherweight, he lost a 48-47 decision to champion Jose Aldo, and has since looked sharp in wins over Charles Oliveira and now Penn.
"I'm always trying to get better in all areas and I still feel like I have time to grow," Edgar said. "It's a scary thing. I'm in the gym all the time. I had a year off since I fought, but I didn't take any time off. I can't stay out of the gym. I don't know how good that is for my body, but yeah."
The victory isn't enough to leap over Chad Mendes, whose title shot with Aldo is in limbo with the champ injured. And Cub Swanson should have a say in things, too. But make no mistake, "The Answer" is back, and shouldn't be more than a win away from another shot at the crown.
Give credit for Edgar on another level, too: He's universally referred to by people in the business as one of the most down-to-earth, true-to-his-roots people in the game, and he displayed it last night. Edgar struck exactly the right tone on Sunday after the fight. It would have been easy for him to gloat, or to demand his well-earned share of the spotlight. But Sunday's aftermath was about letting Penn soak in a final burst of attention and appreciation.
Edgar paid his respect by basically getting out of the way and letting the legend have his moment.
"As the finish was going on, it was bittersweet," Edgar said. "I didn't celebrate like crazy tonight, because it felt like that wasn't the most important thing. B.J. will always be mentioned with my name just because we fought three times. when I first got into the sport, B.J. was the guy. He did a lot for the lightweights. We owe B.J. a lot."
He's no longer wearing a shiny gold belt, but let there be no doubt Frankie Edgar is still a champ.
"If I didn't make this night happen for myself, I would have wondered, I would have went back and forth on whether I should go back in. I needed some closure." -- Penn
"Fighting is a young man's sport. Guess what? Matt Hughes could fight in the UFC today. Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin could all fight. I don't want to make a dollar that way." -- UFC president Dana White
"I think what's next and what everybody would like to see - what I'd like to see and what you'd like to see - is probably Vitor Belfort. So, let's see what happens with Vitor. If this guy can get his business handled." - White, saying Belfort, who has flunked two drug tests, should get the next shot at Chris Weidman's middleweight title
"This s-- is going to flip as soon as I sign her -- drug testing and all the other bullsh--. That'll be the biggest topic. It'll be the biggest f---ing story for you guys to write. The script will flip immediately." - White, on what he says will happen in the media if he signs one-time drug test failure Cyborg Justino
"Given my extended layoff as a result of my recent medical issues and the passing of my father, I dismissed my physical and emotional feelings as nothing more than nervousness. Unfortunately, as my warm up progressed, I collapsed in the locker room." - Stefan Struve, in a statement after he was pulled from his fight with Matt Mitrione.
"I'm left-handed, so it's all good." - Ronda Rousey, dismissing the stitches on her right index finger and surgery needed for her right knee.
Stock Up: Chris Weidman. Yeah, I know what you're thinking: "Thanks, Captain Obvious." But Weidman's victory over Machida was a tour de force, one which answered so many of the questions which remained unanswered going into the middleweight title bout. Weidman showed off a magnificent fight IQ by never letting Machida get comfortable, cutting off his angles, and yet still pushing forward without rushing in. Weidman certainly demonstrated he has a chin, when he took everything Machida dished out late and kept on coming back for more. And, when he was finally in something resembling trouble for the first time in his 12-fight career, he showed championship heart in the fifth round, keeping his composure and regaining control of the fight to seal his win. The champ is well on his way toward the top of the pound-for-pound lists.
Stock forever up: B.J. Penn. What, do you think I'm going to have a single bad word to say about "The Prodigy" on the morning after his retirement? Yeah, his final loss was tough to watch. And it made for a downer of a finish on what had been a festive, wild weekend.
You know the old adage "It's better to aim high and miss than aim low and hit?" That saying may as well have been written for B.J. Penn. He was always willing to try something that seemed like a reach to us mere mortals. And sometimes he even hit, most notably when he fought up a weight class and upset Hughes to win the welterweight title.
Penn wore his heart on his sleeve. He never attempted to hide his emotions. He made his fights personal. He was proud to represent Hawaii, and his people loved him back. He may have been the most authentic person ever to set foot in the octagon. He might be the most name-checked fighter among his peers when they're asked to name their favorite fighter. Anderson Silva calls him the greatest of all-time. B.J. Penn was an MMA original.
Stock Up: Uriah Hall. It was just a year ago that Uriah Hall had all but become a walking symbol for the powers of TUF overhype. FOX and the UFC pushed his sensational spinning back kick knockout so hard that by the time Hall lost to a legit Kelvin Gastelum in the finals, it seemed like a major upset. Then Hall had a listless loss to John Howard in Boston, after which White let him have it.
Since then? Hall got back in the win column when he made Chris Leben end his career on his stool in between rounds last fall. Then there was Saturday night, when Hall forever changed his image with his victory over Thiago Santos, one which deftly straddled the line between courage and insanity.
Even before his gruesome toe injury, Hall looked fiesty, throwing a variety a spinning strikes and landing overhand rights with power and accuracy. After, he willed his way through another 10 minutes of fighting with his bone sticking out of his toe. Yes, your high-minded side wants to think they should have stopped the fight for his safety (and seriously, was that Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons who took a look at the bone sticking out of Hall's foot and declared him fit to continue?) But let's not kid ourselves. Most of us got into this sport to begin with because we were attracted to crazy displays of heart and courage. We're suckers for redemption stories, too. So, to answer White's question from so long ago, yes, Uriah Hall is a f--ing fighter.
Hold: Alex Caceres. Sure, the first instinct for someone who got schooled the way Caceres did by Urijah Faber would be to call his stock down. But, Caceres deserves credit for simply being bold and issuing a challenge to one of the biggest stars in the lighter weight classes. Caceres put together a nice string of fights against lesser competition before fighting Faber. He's outgrown the old "Bruce Leeroy" TUF character. So long as he learns lessons from the Faber fight, Caceres remains well on the right path.
Whether it was an actual fainting spell caused by his heart condition, or simply a panic attack, the UFC obviously made the correct call when they pulled Stefan Struve out of his fight with Matt Mitrione. Now the question from here becomes what call the UFC will make from here. In the post-fight news conference, White seemed to leave the door open a crack for Struve to step back into the Octagon at some point. But, is this really a chance anyone wants to take? Struve is obviously headstrong enough that he already decided to return in the wake of his initial diagnosis. An athlete determined enough to compete is going to search and search until he finds a starstruck doctor wiling to clear him.
The UFC may have averted a tragedy in the cage by pulling him off UFC 175. If this was a fighter with no previous history having a fainting spell, that would be one thing. This situation is altogether different. It's best to leave well enough alone.
Fight I'd like to see next: Ronda Rousey vs. Cyborg Justino
Let's face it: Ronda Rousey has pretty much outgrown the competition at 135 pounds. Sure, she'll have to defeat Cat Zingano before the division is officially cleaned out. But given the way Rousey has made toast of Sara McMann and Alexis Davis, are we really confident that Zingano can be a match for Rousey carrying a year and a half's worth of ring rust into a fight?
Clearly, the UFC can profitably saunter on by pushing Rousey vs. anyone. Her star power alone will carry the day. But if the UFC wants to build a big buyrate, against someone the public perceives can give Rousey a real challenge, then Cyborg Justino fits the bill. Granted, this comes with all the usual caveats: Justino needs to continue to demonstrate she can stay clean, and there's the not-minor matter of whether she can actually make 135 pounds. But if she clears those hurdles, then Ronda vs. Cyborg isn't going away, no matter how much Rousey and White are sick of hearing about it.