Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
For the first time in his reign as the UFC lightweight champion, Frankie Edgar enters a fight as the favorite, albeit a slight one against challenger Ben Henderson at UFC 144. That's not a fact that matters to Edgar, who wasn't even aware of it until being informed about it last week, but it at least shows he's come a long way in terms of public perception.
After getting past B.J. Penn twice and making a comeback for the ages against Gray Maynard, Edgar has nothing to prove as far as his toughness or ability to overcome adversity. So this fight can settle back into a more standard match: a champion attempting to fight off a No. 1 contender.
In Henderson, he faces an opponent that took his game to a new level after his loss to Anthony Pettis. That defeat predated his move to the UFC, and like many of the WEC lightweights that made the shift over, Henderson found a way to adjust to his new home and the impressive talent that came with it.
The biggest change? As Henderson (15-2) told MMA Fighting's Ben Fowlkes recently, he decided to ramp up his aggression level, to ensure there's "no doubt in anyone's mind after they watch one of my fights as to who won the fight."
That will come as a difficult challenge against Edgar (14-1-1), a blur of constant motion who never stands in one place, is willing to contest the fight anywhere, and is a master of scrambles. The last of those qualities is among his most underrated strengths. Remember, against Maynard, it was out of a scramble when Edgar landed the uppercut that rocked him and led to the finish.
But in some parts of his game, Henderson is a carbon copy of Edgar. He has an endless gas tank, scrambles well and is equally balanced on his feet and the ground, with his standup showing strong refinement over the last few bouts. Henderson also brings with him a wrestling pedigree that makes him a takedown threat, and has eight of his career wins by submission.
One somewhat ignored advantage Henderson has going for him? He is the first southpaw Edgar has fought since he defeated Spencer Fisher over four years ago. That different look can be difficult to face after a steady diet of orthodox fighters.
Edgar could potentially combat that by going southpaw himself, as he did multiple times in his most recent fight against Maynard. But more logically, he will go with his customary stance. While Edgar is considered by most experts to be the better striker of the championship pairing, according to FightMetric, Henderson lands at a higher rate, 45 percent to 41 percent. It is likely though, that Henderson's number is a bit inflated by the inordinate amount of ground strikes he lands from the top, a high-percentage position.
That offense is fueled by his takedowns. While Henderson only takes down his opponent on 48 percent of his opportunities, he's capable of dominating the position once he moves the fight to the mat. He's also quite relentless and doesn't get frustrated by failure. Because of that, he averages 4.1 takedowns per 15 minutes. (By comparison, Edgar averages 2.9.) That tenacity will be key for Henderson. As Maynard learned after going 3-for-19 in takedowns against him during their two title fights, Edgar is a complex problem to solve.
Prior to this fight, Henderson noted that he would work to put on a few pounds and maximize his size advantage on Edgar, perhaps a sign that he's hoping to use his strength to weigh on the champ. Even if he doesn't take Edgar down, Henderson does good work against the fence with dirty boxing and elbows. That's an area of concern for Edgar, although his lateral movement and takedown defense (62 percent) usually keeps him out of those situations.
One surprising stat when it comes to Henderson-Edgar is the fact that despite a three-inch size advantage, Henderson actually has a two-inch disadvantage in reach. Edgar's extended reach is an underrated element of his success, as he often dances in and out of range, and his opponent misses him after miscalculating the distance between them.
There is no obvious style advantage for either man. Both are strong wrestlers. Both have good standup, are quick and work hard to capitalize in scramble situations. So in determining a winner, you have to figure out what the biggest difference between the two is. In most of his fights, Edgar is the one creating the angles and the one more likely to land standing strikes. His quickness allows him to score at a more consistent clip. He also might have a slight edge in power, and seems to have that unexplainable X-factor that allows him to steal wins. After beating Penn twice and finishing Maynard, how do you bet against him now? Edgar by unanimous decision.
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