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Frankie Edgar: The eternal underdog goes for history at UFC 156

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS -- Frankie Edgar was brought into the UFC to lose. Or more likely, he was brought into the UFC because he couldn't win, not in that matchup, not against that opponent. That was six years ago, when nobody quite knew what they had in Edgar, a head-scratching human contradiction who in a time of extreme weight-cutting fought above his natural weight class, and in a sport full of loudmouths spoke quietly despite his New Jersey roots.

At the time, Tyson Griffin was the flavor of the month at lightweight, a young, aggressive undefeated fighter who was coming off a knockout win of Duane Ludwig followed by a sub-two minute tapout win in his UFC debut. Griffin was so highly regarded that he was immediately installed as a 7-to-1 favorite over Edgar at UFC 67. To put that into perspective, he was a bigger favorite that night than middleweight champion Anderson Silva was over Travis Lutter, even though Silva was coming off a destruction of Rich Franklin and Lutter was essentially a journeyman who had missed weight.

Edgar showed many things that night, but the two most important were these: first, he was capable of bucking the odds. And second, he had heart. Oh, did he have heart. After seeming to lock up the win with a strong third round, Edgar found himself locked in a horrific looking kneebar in the bout's final seconds. He somehow withstood the pain even after he felt his knee popping, and scored the major upset.

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To add to his degree of difficulty in the win, Edgar had taken the fight on short notice, and then had suffered through a terrible sinus infection through training camp. By the time Edgar arrived in Las Vegas, he'd barely had two weeks of training and felt as if he still needed to work his way into fighting shape.

"I'm always confident," he said, thinking back on the time. "When I get in the cage, something in my head clicks."

Six years later, a lot has changed for Edgar. He is universally regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of the current era, he has a lightweight championship reign under his belt, and he has the financial security that comes with reaching the sport's apex.

But one thing hasn't changed at all: the 5-foot-6, 144-pounder is still an underdog.

It's a trend that he hasn't been able to rid himself of after all this time. Dating back to his UFC 98 matchup with Sean Sherk until tomorrow's UFC 156 main event, this will be the sixth time in nine fights that Edgar's opponent walks in as the favorite. It's a perception he just can't seem to shake.

"To me it's almost comical," Edgar said. "It really doesn't bother me at all. It's almost like I might be surprised if I'm the favorite.

Edgar says he has no idea how to change that prevailing thought. It didn't matter when he won the championship; it didn't matter when he shifted to a smaller division. He wonders if it's because he's not a brash person. He's not a trash talker; he just performs when it matters.

The approach is the same this time as always. Edgar and his training staff say they will go right at Aldo. They don't want to offer him a chance to think and pick his spots.

"It's still a little bit of a chess match," said Ricardo Almeida, a former UFC fighter who is part of Edgar's coaching staff. "Aldo's power and precision vs. Frankie's tenacity and consistency. We'll see."

Over the years, Edgar has seen his opponents wilt over the course of a fight. And that was when he was eating just to keep weight on. There were times where he would throw down pizza a week before he fought. That's all changed now. Cutting weight for the first time, he's cleaned up his diet, and he thinks that will actually give him improved conditioning, a scary thought for opponents.

Edgar's success story is ultimately one of determination. When you look at his career as a whole, he's bucked the odds repeatedly because of it, and when you look at individual fights, the trait has led him to comebacks and improbable triumphs. It's something that's ingrained in him. When reminded that Aldo had a 95 percent takedown defense percentage, his coach Almeida barely blinked.

"All he has to do is shoot 10 or 11 times and he'll get the one," he said. "I know he'll eventually get the takedown."

The thing about it is that when most fighters fail that many times, they begin to question themselves, even in the course of a fight. Not so with Edgar. He didn't question himself when he took the short notice fight to begin his career six years ago, and he certainly isn't going to start now.

Edgar will tell you that sometimes, he obsesses on the little things. The details. Back in college, losing a match would drive him crazy, and he'd spend far too much time thinking about what he'd done wrong. Sometimes, it made him so angry he would ponder quitting altogether.

Of course, in true Edgar fashion, he couldn't bring himself to give up. Instead, he marched forward, beating the odds again and again, until he found himself here now, on the cusp of history.

"You're not going to have very many opportunities like this in your career," he said. "So you've got to make the best of it."

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