Few agree with Edgar, who currently stands as a 9/2 or greater underdog for his title match against Penn on Saturday’s UFC 112 event in Abu Dhabi. Having never fought overseas is just one of the many elements working against Edgar. Luckily for him, Edgar’s name has become synonymous with defying the odds.
No one expected a then unknown Edgar to out-fight a top prospect like Tyson Griffin in Edgar’s UFC debut, but out-fight Griffin he did. No one expected Edgar to survive the kneebar in which Griffin caught him at the end of their fight, but survive it he did. No one expected Edgar to beat former UFC Lightweight champion Sean Sherk, but beat him he did. Even before he made it to the UFC, no one expected the slightly built wrestler from Toms River High School East, who managed to place in but not ever win the state wrestling tournament, to amount for much as a collegiate wrestler. Instead, Edgar qualified for the national championship tournament during each of his four years at the little-known Clarion University, earning All American honors in 2004.
Edgar being awarded a title shot is even something of an upset. Edgar’s resume is one of the best in the Lightweight division, but his loss to undefeated Gray Maynard seemed to move him behind Maynard in the pecking order of the UFC’s Lightweight division. But while Maynard put on humdrum performances over his four consecutive victories following their fight, Edgar earned two “Fight of the Night” bonuses, one of which was in his victory over former UFC Lightweight contender Hermes Franca. The day after Maynard’s most recent victory, a split decision over Nate Diaz in a stand up fight that was short on action, Edgar received the call informing him that he, not Maynard, would receive the next shot at Penn’s Lightweight title.
“I wasn’t expecting [to get the title shot], but I wasn’t upset that they chose me,” Edgar admitted. “It’s a great opportunity. If they had chosen Gray, I would have understood. I feel like part of the reason I got the title shot is that I have seven fights in the UFC and three ‘Fight of the Night’ [awards].”
Defying the odds is what Edgar does best. As impressive as his MMA resume has been, it’s one thing to beat Tyson Griffin and Sean Sherk and it’s something else entirely to beat B.J. Penn, who has beaten every Lightweight he’s ever fought. It’s going to take more than a series of upset victories to remove the title from Penn’s waist, a fact which is by no means lost on Edgar.
“It’s really not different [from the Griffin and Sherk fights],” explained Edgar. “It’s just that this is for the title and I’m fighting B.J Penn. But it’s the same kind of approach; I’m the underdog, I’m not supposed to win. But I feel comfortable in this role.”
It will be Edgar’s ability to maintain that level of comfort throughout the fight that will go a long way towards determining the outcome of the match.
Typical of most fighters, Edgar said that he is, “focused on the task at hand.”
“You can’t really go into fights thinking about who thinks you’re going to win,” he explained. “I’m confident in my abilities and I go into every fight thinking that I can win.”
“In a lot of the fights, once they are announced to me, my mind starts racing and I start thinking ‘he’s good at this, he’s good at that’ and ‘can I beat him?’ It’s not just with B.J. but with a lot of guys. But then as I go through training camp, that doubt goes away through preparation.”
Despite Edgar’s super record (11-1-0), his training is rarely the topic of discussion. In fact, Edgar employs a few familiar faces in order to get himself ready for his fights. In preparation to challenge Penn, Edgar has been training with UFC Welterweight Ricardo Almeida, with whom Edgar has trained since 2008.
Almeida serves as Edgar’s head trainer with a focus on Jiu-Jitsu. Edgar has earned his purple belt under Almeida, a third-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Renzo Gracie. Though he rarely uses his BJJ offensively in his fights, Edgar has shown superb submission defense and, against Griffin in particular, a toughness while caught in a submission maneuver indicative of a fighter whose training lineage traces back to the Gracies. If he finds himself on his back, Edgar says that he has to “just stay calm and believe in my technique in that situation, which I’ve prepared a lot for.”
Edgar’s submission defense, perhaps more than any other aspect of Edgar’s preparation, will factor heavily into Edgar’s success or failure against Penn. That defense begins with Edgar’s ability to remain on his feet and, while there, strike effectively. Both Edgar’s wrestling and boxing are regarded as among the best in the Lightweight division. Edgar’s wrestling ability isn’t particularly surprising given his collegiate background and his work with long-time wrestling coach Steve Rivera. Boxing, on the other hand, is something that Edgar only truly began to focus on after he joined the UFC.
“I got together with [boxing coach] Mark Henry when I started my career, but we didn’t work together full time. He’s a pizza guy. He runs his own restaurant. We didn’t start working together full time until my third fight in the UFC.”
Edgar’s hands have been true thus far, but how will he fare against the man whom famed boxing coach Freddie Roach declared to be “the best striker” in MMA?
“It’s going to be who can implement their game plan the best,” explained Edgar. “It’s not like it’s a set game plan where if you do this you’re going to win, it’s just ‘if he does A, I have to do B’ and ‘if he does C, I have to do D.’ It’s whoever has the best timing and whoever shows up. Sometimes the guy with the most talent doesn’t win. It’s whoever performs the best that night.”
Additionally, Edgar has added a few new faces to his training team. For the past month, Edgar has worked with current Bellator Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, whose skill set mirrors Edgar’s in many ways and whom Edgar considers a “top two or three” Lightweight. Edgar has also begun training Muay Thai under Phil Nurse, who infamously drew the ire of Penn by rubbing Vaseline on Georges St. Pierre during his rematch against Penn, which Penn maintains allowed St. Pierre to more easily escape Penn’s guard. Edgar also had the opportunity to train with St. Pierre himself in preparation for Penn, whom Edgar says “gave me some pointers.”
Despite his associations with Nurse and St. Pierre, the champ has been surprisingly respectful of Edgar, mentioning the challenger with a reverence that has heretofore not been seen with regards to Penn’s challengers. That may be the greatest indication of just how serious a challenger Edgar is to Penn.
“He’s one of my peers who respects me,” Edgar concluded. “I think that’s what this sport is about. I think both of us respect each other.”
If Edgar emerges victorious on Saturday night, he’ll not only earn Penn’s respect, but that of every true fan of mixed martial arts. Edgar will reign atop arguably the most talented division in the sport, having beaten the greatest Lightweight in its history. His legacy will be affirmed. He will be the champion.
But before he can be considered a legend, Edgar must once again defy the odds.