In the salivating headliner of UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson, undersized anomaly Frankie Edgar collides with the rapidly accelerating Benson Henderson with the UFC lightweight championship hanging in the balance.
How odd is it that, a little over a year ago, the question revolving around the world lightweight class was: "Who in the hell is left to challenge B.J. Penn?" Excluding his rivalry with Georges St. Pierre a weight class north, "The Prodigy" had buzz-sawed through the relevant contenders, finally dedicating himself to 155-pounds and dominating as the prophecy foretold, and enticing options were not aplenty.
When Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) was announced as Penn's next challenger, the news was greeted with shrugs of indifference and cynical quips like, "The guy Gray Maynard tossed around?" The setting for their showdown, which may have been a case of subliminally inclined marketing that portended another Penn trampling, was titled "UFC 112: Invincible." Even when Edgar skippity-hopped and boomeranged around the cage in perplexing circles while detonating light-speed combinations to acquire the strap in a close decision, we were still staunchly rooted in denial. "Stupid judges," we grunted irritably. "Making that damn 'psshhht' sound when you punch doesn't make you a better striker!" we bellyached dramatically.
The pattern that emerged subtly in their first meeting then became crystal clear in the rematch. "The Answer" once again shucked and jived his way to victory, incomprehensibly moving at a faster clip as the fight progressed, this time leaving no leeway for excuses by triumphing definitively. Half the MMA world changed their tune and finally started to give Frankie Edgar the respect he deserves after that fight.
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Though his pathway was different, the journey to the top for Benson Henderson (15-2) was quite similar. The WEC had always played second fiddle to the UFC and the impending merger was overshadowed by our googly-eyed infatuation with "The Showtime Kick" and its admittedly promising creator, Anthony Pettis.
Bendo initiated his stellar sequence toward the title with a rugged dismantling of BJJ black belt Mark Bocek in his Octagon debut at UFC 129. It was the same frenetically paced format of tenacious striking and clinch-work with freakish scrambling and submission defense we'd witnessed from him in the WEC, but something about it was just eerily ... better.
Henderson was then expedited to clashes with two of the toughest, hard-nosed scrappers in the game in Jim Miller and Clay Guida. Miller was mercilessly peppered with unending elbows while trying to chain together submissions, sweeps or escapes -- all to no avail. Guida, who's built a hard-earned reputation as the most tenacious and spirited contender in the division, was beaten at his own game. In just over a half-year, Bendo skyrocketed to the number-one contender slot and cemented himself as a top-five lightweight in the world.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
This is the kind of electric match up that can unfold a million different ways in a million different places. Both fighters are among the quickest and highest-paced lightweights in the biz who can transition back and forth from striking, clinching or grappling with supreme confidence.
From a big-picture standpoint, I feel Edgar comes in with a strong edge just because his elaborate footwork, head movement and boxing has become a Machida-esque enigma with no clear weaknesses to exploit. While the same could be said for Bendo, I feel he'll have to make more adjustments.
Edgar's overall boxing tendencies are at a level where some of the boxing purists that used to scowl at MMA's primitive brawling might appreciate his artful fluidity. Individually, his shelling, stance, punching technique, timing, control of range and footwork are absolutely phenomenal; the beauty being in how perfectly he ties them all together while also catering to the grappling aspects of MMA. To seal his trilogy with Maynard, there is a barely a discernible separation between striking and grappling -- still on his knees, he releases the single and pops him with a short right in one seamless motion.
Against both Maynard and Penn, he drove them beyond frustration with his tediously elaborate in-and-out movement and they became careless in pursuit. That's when Edgar shifts from perpetual evasion to aggressive explosion by dropping levels and using their excessive pressure against them by snaring deep double legs.
While he may not maintain position nor mount offense from the takedown, the damage is done by completely shutting down every option but to endure his elusive striking onslaught.
Henderson's best asset should be his athleticism. Technique will always play a role but, against Edgar, just finding an available target for any semblance of offense is priority one. This means Bendo's method of pursuit will be pivotal. Rather than spring for takedowns from a distance, he's the type to apply a steady stream of pressure and methodically swarm opponents into the clinch, as he does with Miller to the left. Though he'll be inclined to engage at phone-booth range instead of on the fringe, Henderson is still highly unpredictable alternates from dirty boxing, Thai techniques in the clinch or takedown attempts.
Just as Edgar's sweet spot is with erratic movement in open space, Bendo's lies in close quarters where he becomes a high-speed blender. "Overwhelming" is the best description for the way he suffocates opponents with vacillating attacks and, like Edgar, does so by transitioning from one to the other with the utmost grace.
I can see his preference of locking horns in tie-ups versus shooting from outside unfolding very well when we can contain Edgar. However, the champ is so nimble that it seems he'll be harder to get ahold of with that more gradual approach.
Henderson has excellent takedown defense as well, so the gist of this seems to boil down to his effectiveness in staying glued to Edgar.
His choices are either to float in the center of the cage and joust, where Edgar is at his absolute best, or shrink the distance. In each of his monumental UFC wins, neither Bocek, Miller nor Guida shied away from tangling with him -- actually, they all embraced it.
Henderson has never faced an elusive fighter like Edgar so, honestly, I have no idea how he'll attack or how effective it will be.
That goes back to my original point that Henderson will be the one burdened with venturing into new territory and tailoring his customary style to fit the conundrum of Frankie Edgar, which is why my vote goes with the champion.
Expect anything in this fight. I can't really think of an outcome that will shock me because I'm fully preparing myself to be shocked. Edgar slides in as the narrow favorite on the betting lines at an average of -140, which I'm in agreement with.
My Prediction: Frankie Edgar by decision.
All gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com