This Saturday, at UFC 150, Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar meet for the second time with the UFC Lightweight title on the line. Their first fight, from UFC 144 earlier this year, was a classic battle with a close decision. Both men are dynamic fighters who push the pace and consistently deliver excitement. So this fight can't be anything but an instant classic, right?
Henderson vs. Edgar II will in all likelihood be a very good fight. But it's also doomed to be something of a disappointment. And that's entirely due to the curse and blessing of being a rematch.
There's an obvious appeal to rematches. As fans, we've already seen what these men can do in the ring, and we liked what we saw. Typically, there's also a sense of unfinished business, usually due to a close decision. Add in the potential for some lingering bad blood, and you have a recipe for success. Earlier this summer, Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen rode that success to what will end up as one of the highest buyrates of the year.
However, Silva vs. Sonnen II also shows the pitfalls of the rematch. Because the more hyped we get, the greater is our capacity to be let down. Inside the cage, that fight was fascinating - Sonnen picking up where he left off in the first fight and dominating the champion on the mat in round 1; Silva turning up the volume in round 2 and shutting up his rival with another brilliant striking display. Yet many fans walked away let down. Why? Because after so much hype and so much anticipation, it's almost impossible not to be let down.
But there's another factor to consider here, and that's the way rematches play out. When two fighters meet for a 2nd (or 3rd) time, it's very different from the first encounter. Now, they've seen what the other man has to offer. As a result, the winner becomes the man who figures out his opponent most effectively. The end result is often times a quick, definitive win (think of Shogun vs. Machida or Couture vs. Liddell), or a one-sided, and at times dull, domination (Edgar vs. Penn, Arlovski vs. Sylvia III). This is particularly true of immediate rematches, where neither man has significantly changed as a fighter.
Rematches are built around the idea of proving who is the superior fighter. Yet if you're paying attention, they usually tell us what we already know. Maybe Machida did squeak out a decision win over Shogun in their first fight, but it was clear to anyone watching that Shogun had figured the Dragon out. The KO in the rematch was a mere formality.
That's not to say there is no room for rematches. Dana White was right to give Shogun that rematch - he had earned it, and he deserved to wear the belt. But we need to be honest about the role rematches play.
Rematches are not about classic fights; they're about classic performances. And that's a subtle, but important distinction. Frankie Edgar knocking out Gray Maynard, Brock Lesnar shutting down Frank Mir, Anderson Silva again dismantling Rich Franklin - these are all terrific performances that belong on each man's all-time highlight reel. They're the kinds of fights that make men into legends. They just don't happen to be great fights.
So when Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar square off once again this weekend, it's good to be excited. But know what you're excited for. Be excited to see Ben Henderson put an exclamation mark on his UFC 144 win and toss his name in the pound-for-pound discussion in the process. Or be excited for Frankie Edgar to show that he truly has the heart of a champion. Just don't be excited to see a classic back-and-forth war for the ages - that will only lead to disappointment.