Gee whiz, gang. We've got quite a humdinger on our hands tonight -- Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar in the main event of UFC 156 -- a whopping, slam-banger of a fist-fight.
After Frankie Edgar (15-3-1) choked out Matt Veach in December of 2009, the 31-year-old New Jersey native has fought in one lightweight title fight after another. That's right -- championship gold was at stake every time Edgar has stepped into the cage throughout the last 3-and-some-odd years and in the last 6 outings of his career. And he'll get another.
Throughout Edgar's reign as either the champ or #1 contender at 155 pounds, the gaudy "Super Fight" stamp was emblazoned across the prospect of "The Answer" dropping down a weight class to challenge Muay Thai marauder Jose Aldo (21-1). Aldo's been a permanent fixture atop the featherweight class since the WEC era and throughout the blue-caged organization's fusion with the UFC, vehemently protecting his top-dog legacy behind a wood-chipper of flying knees, flesh-searing leg kicks and thunderous boxing.
To match -- or even exceed -- the admirable footsteps Edgar's left at lightweight, Aldo is unbeaten in the UFC and in the WEC. Hell, he's unbeaten in every conceivable capacity save a 2005 submission loss to crafty Luta Livre phenom and Pride FC vet Luciano Azevedo of the surging Renovacao Fight Team, who finagled a rear-naked choke on the future phenom in Aldo's 8th career turn.
You know a fighter is extraordinary when his biggest flaws are miniscule shreds of material where he merely looked somewhat vincible -- or even human, or maybe just not as untouchably dominant as usual -- in fights he ended up winning. And it's not like he's been coddled or shielded from the bad match ups either. Reputable strikers, wrestlers, Judokas, well-rounded veterans and former lightweight contenders can all be found lying mangled and battered somewhere in the heavily populated body count Aldo's left in his wake.
When attempting to identify the common tendencies and define key variables in the Aldo vs. Edgar match up, I'll be querying and speculating rather than boldly prophesying. Even though we've all become familiar with their characteristics, I can't shake the idea that there are still so many unknowns about this scrap. What are they, you ask?
- How the cut will affect Edgar, if at all
- How much the monumental speed advantage Edgar normally enjoys will dwindle
- How much strength and physicality he'll gain, if any
- Whether his brilliantly timed takedowns will be just as effective
- How Aldo will fare off his back if Edgar can put him there
- Whether Aldo's fearsome leg kicks will unfold as a pivotal distance weapon or a liability to his takedown defense
- Whether Aldo really has an issue with cardio or slowing down late in fights
The list above is composed of intangibles and just scratches the surface, because the real questions surrounding Aldo vs. Edgar are who is the better striker? Will Frankie even have the option to take Aldo down? Can he keep him there if he can?
The striking interplay seems to be the meat and potatoes of the match up.
Aldo's mold is that of a refined Thai practitioner: he's managed to blend the violent functionality and crowd-pleasing effectiveness of Muay Thai with polished and cerebral strike selection and delivery. While his career highlight-reel is littered with showstopping flying or step-in knees and cringe-inducing leg kicks, the bulk of Aldo's arsenal consists of overlooked tactics, such as the way he "strikes in opposites" by going high-left with a hook and then low-right with a roundhouse kick.
If you were to track Aldo's target points on a conventional clock face, they would land in drastic opposites like 11 o'clock and 5 o'clock instead of accumulating to and from similar angles. Aldo draws from a capacious bag of tricks too: straight punches, hooks upstairs and down, elbows, knees and kicks to all levels, all of which are unpredictably inserted into explosive combinations.
Edgar is a wrestle-boxer with inimitable attack patterns. Though he's always popping in and out of range with overwhelming speed, he makes sure to set up his advance with a feint or a set-up angle before committing. While he's been hyped up for this trait and rightfully considered to have some of the best footwork and movement in the game, the inevitable result is that Edgar typically never allows himself to be a sitting duck in the pocket -- he's either on his way in, on his way out or blazing a lot of leather.
The same can't be said for most of Aldo's marquee wins, as Urijah Faber's lower limbs were nearly dislocated by Aldo's shin because he tried to stand in the champ's malicious strike zone and find his rhythm from there, whereas Edgar formulates his entry and assault from outside the perimeter and is already in the midst of executing it anytime he's inside it.
As with every Frankie Edgar fight, the distance and range game will be pivotal. Edgar will come out and do his thing, so the onus is on Aldo to react accordingly and prevent the challenger from orchestrating the fight's distance, tempo and location. And how Aldo chooses or prefers to react is another huge question mark. The only fighters to withstand the barrage successfully are massive and hulking lightweights in Ben Henderson and Gray Maynard, both of whom are elite and agile 155-pound wrestlers with more girth than Aldo.
Will Aldo prove to be just as immovable? I have no idea. Simply physics would indicate otherwise, yet Aldo's been taken down exactly 3 times in the big leagues: Kenny Florian, Mark Hominick and Jonathan Brookins all scored a single takedown on him. MMA stats rarely tell the whole story, but Aldo's 95% success rate with takedown defense is an exception.
Conversely, in his string of lightweight championship bouts, Edgar's been a beast with his wrestling. He's always won the takedown battle -- which includes out-working Henderson by 2-0 and 5-1 -- except for when he split even with Gray Maynard at 3 apiece. Since he's not a sheer power-guy with his takedowns, most of Edgar's wrestling is propelled by his unreal quickness and timing.
Will Edgar replicate the same success he had with larger lightweights against the smaller Aldo? I have no idea. Remember -- key unknowns in the aforementioned list are how Edgar's speed and strength will translate to featherweight, and this mention is heavy on the speed-side because that facet is so integral to Edgar's offense.
Aldo's blistering leg kicks have also been asserted as a potential game-changer. He throws 2 types: 1) a basic, mid-power, standalone leg kick from outside as a distance tool or 2) a hip-torquing scythe to close off a forward-moving blitz with his hands.
I can see pros and cons with both. 1) Extending your leg outward with the distance and hip-rotation to form a meaningful low kick will always be accompanied by the risk of being countered with a punch or, something particularly relevant against Edgar, a takedown attempt. On the positive side, Edgar's in-and-out frenzy was especially effective against B.J. Penn, Maynard and Henderson because their specialty is close-range striking.
Henderson is the only of the bunch who even wields a distance weapon, and Edgar showed a freakish ability to catch an absurd amount of his kick attempts, which reduces the impact and damage when it connects (both by slightly shielding the blow and because the thrower often doesn't follow through completely) and also places the lower leg in his grasp, therefore increasing the odds to turn it into a takedown. However, the oldest trick in the game is firing off low kicks and then chucking a surprise high kick, and Frankie's chin will be dangerously exposed if he keeps reaching down to catch the low kick.
The point is that few have engaged Frankie with any distance strikes and Aldo's happens to be exceptionally devastating. While the standalone leg kick from outside presents some defensive risks for Aldo, carving away at Edgar's legs with low kicks could also be the ideal strategy to disrupt his cryptic attack patterns and gradually notch down the pivotal speed advantage he usually enjoys.
2) Most of Edgar's takedowns are predicated on speed and timing, but he excels at baiting his opponent in with his elusive footwork and then dropping levels just as they're coming in to get ultra-deep penetration on his double leg. So the scenario of Edgar constantly retreating out of range to lure foes into hot pursuit and Aldo's occasional tendency to pursue aggressively with a punching combination followed by a low kick seems to play into Edgar's hands. The down-side for Edgar is that he loves to pivot left before countering, which will put him right in the sweet spot for Aldo's low kick. Actually, just like a sweeping head kick is an excellent counter for an opponent with active and unpredictable head movement, Aldo can swing out a roundhouse kick and effectively damage anything that happens to be inside its arc -- and, considering the breadth of angles Frankie uses, there's a good chance he'll be within that range.
So will Aldo's low kicks unfold as a defensive liability or the perfect device to disrupt Edgar's rhythm, slow him down and prevent him from dictating range? I have no idea. That will be decided in the cage, where the fraction of an inch in range or a second of timing could mean the difference between a momentum swing for either.
In fact, I'm not sure how anyone can feel substantially confident about picking a winner here, especially based on technical specs. Aldo has faced and surpassed some great wrestlers, Chad Mendes being the best, but none that blend their takedowns with their striking as seamlessly as Edgar does. Edgar has faced and surpassed some great strikers, but none as outright volatile, bone-crunching and dynamic as Aldo.
The champ's guard play is a giant X-factor as well: he's earned some sport grappling accolades (former one-time World Champion, World Cup and Brazilian National champion) but, in what's no fault of his own, Aldo just hasn't been put on his back often enough in MMA to decipher whether he'll be held down or able to sweep, submit or escape. The clinch war seems pretty damn even too: Aldo's highly offensive in the clinch with his knees being the scariest offering, but Edgar has deceiving strength in tie-ups and will maintain the threat of a takedown. Aldo's devastating knees in the clinch could go either way too: as the ideal selection for an opponent looking to drop his head down in the pocket while changing levels, or as a hazardous strike that could virtually hand Edgar his entire leg and lead to a takedown.
You might have noticed I'm waffling on this pick quite a bit. Initially, I was leaning toward Edgar's signature wrestle-boxing style being perfectly suited to unhinge Aldo, but Aldo's passed every test with flying colors, and unknowns have a larger presence in the analysis than anything tangible. Overall, keeping with the theme of this piece ... I have no idea.
My Prediction: Frankie Edgar by decision.