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Wrestling for MMA: UFC 240’s Frankie Edgar

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Exploring the tactics that made Frankie Edgar an all-time great wrestle-boxer, as well as the signs of his decline.

As a high school wrestler, Frankie Edgar made a name for himself when he reached the finals of the New Jersey state tournament as a junior. Already considered one of the toughest states in the country for wrestling, Jersey is one of a small handful of states with a one-class system, meaning every competitor wrestles at a single state tournament. For contrast, Virginia, a far less competitive state, has six. Among the “power states,” California has one-class, Pennsylvania and New York have two, while Ohio has three.

The UFC put together a feature on Edgar’s high school career.

Edgar had to settle for 5th as a senior, but more than made up for that performance with a finals appearance at the NHSCA Senior Nationals tournament in Virginia Beach. While not every senior in the country competes regularly at NHSCAs, a podium finish is sure to put you on the radar of Division 1 coaches.

Late Bloomer

He was recruited to wrestle at Pennsylvania’s Clarion University, the alma mater of a familiar name to sports fans, Olympic gold medalist and pro wrestling star Kurt Angle. Edgar was projected to wrestle at 133 pounds, but could not defeat future Bellator MMA veteran Rad Martinez for the starting spot. Martinez went on to become an All-American as a senior, while Edgar wrestled as an undersized 141 until he finally grew into the weight as an upperclassman.

More on NHSCA Senior Nationals and Edgar’s college career.

Edgar performed admirably, qualifying for the national championships all four years as a starter. In his first three attempts, Edgar was eliminated without a win.

But in 2005, he broke through.

Seeded 9th, Edgar defeated blue-chip recruit Alex Tsirtsis in the first round by 10-2 major decision. Tsirtsis took 7th for the Iowa Hawkeyes one year later.

Next, Edgar met Pittsburgh’s Ronald Tarquinio, an in-conference rival who had once knocked Edgar out of the NCAA tournament. The familiarity between the two led to a low-scoring match, but Edgar prevailed 4-2.

After two 0-2 starts, Edgar was in the quarterfinals. But ahead of him was power program Iowa State’s Nate Gallick. Gallick had finished fourth at NCAAs the year prior. He controlled Edgar 10-5, eventually making it to the finals where he dropped a crushing 3-2 decision. Gallick’s senior year, he went undefeated and won the 141-pound title.

Losing in the quarterfinals dropped Edgar into the round of 12, better known as “the blood round”, where wrestlers scratch and claw for career achievement. In the blood round, the winner is guaranteed a place on the podium and All-American status, the loser is eliminated. Edgar wrestled 12th seeded sophomore Cassio Pero of Illinois, an unheralded in-state recruit. Notably, Edgar already held a win over Pero.

Pero notched his third major upset of the tournament with a match-winning takedown in triple overtime, ending Edgar’s hopes for a 2005 All-American finish. Pero upset Michigan’s talented freshman Josh Churella (a future three-time All-American) to take 7th.

While Edgar would place in the freestyle University Nationals tournament, his credentials in wrestling could never measure up to his goals. As a competitor, Frankie Edgar had unfinished business.

UFC 67 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Frankie Edgar: Wrestling for MMA

In his UFC debut vs. a streaking Tyson Griffin, Frankie Edgar showed off many of the wrestling tactics that would make him successful moving forward.

Frankie Edgar’s wrestling highlights vs. Tyson Griffin

The most basic element in Edgar’s game that has created successful wrestling opportunities is that he is a willing striker. Even in his UFC debut, he was willing to move forward, throwing in combinations.

Even if the strikes were a bit ugly mechanically, athleticism and enthusiasm led to impactful shots.

Logically, fighters looked to either counter the volume of Edgar, or strike hard when they finally had some breathing room to get off their own offense. Telegraphed, single shots create the opening for reactive or intercepting takedowns.

Loading up on power shots, Edgar’s opponents often left open a straight path to their hips, or threw their weight forward, feeding into the motion of Edgar’s penetration shot. Of all of Edgar’s takedowns, these are typically finished at the highest percentage. He could sometimes blow a fighter straight over depending on the strength of his shot and how over committed his opponent was, but otherwise all it took was a few running steps and a sharp change in direction to finish the double.

Edgar’s reactive shots in his title run

Catching naked kicks also proved to be one of Edgar’s most reliable takedown entries in his title run. Against Tyson Griffin, you saw Edgar’s read on the kicks was fairly delayed, he was often hit by a low kick, then captured the leg and shot. As his career progressed, Edgar became more and more adept at reading his opponents’ hips and timing his shot with the kick, rather than getting hit then shooting. We’ll see later how that problem resurfaced against Benson Henderson.

Edgar catching kicks in his title run

Over time, Edgar’s signature striking style began to develop. For the most part, he leaned on his speed and got by on quick, blitzing combinations. Edgar would stay mobile on the outside, moving his head and feet in a relatively patterned fashion, then dart in with two or three quick punches, sometimes on an angle.

Most often it was a popping one-two or a lead straight, eventually Edgar diversified his approach and began to mix up the levels of his attack mid-combination.

Edgar’s favorite entries on the lead have to be punching through his right hand into a shot, or jabbing then feinting the right hand into his level change.

Edgar’s entries in his title run

It’s worth noting that Edgar doesn’t take full, committed shots like one would in a wrestling match, he’s typically bending over at the waist and reaching, more than anything. While there are some issues with this, it matches the motion of his punching mechanics. Due to that similarity, Edgar’s combination entries look like his takedown entries, and his takedown entries look like his combination entries.

Even as far back as the Tyson Griffin fight, you can see Edgar using his opponent’s fear of his shot to set up striking opportunities. Against less talented wrestlers, Edgar typically found success on his first few attempts and didn’t feel the need for that layered of an approach, but the striking threat off the takedown returned against Sean Sherk.

Edgar striking off takedown attempts in his title run

These instances were likely not always premeditated, but Edgar is well trained in habitually striking off breaks in grappling.

The main issue with the game laid out so far is that after some observation, it’s predictable. Most of Edgar’s opponents in his title run weren’t quite advanced enough to reliably counter strike without opening up their hips, but powerful wrestlers in Gray Maynard and Sean Sherk timed the darting entries of Edgar for overwhelming blast doubles.

Edgar conceding takedowns in his title run

One of the stronger all-position grapplers in MMA history, Edgar has an effective butterfly guard and is well-schooled enough to get into wrestling scrambling positions without opening himself up to submission threats. Against Maynard, Edgar looked to hit a switch several times, eventually giving up rear standing to Maynard. But from their feet, Edgar had a much easier time controlling Maynard’s hands and freeing himself.

Edgar’s scrambling, adapted from folkstyle, is a fairly understated piece of his game. More recently, Edgar will either be in deep on his shot or give it up relatively easily and switched to striking off the attempt. In the early days, however, he showed several interesting looks.

Most notably, Edgar utilized the near-side cradle off front headlock position on Spencer Fisher to put him on his back. Overall, front headlock remains one of Edgar’s most dominant positions, while sometimes overpowered by larger men on the feet, Edgar was typically able to get a tight grip under the chin along with an overhook and sag his hips, keeping opponents grounded.

Edgar shows off his folkstyle chops in his title run

While he hasn’t shown it too many times, Edgar is willing to engage in risky upper body positions. After being essentially ragdolled by Gray Maynard, Edgar used the momentum of the bullying Maynard to hit a beautiful hip toss from over-under. Edgar’s throws aren’t always technically perfect, but from a strong underhook, plant your feet and watch your hips around him.

Edgar throws Maynard and Fisher

One last interesting detail from Edgar’s title run is his ability to finish takedowns off the cage. The book is largely out on finishing double legs on the cage, if you’re curious, check out these breakdowns of Jon Jones and Kevin Lee.

Single legs, however, are notoriously difficult to finish against the cage in MMA.

In fact, the best way to finish a single leg on the cage is to finish it away from the cage. Against Hermes Franca, Edgar dropped to a head inside single on the cage and immediately circled to his left, switching off to a double once Franca’s back was to the center. While Franca was in horrendous form that night, it was still a good idea.

But how did Edgar’s wrestling fair against a fighter at one point famous for his takedown defense?

UFC 112 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Wrestling the Title From BJ Penn

While Edgar was successful in drawing Penn’s hands away from his face, it was tough sledding once he got to a leg.

Penn had brilliant instincts for blading his hips and pummeling in to create separation, pushing away to create separation, or even intercepting the shot with short crossfaces.

Edgar struggles to shoot on BJ Penn

Edgar’s most successful attempts at leading with shots came from his running knee pick, what some consider Edgar’s signature takedown.

Jack Slack gave Bloody Elbow a brilliant breakdown of Edgar’s knee pick before his rematch with Benson Henderson.

The technique essentially plays off the variance of Edgar’s jab, and it works best on opponents who tend to fade back in response. If Edgar can jam in with his lead hand while picking the knee on his entry, he’ll only need to run his feet before his opponent naturally falls over.

Against a fighter like Penn with impeccable balance, a bit more craft is required. In their rematch, Edgar actually uses the knee pick entry to turn Penn’s body then reshoots in another direction. However, this was still a straight drive, and it was not enough to collapse Penn’s base.

Edgar uses and builds off the knee pick against BJ Penn

Without a clean entry, Edgar could never establish a grip from which he could run his feet and work his finishes. But on his intercepting or reactive shots, Penn’s positioning was compromised just enough to give Edgar something to work with.

At the very least, Edgar was able to drive in on a leg and switch off to an underhook on the attacking side, punching through and running Penn to the cage. On one occasion, Edgar caught Penn standing square and was able to drive his weight backward after turning the corner on a double leg.

In the rematch, Edgar showed pretty absurd strength from the seatbelt position, essentially an underhook across the back, with your opponent applying a whizzer. With the leg secured and the seatbelt on, Edgar lifted and angled Penn’s head to the ground on his return.

Edgar finds success against BJ Penn with reactive takedowns

Earlier we had looked at Edgar’s tendency to turn his opponents away from the cage to finish takedowns. In a bit of a twist on that idea, Edgar demonstrated a sneaky way to convert on a double leg.

After driving in the double with his right leg forward, Edgar suddenly dropped to his knees and shifted to lead with his left, pulling Penn off the cage. As they rose to their feet, Edgar chased the back and got to rear standing, popping his hips and slamming Penn with an authoritative mat return.

How did Edgar adjust in a rematch against the only fighter to have outwrestled him in his career?

Slowing and Countering the Bully

It is absolutely necessary to understand that Gray Maynard was likely very tired by the time any wrestling occurred in both his second and third fights with Frankie Edgar.

His shots did not have nearly as much steam on them, but that doesn’t make Edgar’s defensive tactics less valid.

A very simple difference from their first meeting is that Edgar’s striking was far more controlled. His entries were short, and he was quick to retreat after getting off his combinations.

Maynard’s shots were slow. Naturally, Edgar did what anyone should do when they see a shot coming from far away - he dug underhooks, and he circled away from the shot.

Even when Maynard got to a leg, he quickly climbed up to the clinch, where Edgar was already controlling wrists and pummeling for an underhook. In a display of his own physicality, Edgar pulled the wrist to his left and punched hard with his underhook, throwing Maynard against the cage and allowing him to disengage.

As usual, Edgar’s cleanest finishes came off of reactive shots. Luckily, Maynard was headhunting in both fights, and the opportunities were there to duck under and turn the corner on short double entries.

A nice touch on the prolific slam in their second fight is that Edgar actually parried Maynard’s leading shot before changing levels.

The culminating takedown attempt that lead to the finish in their third fight was a response to Maynard’s power punching.

Against a tired Maynard, Edgar had a decent amount of success moving the bigger man around with shots of his own. The key as always was for Edgar to run his feet.

Against the knee pick, the idea as the defending man, once you’re stable on your feet, is likely to turn your knee inward and limp leg out. Well, Edgar’s charges had enough steam that he was right there on Maynard’s back as soon as he turned.

UFC 150: Henderson v Edgar II Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Old Habits Die Hard

If you watched Frankie Edgar’s first fight with Benson Henderson, it’s impossible to have missed that he ate power kicks for five rounds, catching them after absorbing most of the impact. You’ll know this because it was Joe Rogan’s signature narrative for the fight. Edgar was scolded by the commentary team for this habit.

Why is it then, that Edgar had plenty of success catching Henderson’s kicks in the rematch?

The main difference was Edgar’s approach on his feet. A large percentage of Henderson’s kicking offense came off combinations or, more often, intercepting round kicks as Edgar pushed in. If Edgar doesn’t have time to read a kick to catch you out of position, he’s not going to commit to a shot off of it, especially against a big, bottom-heavy fighter like Benson Henderson.

In the rematch, Edgar was far more patient, and Henderson, not exactly known for his boxing, naturally began to lead with kicks. While a fairly agile kicker, Henderson still often stepped in on his entries from the outside, as he was uncomfortable being too close to Edgar’s boxing range in between attempts. While still dangerous, as demonstrated by the calf kick that dropped Edgar, Henderson starting his combinations from far out provided much simpler entries for Edgar to read and capitalize on.

Edgar forced Henderson to lead, opening up counter takedowns

Despite Henderson’s own accolades as a wrestler, it turned out his reactive, first layer of takedown defense was fairly poor. Edgar could shoot from the outside with little setup and get to the hips of Henderson on a consistent basis.

Edgar shot on Henderson with great success

On only one attempt, Edgar does not change directions on his shot, choosing to drive straight back. On a tree trunk-legged wrestler with fantastic balance like Henderson, that would not cut it. However, when Edgar circled his feet and angled the hips of Henderson downward, he had his way with him.

Jose Aldo

Despite what the UFC statistics may tell you, Jose Aldo has the greatest takedown defense in MMA history. A Chad Mendes takedown study is likely coming next week, and we will go more in depth about this at that time.

For now, please enjoy Jose Aldo repeatedly denying Frankie Edgar.

How is this possible? To begin with, Aldo’s hips are ridiculously powerful and agile, essentially serving as a cement wall for any opponent to try and shoot through. While Edgar’s takedowns largely rely on directional changes and at times upper body manipulation, quick finishes or extended chained attempts are absolutely essential against Aldo. You can see for yourself just how quickly Aldo can limp-leg out if Edgar doesn’t have a strong enough bite, or takes too long getting to his finishing positions.

It doesn’t help that Edgar was in constant danger of counters on his entries, and had an impeccable Aldo jab to deal with on the outside. It was extremely difficult to draw Aldo’s hands away from his hips, or to convince him to fear his shot enough to create reactions to work from.

But, eventually, Edgar did take Aldo down. Twice.

The first is an Edgar special, he timed a naked low kick. While most of Aldo’s kicks were either performed by timing Edgar stepping in or off his retreat, he paid for it on the few occasions he threw with no tangible setup.

The shot itself off the kick may not have done the trick, but a swift punch to the face while picking the kicking leg is a great way to make sure your opponent falls backward.

We saw for ourselves, as Edgar caught another naked kick and shot straight for the hips with his right hand. Aldo quickly reached back and posted on the mat, shrimping his hips out the second Edgar hit the ground out of position.

Faking the rear straight, Edgar caught a pivoting Aldo with his lead leg exposed. Circling to square up with Aldo, Edgar covered the hip with his left hand and drove, prompting Aldo to turn and give up rear standing in an attempt to peel off the hands.

But as we saw against BJ Penn, Edgar’s power from rear standing is undeniable, and he immediately popped his hips and hit an impressive mat return on the greatest featherweight of all time.

UFC 156: Aldo v Edgar Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Manhandled

Frankie Edgar’s first fight with Cub Swanson was a wrestling clinic, but the reasons why are fairly simple.

Edgar pressured consistently with his usual striking routine, and Swanson was happy to plant and throw committed rear-hand counters. Knowing Edgar and his proficiency with reactive shots, you can guess how well that worked out for Swanson.

It’s worthy of note that when Edgar shot off his own offense or lighter jabs from Swanson, getting to his single, he would have to settle for an underhook at best. What did surprise many was that Edgar was able to step outside the trail leg of Swanson and throw him from a wrist and underhook.

It was mostly business as usual for Edgar, he got to his knee pick, found his way to Swanson’s back and worked his mat returns.

An interesting wrinkle is that when Swanson fought hard from the “quad-pod”, defending on all fours, refusing to give up a takedown from rear standing, Edgar shifted his feet toward Swanson’s head and dropped down for a double, Swanson’s legs lined up to collapsed.

Edgar manhandled Cub Swanson, and it’s not hard to see why.

Big Brother

At a speed disadvantage for the first time in his career, Frankie Edgar leaned on his wrestling to control Urijah Faber in a featherweight dream fight for many.

Often enough, the size and power of Edgar were enough to move Faber around and finish his shots without sophisticated craft or running him clear across the cage. Faber was keen on countering the entries of Edgar, and seemed to be confident enough in his ability to scramble up to his feet that he didn’t prioritize reactive first-layer takedown defense.

In this fight we see the knee pick work to perfection for one of the first times in Edgar’s career.

Edgar had little trouble getting to his entries against Faber, but perhaps the mat wrestling deserves a closer look at a later time.

New Looks Against Stephens

While Jeremy Stephens may forever be known as the man who was outwrestled by Anthony Pettis, his first-layer of takedown defense and physicality are nothing to scoff at.

Edgar treated the threats of Stephens with appropriate respect, using advanced tactics to get to his preferred positions.

Instead of simply running with his underhook, Edgar utilized the knee tap, blocking the knee on the trail leg while he punched through the underhook. It wasn’t enough to blow Stephens off his feet, but it got him the position he wanted against the cage. For more knee tap content, check out this breakdown on Dominick Cruz.

While Edgar threatened and controlled Benson Henderson from the front headlock, we hadn’t seen much chained offense from that position since his fight with Spencer Fisher. Against Stephens, after catching the front headlock standing, Edgar transitioned to a single leg, unsure if he would be able to simply snap the larger man down.

Pulling Stephens off the cage, Edgar struggled immensely as Stephens balanced and pushed hard on the head of Edgar, separating his head from the hip.

I’m glad he did, because it gave us a new single leg finish on the cage from Edgar. Pressing in toward the trail leg on the head outside single, Edgar weaved the attacking hand through the crotch and grabbed his own bicep on the opposite side. With this power grip, Edgar squared up with Stephens and lifted, returning Stephens at a dominant angle.

Soon after, Edgar went back to that high crotch lift against the cage when he fought Yair Rodriguez.

Otherwise, we saw classic Edgar tactics in response to a fairly predictable Stephens.

UFC Fight Night: Edgar v Swanson Photo by Patrick Smith/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Potential Decline

Against Cub Swanson in 2018, Edgar completed zero takedowns on close to ten attempts.

Why?

Let’s state the obvious, Edgar had been very recently knocked out, badly, for the first time in his career against Brian Ortega.

Edgar took the chance to fight in front of his home crowd in New Jersey, but his approach was noticeably different.

Edgar has never been excellent in the pocket. He has always had the speed and enough variety in his entries that he can blitz into the pocket and quickly exit without much harm coming his way. But against a rangy, powerful puncher in Ortega, he was trapped after entering and punished.

So, against, Swanson, Edgar avoided the pocket altogether. Using a popping jab and occasional right hand, Edgar controlled the outside, pot-shotting Swanson and kicking a bit more than usual.

Swanson had also adjusted his tactics from the last time they fought. Committed to staying on his feet, he simply refused to throw power, hardly utilizing his rear hand. Without loaded strikes to duck under, Edgar’s best takedowns were not available.

As for his leading entries, Swanson went to the Aldo playbook.

Edgar may have picked up on the fact that Swanson takes a hard step forward each time he jabs. So, Edgar jabbed with him, establishing a rhythm and anticipating Swanson’s return. Once the step came, Edgar slipping inside, bent over at the waist and reached for the leg. But Edgar is far more comfortable with a head outside single, and the time it took for him to switch back outside and run his feet gave Swanson the chance to push off and limp leg out, just like Aldo.

Over three rounds, almost all of Edgar’s entries involved snatching up the lead leg and working a finish after establishing a static position, not the classing “running Edgar” we had grown so used to. Swanson’s balance and ability to pivot while on one leg rendered these attempts ineffective.

The best bite Edgar got was when he charged in, sick of being jabbed. Even then, Swanson’s side-on stance and underhooks kept Edgar from getting to any workable positions against the cage. Typically strong as an ox, Edgar seemed to have an extremely difficult time navigating any handfighting and clinch situations with Swanson.

Swanson didn’t seem to have any trouble at all finding his underhooks in scramble situations, and Edgar was either disinterested in hanging around once they’d been established, or he has truly atrophied as a physical fighter.

See for yourself.

Did Cub Swanson display an advanced understanding in fighting wrists and kicking out of loose single leg attempts? Absolutely. But Edgar has usually shown persistence and chained off his shots, changing directions and layering his wrestling situations.

It’s possible that Edgar is fading, or perhaps without full confidence in his ability to strike and take damage, his wrestling game is significantly handicapped.

UFC Seasonal Press Conference Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Max Holloway

When he faces Max Holloway at UFC 240, Frankie Edgar will meet a fighter with a decided advantage in striking at midrange, and one with the aptitude to hurt him in the pocket. He’s not a fighter who will likely slow down, and he’s surprisingly physical and talented in the clinch. To get to takedown opportunities, Edgar will need to be his vintage self. He’ll need to create reactions from his own striking offense, find the timing of Holloway to get to his reactive shots, and frequently chain attempts together to get to favorable clinch positions against the cage, he will not be able to simply pummel.

While my hopes aren’t high for Edgar’s chances in what is likely his last featherweight title bid, we will always have a long career’s worth of wrestling for MMA to look back on fondly.