Two weeks out from UFC 125 - Edgar vs Maynard 2, and at 28 windy degrees, Winter has finally arrived in Hamilton, NJ.
It’s just before 9 a.m. on a weekday when most towns outside Philadelphia, PA would be buzzing with morning rush hour traffic, but Hamilton is still kind of sleepy as one approaches a building that, with floor to ceiling windows and an industrial type entrance around back, looks more like a furniture store or new car showroom than a place where a mixed martial arts champion trains.
This is RABJJ, Ricardo Almeida Jiu Jitsu, home to UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.
Inside, twelve young men, covered in various tattoos, hands wrapped and gloved, shin and foot gear strapped, headgear and mouthpieces locked in place – pace one half of the mat in anticipation of the battle they’re here for.
The entire other half of the mat is left clear – an unspoken show of respect – where Almeida is pulling the gloves on the champ. Frankie’s dark hair is long and curly, and he looks exactly like Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull.
“I haven’t had time to cut it,” says the notoriously economical-with-words Edgar when someone asks if he was growing his hair long.
This is Frankie’s morning session. He’ll be boxing at 3:30 p.m. with coach Mark Henry, a former boxer who owns a pizza shop in Woodbridge, NJ where Bon Jovi rocker Richie Sambora grew up.
Edgar is to go ten rounds today, with one minute rest between each – a fresh opponent each round.
The room is silent save for Almeida’s sing-song Brazilian-English barking instruction once in a while, and the familiar sound of Edgar’s sharp exhaling breaths with each punch and kick. If you close your eyes and just listen to the action, you’d be able to tell just how fast and explosive Frankie is by the short, quick sound of his breathing, followed by the thuds of twelve ounce gloves to the head and body.
UFC welterweight Charlie Brenneman and two-time All-American wrestler Dave Esposito from Lehigh University are among the partners. Each brings a size advantage onto the mat, a deliberate strategy as Edgar prepares for a much larger opponent, particularly on fight night, where Maynard can weigh every bit of 175 or 180 after weighing in at 155. Edgar walks around at 165 after putting on some muscle specifically for this bout.
“To be honest with you I’m the smallest guy wherever I train anyway,” says Edgar. “So I’m always accustomed to facing bigger guys no matter who they are. I put on some weight since the last time Gray and I fought each other but he’s still going to have a size advantage over me. I just have to make sure my plan and my technique are solid.”
The hour flies by, and Edgar is still a bundle of energy as he gathers his gear into his duffel bag as various reporters from MMA websites loiter in the lobby, hoping for a chance to get the champion on camera for a few pre-fight words they can post to their homepages before year’s end.
Edgar, forever the underdog, is a hot commodity since dismantling BJ Penn at UFC 118 in August. Even the Penn faithful, who were so vocal in their disbelief in Edgar after their hero lost to the New Jersey fighter in Abu Dhabi, were silenced and turned into fans after that warm August night in Boston.
The champ’s record is 13 and Gray Maynard, and he’s eager to erase the blemish from his game, from his memory, and from his dreams.
In prefight comments Maynard’s said Edgar’s game hasn’t changed much since he beat the current champion back at UFC Fight Night 13 on Spike TV back in April of 2008 in Denver, Colorado.
“That’s nonsense,” says Edgar. “That’s like me saying his style hasn’t changed since the first time I fought him, it definitely has. I don’t know if he’s trying to fool himself or whatever but if you just look at my fights you can’t deny it’s changed.”
The champ’s been studying Maynard of course, but he says not as much as one might think.
“I can’t focus on what he’s going to do,” says Edgar. “If I do that then I won’t be getting any better. I’m just doing what I do and I’m confident in what I do. He definitely believes in his hands more, his wrestling is still his biggest thing but his movement’s gotten better. His hands have gotten better.”
Maynard lost his title shot against BJ Penn after a lackluster split-decision win against Nate Diaz earlier this year in January.
He ground out a victory over Kenny Florian at UFC 118 in another less than impressive performance, but Edgar cautions fans and observers not to be fooled by Maynard’s style.
After all, Diaz and Florian are no slouches.
“He’s fighting a good game plan,” says the champion. “He’s a smart fighter. He’s not going to go in there with Nate Diaz and go on the ground where that’s his biggest chance to lose. He stayed up. With Florian his best chance was to take him down and grind him out. That’s what a smart fighter does.”
And while Frankie was a standout wrestler at Clarion University and began his MMA career with a strong wrestling base, since dominating Sean Sherk at UFC 98 with superior standup and boxing skills – then putting it all together in his last match against Penn – the talk with Edgar has been his speed and movement.
“It’s always better to present angles when you’re standing up,” he said. “That’s just the smartest way to fight on your feet. It’s doesn’t make much sense to stand static in front of your opponent.”
One of the ironies about winning the UFC championship belt against one of the most decorated and legendary MMA fighters of all time, is that Edgar is still considered the underdog going into this bout with Maynard.
For most guys the slight would be a motivator, but Edgar genuinely doesn’t care.
“As long as my team and my family and friends believe in me, I’m okay with that,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t even pay attention to it. I’m not in it for the respect, but, it will happen eventually.”
Frankie’s family is a close-knit Italian-American one from Toms River, NJ, the shore town where guys like Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen once strolled the boardwalk in Seaside Heights.
These days the area is known more for a hit MTV show than for the Little League World Series dynasty team of the 1990’s, or the great wrestling of Region 6, the home to several UFC fighters and great wrestlers like Edgar, Kurt Pellegrino, Greg Soto, Nick Catone and two-time NCAA champion Damion Hahn.
It’s easier to remember names like “Snooki” and “The Situation” than it is to remember that Major League Baseball’s Al Leiter, gorgeous actress Piper Perabo and The Hurt Locker star Brian Geraghty, and now UFC champion Frankie Edgar, all hail from there.
Consider that Frankie’s entire family, parents Frank and Mary Annese and little sister Gina, have attended every single wrestling match and fight, from Toms River, NJ to Abu Dhabi; clear on the other side of the world, since he was in grade school.
His wife Renee, the mother of his two boys Francesco and Santino, is not only his biggest supporter, she’s his oldest friend. The couple met in kindergarten class and they were high school and college sweethearts. His closest friends are the same guys he’s been hanging around with since grade school.
Frankie is fiercely loyal, a quality shared by his coach Almeida, a Renzo Gracie loyalist and student who has been with Frankie since the Maynard loss.
“Frankie had a lot going on during that first fight with Gray,” said Almeida. “Not to make excuses but he was getting married the week after that fight. The MTV show was following him around. And he didn’t compensate for the altitude in Denver. He didn’t get out there until 2 days before weigh ins. He’ll never do that again,” says Almeida.
Denver is one mile above sea level and if one’s lungs don’t get used to the thin air, they’ll gas out pretty quick.
“Frankie didn’t look like himself in that fight,” says Almeida.
Frankie dismisses the altitude excuse when asked about it.
“It wasn’t the altitude,” is all he says.
Just last month Dana White played Santa Claus and gave the WEC fighters the thing that has always been on the top of their Christmas lists, and that’s a chance to fight in the UFC.
Anthony “Showtime” Pettis returned the gesture by giving fans a highlight reel finish in his unification eliminator bout against Ben Henderson, with what’s been dubbed “The Matrix Kick,” a spectacular off the fence round kick that landed square on Henderson’s face, sending the now former WEC lightweight champ careening to the canvas.
Pettis will see the winner of Edgar versus Maynard to unify the belts.
“There’s some great talent coming in from the WEC and that’s going to bring some new challenges and many opportunities for me as well,” says Edgar. “I think some of them will get weeded out but so will some UFC guys. There’s only so many spots the UFC can handle and if you’re not cutting it you’re going to get cut, that’s just the way it is. That’s just the nature of the beast; this sport is evolving so quick. I’m three fights away from being cut myself. That’s just the way it is.”
The comments about the new challenges and opportunities posed by the WEC merger brings up an obvious question that has hounded Edgar since he entered the lightweight division, from fans and even matchmaker Joe Silva: Will Frankie now entertain 145 pounds and a fight against Jose Aldo?
“Right now all I’m saying is I’m going to defend my belt at 155 pounds on January 1st, but who knows what the future holds. I’m not going to rule anything out and I’m excited, that’s for sure,” he said.
One thing we know the future does hold, is an awesome card on January 1, 2011, with Frankie Edgar in the main event.
Edgar: 13 and Gray Maynard
“I can’t focus on what he’s going to do. If I do that then I won’t be getting any better. I’m just doing what I do and I’m confident in what I do."