More than a decade ago, a young man from New Jersey walked into a Northern California gym to get a few weeks’ worth of training before his next fight.
That young man was undefeated in mixed martial arts at the time, with fights ranging from underground shows in the Bronx to Ring of Combat to the UFC. That young man was Frankie Edgar. The gym he walked into was the renown American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.
“He had so much work that he needed on the stand-up that I just didn’t want to waste his time for the amount of time he was there,” said Javier Mendez, who trains current UFC champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier and former champions Cain Velasquez and Luke Rockhold, to name a few bullet points on his MMA resume. “He was that bad. He had no stand-up.”
But in Edgar, Mendez recognized what UFC fans soon would come to see, appreciate, respect and revere. Toughness. Resiliency. Will. Heart.
Those traits, along with his evolution from wrestler to striker to all-around MMA fighter, manifested themselves in his size. Edgar, listed at 5-foot-6, built his legacy in the lightweight division, where fighters shrink themselves down to 155 pounds for a few hours, only to balloon up a dozen or more pounds in the 24-plus hours between stepping off the scale and stepping into the octagon.
“What I remember about him is when he came in, I looked at him and I said, ‘What weight do you fight at?’ ” Mendez said. “He goes, ‘Lightweight.’ And I go, ‘Huh? How much do you weigh?’ He goes, ‘158.’ I go, ‘158?!? You’re pretty much walking around at fight weight. So you’re fighting these guys that weigh 170, 180 pounds?’ He goes, ‘Yep.’ ”
There, in a nutshell, is Frankie Edgar. The man with the little frame and the big heart. The light lightweight with the will of a wrecking ball, ready to damage whatever stood in his way en route to building a successful career for him and his family.
Edgar eventually would drop down to the 145-pound featherweight division, but not before winning the UFC lightweight title in 2010. Edgar (23-6-1) is 9-3 since moving to featherweight in 2013. He’ll challenge champion Max Holloway for the title on Saturday at UFC 240 in Edmonton and try to become the eighth fighter in history to win UFC titles in multiple divisions.
Coming up in the lightweight division, the undersized Edgar met his share of critics at each turn. He’s too small. He’s not powerful enough to topple the bigger lightweights. He’s just a wrestler.
All of those arguments were factually accurate. They just weren’t true.
Edgar made his UFC debut in 2007, winning by unanimous decision over Tyson Griffin at UFC 67. He won Fight of the Night and moved to 7-0 in his career. Lyoto Machida also made his UFC debut that night, as did Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. Anderson Silva headlined that card.
Edgar started out 6-1 in the UFC, setting him up for a title shot against BJ Penn, already a two-division champion and legend in the sport, on April 10, 2010.
“Why not?” Edgar said when the title shot was confirmed. “Say I do come up short. I’ll definitely see what my flaws are, and I’ll be able to improve them quicker than if I never fought for it.”
That’s Frankie Edgar right there. “The Answer.” “Fe.” The leader of the “Iron Army.”
Edgar did not come up short at UFC 112 in the desert in Abu Dhabi. He dominated Penn, winning by unanimous decision and gaining the title from the champion and respect from everyone directly connected to the sport.
“Here was this undersized 155-pounder that initially you’re like, you know, he’s good at everything but there’s nothing that really stands out,” said Kenny Florian, a former UFC lightweight title contender. “But then, little by little, just proving everybody wrong, winning these fights he wasn’t supposed to win. And all of a sudden, he’s the champion.”
Edgar won the rematch four months later in more convincing fashion, winning all five rounds on all three judges’ cards. If back-to-back wins over Penn weren’t enough to build up Edgar in the eyes of his critics and the notoriously fickle and dissecting MMA fan base — hint: they weren’t — his title defense against Gray Maynard changed things.
At UFC 125 on New Year’s Day 2011, Maynard dropped Edgar three times in the first round and landed 47 of 81 strikes. How he managed to make it through that five minutes baffled people then and would do the same now.
“Yeah, I really don't know myself," Edgar said. “I guess it’s tribute to the way I train. I train hard. I’m always in great condition. I always listen to my coaches. So even when I was hurt, I was listening to those guys.”
Down 10-8 after the first round, Edgar battled his way back. Maynard landed a total of 46 strikes in the remaining four rounds. Edgar fought his way to a draw and retained his title.
"It’s definitely something I’m proud of," Edgar said. "Not many people could have gone through that and came back. I mean, that's definitely the type of person I am. You may be down but you’re never out.”
Ten months later, Edgar knocked out Maynard in the fourth round at UFC 136. That was his third consecutive title defense, tying him with Penn for the longest such streak in UFC lightweight history. Benson Henderson later would tie Edgar and Penn, a record that still stands.
Henderson started his run as champion by defeating Edgar via unanimous decision at UFC 144 to take the title, then successfully defending it against him via split decision in the rematch at UFC 150.
“Frankie went out there and gave everything he had in both our fights,” Henderson said. “He didn’t hold anything back, whether it was being a titleholder or being a challenger. He went out there and laid it all on the line both times.”
Henderson spent two training camps preparing for Edgar and 50 minutes in the octagon fighting Edgar. He knows him fairly well.
“One of Frankie’s strengths is his shiftiness, his elusiveness, how light on his feet he is,” Henderson said. “When you prepare for a guy like that, you don’t have your sparring rounds where your partners stand in the pocket and you just bang and slug it out. You have to have guys mimic Frankie’s movement, which is hard to do. A lot of guys can’t keep it up for five minutes, let alone 15 minutes or 25 minutes.”
Edgar’s style hasn’t changed much over the years. Sure, he has evolved, as all fighters do over the course of their career. But he always keeps moving when he’s in the octagon. It’s a style that Lance Palmer, a former World Series of Fighting champion and winner of the 2018 Professional Fighters League title, has tried to mimic. Palmer, from Ohio, moved his training camp to New Jersey to join Edgar’s team under the watchful eyes of Mark Henry.
“He’s so good at what he does, blending his punches to his shots back to his punches. He’s a guy that I always try to fight like,” Palmer said. “When I first started training, it was Urijah Faber who was kind of my mentor. He got me into the sport and kind of built me into more of a complete fighter. And now I feel Frankie, he’s a similar mentor like that, where I look up to him a lot. He’s a legend of the sport already and he’s still fighting and he’s going for another title fight.”
‘He’s done everything the right way’
When Edgar debuted in the UFC on Feb. 3, 2007, Jon Jones hadn’t yet started in mixed martial arts. Ronda Rousey was more than a year away from becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in judo. Conor McGregor still was a plumber’s apprentice and two weeks shy of his first amateur MMA fight.
No one has spent more time in the octagon than Edgar. His total fight time of six hours, 47 minutes and 33 seconds is nearly 20 minutes more than second-place Rafael Dos Anjos (6:28:11). And Edgar has had four less fights in the UFC than Dos Anjos (24 to 28).
That amount of fight time over the course of 12 years comes with its share of wear and tear on the body. Scars in places you can see and not see. Black eyes. Two different looking ears. A crooked nose. Plus the daily aches and pains of putting your body through the physical ringer for years.
But, it also helps accrue a level of respect from fans and those directly involved in the sport who understand the personal determination it takes to prepare for a grueling and physically demanding sport such as mixed martial arts. That’s a certain type of currency that can’t quite be measured, regardless of encryption levels.
“He’s entered a Chuck Liddell territory, that is how beloved Frankie Edgar is by fight fans and fighters alike,” UFC broadcaster Jon Anik said.
“It’s hard to remember a single fight or round he’s been involved in that hasn’t had drama and skill and high-level martial arts and blood and everything that we watch this sport for. And I also just thought the Yair Rodriguez fight was just one of the crowning jewels of his career because a lot of people were doubting him. Yair Rodriguez was all the rage. The narrative was that Yair was going to build his name on Frankie Edgar and what does Edgar do but just punish the guy, ruin the guy. There are few athletes on the planet that I have more respect for, and few men really, I have more respect for than Frankie Edgar. He’s done everything the right way.”
In May 2017, Edgar smashed Rodriguez for two rounds before the doctor stopped the bout. It was the bout that earned Edgar a third shot at the featherweight title, with Holloway now the champion rather than Jose Aldo.
That title shot was supposed to come at UFC 218 in December 2017, but Edgar pulled out with an injury a month before the fight. It then was supposed to happen at UFC 222 in March 2018, but Holloway pulled out with an injury four weeks before the fight. Several days later, Edgar accepted a nontitle fight against Brian Ortega, a rising star in the featherweight division.
Ortega, undefeated at the time, entered the bout with five straight finishes. He made it six in a row when he knocked out Edgar late in the first round. It was the sixth career loss for Edgar, but only the first time he didn’t make it to score cards. His five previous defeats all came via decision, with four of them being title fights.
In a sport such as mixed martial arts, where talking bad about your opponent is a common method of promoting and hyping up a fight, you rarely, if ever, hear someone say something negative about Frankie Edgar. Even rarer is the time when Edgar comes out swinging with the microphone against another fighter. He could be among the small handful competing for the most likable guy in MMA award.
“I think you get what you give," Edgar said. "I keep everything professional and be respectful. I treat people the way I want to be treated. I really don't have bad stuff to say anybody else either. The fact that people respect me I think it just goes to show the way I carry myself. I was always told you don’t have to worry about the loud guy in the room, you should be worried about the quiet guy.”
When a prominent fighter loses a fight, especially by knockout, social media is the last place they would turn to for solace. Yet, after Ortega knocked out Edgar, many of the comments on Twitter — of all places! — were respectful.
“You had nothing to gain from taking that fight @FrankieEdgar,” Holloway tweeted. “But you took it, you defended what you already earned. There’s no belt for sacrificing everything but true fans and Jersey knows no belt can outshine what you bring to the sport. Chin up bratha.”
“Knowing how tough Frankie is, I wish the ref would have let it go just a bit more,” tweeted UFC middleweight Brad Tavares. “Gutted for @FrankieEdgar you’ll be back bro. Props to T city.”
And this from McGregor, a former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion: “Frankie’s career deserved for that to be against me tonight. Respect Frankie. Love and respect always! A true fighter’s fighter.”
“He’s entered a Chuck Liddell territory, that is how beloved Frankie Edgar is by fight fans and fighters alike."Jon Anik
‘Never charged me’
Such respect for Edgar can be seen closer to home as well. Just ask UFC light heavyweight contender Corey Anderson.
“Frankie’s done so much for me. He means so much to me. Who would have known somebody so small could make such a big impact on my life,” Anderson said.
Edgar coached Season 19 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2014. He brought his team of coaches with him on the show, including Mark Henry, Ricardo Almeida, Steve Rivera and Anderson Franca. When it came time to pick the teams, Edgar won the coin toss and selected Anderson first.
Anderson won TUF 19. He and Team Edgar clicked quickly during the show, and that relationship grew after the cameras stopped recording. Edgar invited Anderson, from Illinois, to train with him in New Jersey. Anderson stayed in a spare room at Edgar’s father-in-law’s house.
“Never charged me," Anderson said.
After a while, Anderson said he was able to afford his own place because of the savings created by Edgar’s generosity. Anderson now calls New Jersey home and in March, he and his wife welcomed their first child into the world.
“We’re not the biggest team," Edgar said. "We kind of all have each other’s back. A lot of our team have come through my father-in-law’s basement. We kind of all came up the same way.”
Edgar’s assistance goes beyond housing. In the gym, he’s there to help Anderson — and the other fighters — grow and develop their skillsets. Surely, the man with 30 pro fights and the most time in the octagon ever has things to pass on to the next generation. Even on sparring days for Edgar, Anderson said he stays after to watch him spar.
“Frankie made my life what it is,” Anderson said, “and he doesn’t even realize it.”
‘Little engine that could’
There’s a determination ingrained in Edgar that not everyone possesses, be it in fighting or in life. It didn’t come about because of mixed martial arts, but it is the avenue in which the world bears witness it.
That inner drive probably always existed in Edgar. Ken Nellis, his wrestling coach at Clarion University in Pennsylvania, certainly saw it. Edgar was a four-time NCAA national qualifier at 141 pounds for Division I Clarion. He was 120-55 in his career at Clarion (2001-05).
“He wasn’t necessarily head and shoulders the best guy in our wrestling room,” Nellis said. “He was just a driven, tenacious worker in the practice room. He was of course a leader, and more of a leader by example, his work ethic. Whether it was training preseason, in running, he was always one of the top three guys. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s been successful even being the smallest guy.”
Edgar is five inches shorter than Holloway, and that gap looks even bigger when the two stand and face each other. Edgar gives up only one inch of reach with his arms but five inches of leg reach.
This is nothing new for Edgar, who at age 37 has seen just about all there is to see in MMA. Taller fighters, shorter fighters, rangier fighters, lankier fighters, bigger fighters, whatever.
“The little engine that could,” Cormier said. “The guy that accomplishes things that you never could have imagined. He will not be deterred, man, he’s a stud.”
In Holloway, Edgar faces an opponent 10 years younger than him. Holloway, from Hawaii, has won his last 13 fights at featherweight, including beating Aldo twice and Ortega once — all via TKO. Last April at UFC 236, Holloway moved up to lightweight to challenge Dustin Poirier for the interim title and lost.
This will be Edgar’s third and likely last chance to fight for the featherweight title. He lost his two previous attempts against then champion Aldo, once in 2011 and again in 2016.
“I never say die about anything because you never know what will come, but I know what's at stake and these opportunities don't come often," Edgar said. “It would mean all this hard work these past seven years since losing that title weren't wasted on anything. Not that it would be wasted, you know, I definitely had a great career, but I think getting that title would cap it off.”
A win over Holloway on Saturday at UFC 240 would not cement Edgar’s legacy. That already has been done. But it certainly would add another talking point in his future UFC Hall of Fame induction news release.
“Frankie is one of those guys that everybody loves because he fights with his heart on his sleeve, he has a tremendous amount of determination,” Florian said. “He’s that Rocky figure that we probably need in this sport.”