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How Frankie Edgar went from underground fighter to UFC star

Frankie Edgar fights Yair Rodriguez at UFC 211

Frankie Edgar fights Yair Rodriguez at UFC 211 on Saturday, May 13, 2017, in Dallas. Edgar won by doctor stoppage after round 2. Photo Credit: AP / Gregory Payan

There were no medical personnel waiting to assist injured fighters. No ambulance parked outside the hot, crowded boxing gym in case of emergency.

So it went when Frankie Edgar made his MMA debut at an unsanctioned Bronx show in 2005.

“Those were the early days. There were literally people drinking 40s in the crowd, standing on the ring,” Edgar said. “There were no rules. I even head-butted the guy in the fight.”

The New Jersey native was 23 when he fought in the Underground Combat League, winning via TKO in 3:38, and he has zero regrets.

“I ended up being the main event,” said Edgar, now 35. “There was no weigh-in. We were just doing a 15-minute round.

“I’d still do it today.”

Edgar is one of the few remaining bridges between MMA’s not-so-long-ago humble beginnings and the sport’s current status as a worldwide spectacle with rules, cageside doctors, drug testing and sanctioning by state commissions. Yet, even as arenas replace boxing gyms and styles evolve, Edgar remains at the top of the game.

The former lightweight champion’s latest win over up-and-comer Yair Rodriguez happened in front of more than 17,000 fans earlier this month at UFC 211 in Dallas. Before that, he fought in a sold-out Madison Square Garden last November at UFC 205.

His trademark tenacity and wrestling skills aren’t exactly fashionable for UFC superstars these days, but he continues to give fits to flashier fighters in the cage, maintaining his position atop the featherweight rankings.

Seeing what could be

Even in that first fight, Edgar felt he could make a career out of MMA.

“Just the comfortableness that I felt,” Edgar said. “I just knew this sport was made for me.”

Edgar made his pro debut within months of Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner’s epic in the first Ultimate Fighter finale, a landmark fight that spurred the sport’s popularity. At that point, Edgar felt the sport would take off, and he wanted to be along for the ride.

“I don’t think I pictured how fast it would happen, but I knew eventually it would,” Edgar said of MMA’s rise to prominence. “Everybody gets fighting. It’s so animalistic, almost, and natural to people. It’s a worldwide thing, everybody can get into fighting.”

While the sport was growing, the skills were still at a rudimentary level with most fighters heavily reliant on one skill, Edgar said. Even then, he knew he couldn’t fall into that trap.

“I was a wrestler and it was always good to have in my back pocket, but even back then I knew someone was eventually going to be able to stop my shot,” Edgar said. “I’m not going to be able to take someone down or I may get taken down, so I needed to build up my jiu-jitsu, build up my striking, and then I felt I could do everything.”

The start of stand-up

The sound of Edgar hitting pads echoed from one room to another at Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan one spring afternoon in 2009. And it wasn’t because of the acoustics in the basement gym on West 30th Street.

Edgar was training to face former lightweight champion Sean Sherk at UFC 98 in May 2009. It sounded like a heavyweight hitting those pads that day.

Sherk was in the latter stages of his career and Edgar was climbing up the lightweight rankings.

“He was a former champion, I was kind of unknown and unheralded at the time,” Edgar said. “I went in there and knew he was a short, strong guy and I knew he would be hard to take down.”

Edgar attempted to bring the fight to the ground multiple times in the first round, only to be stuffed by Sherk each time. Midway through the round, Edgar abandoned that strategy and let his hands do the work, overwhelming Sherk on the feet and taking a unanimous decision.

“I went in there and pretty much outboxed him for three rounds,” Edgar said. “That’s when I realized, all right, I can do it all.”

‘I’ve got nothing else to do’

While he may change the exact methods each time out, Edgar consistently has outworked opponents in the cage for years, dragging fighters into deep waters with relentless grappling. He has more fight time than anyone in UFC history with nearly 6 1/2 hours, and he’s seen styles ranging from the Taekwondo of Rodriguez to the wrestling of Gray Maynard to the elite jiu-jitsu of B.J. Penn.

With the sport around for little more than 20 years, Edgar believes each new way of fighting can bring something different to what he already does.

“I’ll be honest, every fighter that I’ve fought, I’ve stolen something from,” Edgar said. “Maybe not me myself, but my coaches, they’ll see something and say, ‘let’s try that,’ and we’ll try it.

“Cub Swanson would throw a hook to a kick on the same side, and it works. I use it, my guys use it now. It’s something that we saw and we made it work.”

Still, Edgar says his style mostly hasn’t changed much in his 12 years as a professional.

“I think my approach is still the same, I just have more confidence in my other areas. So if my main approach doesn’t work, I have other options. Whereas maybe in 2007 or so, if that approach didn’t work, I was more restrictive of what I can do.”

Edgar’s ability to adapt may be part of the reason he’s been able to keep his place atop the rankings for nearly a decade, but he also attributes his dedication and attention to detail.

“People stop doing the little things. You see good wrestlers get older and stop wanting to wrestle because it’s hard to get takedowns, it’s taxing and tiresome to do that,” Edgar said. “You have to consistently do the little things to stay at a certain level, and that’s something I do a good job of.”

And how does he keep that level of consistency?

“I’ve got nothing else to do. I literally have my family and fighting.”

Title time

Edgar (21-5-1) has puzzled most in the cage, but he has yet to get his hands on the UFC’s featherweight belt. He’s won all seven non-title fights since joining the division in 2013, but twice lost to current champion Jose Aldo, most recently at UFC 200 last July.

With Aldo set to unify the featherweight title against interim champion Max Holloway at UFC 212 on June 3, Edgar again may have a path to a title shot.

“I think I should get the winner of that fight, but I’m a realist. I know that me and Aldo going for a third time within a year of our last fight might be tough,” Edgar said. “But if Holloway gets the job done, then that’s the fight that makes the most sense. He’s pretty much beaten everybody, I’ve pretty much beaten everybody at 145. We’re the only guys that haven’t fought each other.”

Edgar will be in Rio de Janeiro for the event, mostly to support teammate Marlon Moraes’ UFC debut, but he’ll have plenty of interest in what happens later in the night.

“I’m not sitting there rooting for anyone, I’m going to let those guys figure it out and hope for the best.”

New York Sports