Issue 084

January 2012

Frankie Edgar reveals all about life as a pound-for-pound champion and his dreams of one day headlining a UFC card in New York City.

Frankie Edgar, the best 155lb fighter on the planet, harbors a new dream. Growing up in the shadows of New York City, ‘The Answer’ is well aware of the illustrious history of the city’s famed Madison Square Garden. And one day he plans on headlining an MMA card there.

While New York currently remains one of the lone states in the US that doesn’t regulate mixed martial arts, Edgar admits he’s simply waiting for that phone call, from UFC president Dana White, when the Octagon can finally roll into the Empire State. 

“I definitely want to fight at Madison Square Garden,” says the UFC lightweight king. “I feel like I’m being deprived of that, actually. I’ve been going into the city my whole life. I train next door to Madison Square Garden at Renzo Gracie’s Academy and over in Tribeca at Phil Nurse’s.

“It’s unfortunate it’s not sanctioned yet. I do believe it’s going to happen. I’m just hoping it happens before my time is up.”

The Garden, which was long considered the epicenter of combat sports prior to Las Vegas’ development as the home of big fights, hosted such legendary boxing contests as the ‘Fight of the Century,’ Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I, and a Madison Square Garden boxing ring was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Edgar is eager to etch his name in the annals of the historic venue.

“Someone told me that the arena was built for combat sports,” Edgar says. “They call it the world’s most famous arena for a reason. You had Ali-Frazier there. I want to be able to fight there, for sure. I want to be on that marquee out there.”

And who would dare bet against Edgar realizing his latest goal. After all, many a buck has been lost along the way as, against the odds, Edgar has climbed on top of the UFC’s fierce lightweight class after first deposing future Hall of Famer BJ Penn and then nemesis Gray Maynard, in what is already being labeled as the greatest trilogy in mixed martial arts.

Following the completion of his rubber-match victory over ‘The Bully’, UFC president Dana White referred to Edgar as the “second-best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” behind only the incomparable Anderson Silva. Yet despite the high praise from his boss, Edgar admits he doesn’t concern himself with any mythological set of rankings. To him, riding the crest of the 155lb division is all that matters.

“I don’t know. That’s all just a bunch of opinions. Just to be mentioned against those guys is definitely flattering. It’s an honor. But I don’t get too caught up in that stuff. It really doesn’t matter. If I lose one fight that I shouldn’t have lost, I’m off that list in a second. You can’t let stuff like that go to your head.

“But in my own mind, I do think that I’m the best lightweight in the world. For some media and some other fans and stuff, they may feel differently. But I’m confident. I’m comfortable saying, ‘I’m the best in the world.’ 

“I’m not a cocky guy, so I’m not going to sit there and shout it out in every interview and this and that, but when I’m in the cage, that’s when I think I’m the best. When I’m outside the cage, sometimes I doubt myself, but that motivates me to train every day.”

But there’s also a newfound little flare of swagger, as well. Once relatively quiet in front of the cameras, the champ is now more comfortable holding court, and he’s able to offer gathered reporters their required sound bites. He’s taken to tailored suits, as well, presenting a sharp image when representing the UFC. 

“There’s different responsibilities that come with being a champion as opposed to just being one of the other guys,” Edgar says. “You’re in the forefront of your weight class. There’s only seven champions in the UFC, so obviously you want to represent it well. That’s something we definitely try to do.”

And he definitely wants to do it as long as possible. While Edgar has now proven his doubters wrong – over and over again – he knows it doesn’t take much to fall from his current perch. “For me, it’s easy to stay motivated. I respect all these guys. I really do. The danger that they present to me and the strengths that they possess, the idea of losing to these guys is what motivates me to continue training hard and continue to try and get better – and the belt itself. 

“Being a champion, that holds some weight. I guess it’s like if you’re a superhero: it comes with responsibility. If you want to carry around that belt and call yourself a champion, you have to act like it.”

Admittedly, as ‘The Answer’ struggled to crawl back to his feet after being floored in the opening round of his UFC 136 bout with Maynard, their third MMA fight in four years, his place in MMA folklore and amongst the pound-for-pound elite wasn’t exactly the predominant thought on his mind. 

“It was pretty much, ‘I can’t believe this s**t is happening again,’” Edgar laughs. “But you can’t stay in that moment too long because he’s coming. I just kept moving and tried my best to get my composure back. I think I did a good job.”

It’s a typical Edgar understatement. A “good job” for most people consists of punching the clock at 5pm without having upset their boss at some point during the day. For Edgar, it was punching Maynard in the face until referee Josh Rosenthal called an end to the rollercoaster contest in the fourth round. Three-and-a-half years after Maynard dealt him the lone loss of his career, Edgar could finally put the Xtreme Couture lightweight in his rear-view mirror.

“I just think I caught him with a good shot when he wasn’t suspecting it,” says Edgar of the finish. “A lot of the things we thought we could use in the fight seemed to work.”

Edgar’s three-fight journey with Maynard began in April 2008, when the pair met in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 13. Both fighters boasted the experience of three previous UFC appearances, but Edgar’s knowledge of his soon-to-be nemesis went back even further.

“I kind of knew Gray just from collegiate wrestling,” says Edgar. “I knew of his wrestling ability. Obviously, he’s one of the bigger lightweights, now and back then, so I knew his size was going to present some problems. At that time, he was definitely the best wrestler I had fought to date.”

Sure enough, Maynard used his strength and grappling prowess to repeatedly take Edgar to the floor, grinding out a unanimous decision victory. Edgar, who had rattled off eight straight wins to open his MMA career prior to the loss, said revenge was always in the back of his mind, but he had no doubt the two would again cross paths.

“Coming from wrestling, losses are part of your career and everything,” says Edgar. “You learn to kind of get through them. But seeing that was my only loss, it definitely bothered me. I just had that feeling if I keep winning and he keeps winning, eventually we’re going to fight again. I just worried about making sure I was staying successful, trying to put myself in a position to fight him again.”

And while losing is never fun, especially in MMA, Edgar says the result forced him to take a long, hard look at his development plan. If he was going to be a champion, he had to train like one.

“The first meeting we had, I was pretty much just wrestling,” Edgar says. “And I really didn’t have a team behind me. I was training with the team I originally started with. They weren’t the most technical guys. They got me where I needed to be at the time, but I needed something extra. 

“I remember preparing for that first fight, and even before the fight was going on, I was trying to set up training by text messages the night before. I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t how a professional fighter should be preparing for a fight.’ So I knew I needed to find a team, and I did just that. I found Ricardo Almeida and the Renzo Gracie team. 

“That Gray fight, the first one, was an eye-opener. You tend to learn a lot from losses.”

The results of Edgar’s training changes were immediately evident, and he rebounded just three months later with a decision win over gritty veteran Hermes Franca. That was followed by a victory over former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk. Edgar says it was that victory that gave him the confidence to vault to the top of the lightweight division.

“After the Sean Sherk fight, I realized I had what it takes to be a champion,” Edgar says. “He was a former champion, himself, and I was able to win. He was a big, strong wrestler, kind of like Gray, the guy I had lost to a couple of fights before. They were saying, ‘You’re too small for the weight class. You can’t beat a bigger wrestler than you.’ Sherk was kind of that guy, and I was able to get through that. 

“Beating a former champion definitely gave me the confidence to say, ‘You know what? I just beat a former champion. There’s no reason I can’t be champion, myself.’”

It wouldn’t take long for him to get his shot. A December 2009 win over Matt Veach earned Edgar a shot at a man many considered unbeatable at the time: BJ Penn. Edgar made good on his opportunity, soundly beating ‘The Prodigy’ for 25 minutes to claim the UFC’s 155lb title. An immediate rematch yielded the same result.

It was an incredible accomplishment. After all, despite being labeled “too small for lightweight” by many MMA observers, Edgar had soundly defeated (twice) a man who once held gold in the UFC’s 170lb division. Nevertheless, the always-humble Edgar refuses to believe he stole any of Penn’s mojo.

“I don’t think I’m on BJ’s level, popularity-wise,” Edgar acknowledges. “He’s done a lot. Obviously, he’s held belts in two weight classes. He’s been around for over 10 years.” And of course, despite the impressive performances, there was still the lingering asterisk Edgar had to address. Maynard was waiting in the background. The score would be settled at UFC 126 – or so everyone thought. 

When Edgar and Maynard faced off for a second time, there was little fanfare behind the meeting. In fairness, the first match-up wasn’t one of the most memorable contests in UFC history and at times more resembled a wrestling match than an MMA bout. The second meeting (a Fighters Only 2011 World MMA Awards nominee for ‘Fight of the Year’) would stand in stark contrast.

Maynard assaulted Edgar from the opening bell, dropping the champ multiple times in the opening round. Edgar’s corner contemplated stopping the fight as Maynard unleashed haymaker after haymaker. But somehow, the champion not only fought through the first stanza beatdown, he actually came back to win three of the final four rounds, somehow salvaging a majority draw in the process.

Edgar admits he still doesn’t know exactly how he found the courage, strength, and intestinal fortitude to battle his way back to retain his title. “I had cobwebs throughout the whole fight, so it wasn’t super-clear to me,” he recalls. “But I was able to bounce back really good in the second round, I believe. The second round might have been my best round that whole fight, especially after taking that punishment in the first. I was proud of that.

“I was pretty rocked, and I still landed some shots. I think that slowed him down, which helped me get through that round.”

Edgar and Maynard weren’t initially expected to meet for a third time. At UFC 126’s post-event press conference, UFC executives stated that despite the draw result, incoming WEC champ Anthony Pettis would get the next crack at the UFC strap. But UFC president Dana White changed his mind just hours later, and the rematch was on. Edgar would be given one more chance to get past his nemesis.

And he did exactly that. In a freakish carbon-copy repeat of their second meeting, it was Maynard who got out to the early start, once more earning a 10-8 opening round over the champ – on at least one judges’ scorecard. But it was Edgar who turned up the heat as the action progressed, and a flurry of punches saw Maynard beaten for the first time as a professional.

“Going through the trouble in the second fight definitely gave me confidence in the third fight,” Edgar says. “It’s like, ‘Alright, I was here before, and I came back pretty strong. There’s no reason I can’t do it again.’ Obviously, I try to improve between each camp. I tried to improve between the second and the third fight.”

In truth, it may very well be the best trilogy in MMA history. Fedor Emelianenko vs Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Chuck Liddell vs Randy Couture and Wanderlei Silva vs Quinton Jackson were all special series, but none provided the thrill of two legendary ‘Fight of the Year’ candidates. For his part, Edgar realizes what a special run of match-ups it was, but he also hopes his career isn’t defined by his work against Maynard.

“I definitely know that fights like that in a series like that builds your legacy,” Edgar acknowledges. “I understand that, but I don’t try to dwell on it because I still have a long career ahead of me. I don’t want this to be my best moment.”

Edgar has already accomplished much in a relatively short career, but at just 30 years old, he’s far from done. UFC boss White has teased a potential move to 145lb for Edgar, who could then attempt to become just the third man in UFC history (alongside Randy Couture and Penn) to hold UFC belts in two different weight divisions. 

Current featherweight champ José Aldo is scheduled to defend his belt against Chad Mendes in January. And while Aldo would seem to present the more marketable matchup, Edgar isn’t worried as much about names as he is simply proving his worth as a fighter.

“I’d like to defend my belt, but moving down to featherweight definitely interests me; I’m not going to lie,” Edgar says. “I can make the weight. I don’t think it would be too tough. I haven’t cut weight in a while, but it wouldn’t be that much weight to cut. I just like the whole idea of possibly being a champion in two different weight classes. Only two other guys did that, so it’s definitely intriguing.

“Obviously, Aldo is on a tear, and a lot of people consider him one of the best pound-for-pound guys too. To challenge myself against somebody like that would be intriguing, as well. It’s nice to be in a position where I could possibly do that. In the future, you never know.”

Of course, Edgar can still establish a bit of UFC history even if he decides to stay at lightweight. After all, there have been just four 155lb champions, and Penn has the most successful defenses of the belt with three wins before relinquishing his title. Edgar admits he isn’t sure exactly how his career will progress but thinks winning will sort out the details.

“I don’t really pay attention to records and stuff like that, but I guess if you keep winning, it takes care of stuff like that – and there’s more cool records they can put in the UFC programs,” he adds, with a chuckle.

Edgar’s ascension to the top of the UFC’s lightweight division once seemed improbable. But after remarkable performances against proven contender Maynard and future Hall of Famer Penn, he now seems poised to command a lengthy reign. As a champion of one of the most competitive divisions in the sport, there will be no shortage of future challengers. That said, Edgar believes his best is yet to come.

“My goal right now is just to become the best mixed martial artist I can be,” he adds resolutely. “I still feel like I’ve got a long way to go. My boxing can get a lot better. My jiu-jitsu can get better. I even think that, even though I wrestled my whole life, that’s getting better for MMA. I just want to see how far I can take it and how much better I can get in all these areas.”

Blue-collar upbringing

A blue-collar New Jersey native, Frankie Edgar still lives in his hometown of Toms River. He still helps coach the wrestling team at nearby Rutgers University. And he still maintains a relatively quiet life, preferring to split his time between gym and home rather than enjoying the more social fruits of his labor.

“I’m definitely making more money than I ever have, which is always a plus,” says the UFC lightweight champion. “I’m starting to get that championship money. Other than that, nothing has really changed, except I definitely get noticed a lot more. The love from the fans has been great. 

“That’s something I’ve definitely noticed. It seems like after every fight more and more fans notice me, which is always nice. But other than that, I’m a family guy. I don’t do much. I’m pretty much home with my family when I’m not training.

“I kind of keep the same people around me I’ve had since day one. They treat me the same. My friends treat me the same. My family definitely keeps me grounded. But I’m not one to really be a flashy dude, anyway. For me, it’s easy to stay the same guy.

“Staying humble is easy because of the influences from my coaches and my teammates, and obviously the way I was raised, as well. My father is a working-class dude. He owns his own plumbing company. I’ve seen him work hard every day. He’s still working hard, getting up at 5am every day to go to work. That’s just what was instilled in me at a young age. Being the Jersey, blue-collar-type person, it’s kind of fitting.”

Jersey Shore

While Frankie Edgar remains true to his blue-collar roots, his status as UFC champion has opened more than a few new doors. Perhaps most surprising to some is an apparent budding friendship with some of the cast members of MTV’s infamous reality series Jersey Shore.

As a New Jersey native, Edgar believes an assumed connection with the fist-bumping party-rockers is inevitable, but he insists his friendship with Jennifer ‘JWoww’ Farley isn’t proof the champ has gone Hollywood.

“Well, I automatically get connected to them just because I am from the Jersey shore,” Edgar says. “But I’m friendly with JWoww, and the reason that came about is because her boyfriend Roger. I actually trained him for about a year. I used to teach an informal MMA and jiu-jitsu class, and he used to come to that. We were friends before that. He’s from Toms River, my town. We became buddies, and then he started dating her, and my wife and her became friendly as well.”

So Edgar’s look may now include tailored suits and high-profile friends in addition to his championship belt, but he’s not letting the attention bring about any sort of life change. Sure, he’s a little more recognizable than he once was, but life as the champ hasn’t changed Edgar’s private profile.

“I’m a private guy when I’m home, but when I’m out and about, this is what I chose to do,” Edgar says. “I guess you’d say I’m somewhat of a public figure. I mean, it depends where you’re at. If I’m in my town, I grew up here, and everybody knows because I’m from around here. If you’re in New York City, very few people might know you. But if you’re at the UFC fights, everybody is going to know you because of the fan base. It’s different in different places.”

Of course, championship wins do mean championship money. But Edgar remains sensible, even in his splurges. “I got one thing,” he admits. “After my second fight with BJ, I bought a BMW M5 – a used one.” 

A fine vehicle, to be sure – but it hardly compares to the new Bentley UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones recently scored, right? With a laugh, he adds: “I’m not making that much money, yet! But I got my used M5, which is my little toy.”