Frankie Edgar may need to channel his inner "Rocky" yet again as he prepares to defend his lightweight championship against Benson Henderson at UFC 144 on Saturday in Saitama, Japan.
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The blockbuster seven-fight pay-per-view card, preceded by live preliminary action on FX, also features the Japanese homecomings of Pride veterans Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Mark Hunt in bouts against Ryan Bader and Cheick Kongo, respectively, plus several key fights featuring some of Asia’s preeminent talent.
Here’s a full breakdown:
Main bouts (on pay-per-view):
Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) vs. Benson Henderson (15-2)
The undisputed UFC lightweight champion Edgar is finally faced with a new challenge when he takes on the former WEC king Henderson.
Edgar, 30, has spent the better part of two years training for familiar opponents in Gray Maynard and B.J. Penn. After decisive victories, the Renzo Gracie-trained New Jersey native is now moving on to new challenges in the increasingly deep 155-pound division.
Heading into his title shot against then-champion Penn at UFC 112 in April 2010, Edgar was a massive underdog. The speedy 5-foot-6 former NCAA Division I wrestler took the Hawaiian legend to the limit, emptying his gas tank as the fight entered championship rounds. The end result was somewhat controversial as Edgar outpointed Penn via razor-thin decision to claim the title, but the subsequent rematch was a largely one-sided affair.
Despite prevailing in their first go-around, Edgar once again entered the fight as an underdog. Amid widespread criticism about his undersized frame for the lightweight division, Edgar soundly defeated Penn in their August 2010 rematch, earning a unanimous shutout on all scorecards.
Following successive triumphs over a man still widely regarded as the best lightweight in history, Edgar’s sights were set on redemption against his lone conqueror Maynard, who earned a unanimous decision in their April 2008 encounter. Unsurprisingly, Edgar entered the fight with underdog status yet again.
Their second fight took place at UFC 125 in January 2011 with Maynard nearly finishing Edgar in the first round, one of the most one-sided rounds in mixed martial arts history. But the champion battled through adversity, winning the majority of the remaining rounds to eke out a draw.
The inconclusive result led to a trilogy clash at UFC 136 this past October. Amazingly, the fight was mirroring their second meeting as Maynard had Edgar on the verge of being finished in the first round. Once again, the resilient champion fought back before eventually putting away Maynard with a resounding fourth-round knockout.
After defying the odds time and time again, linemakers are hesitant to assign Edgar the underdog status as he prepares to defend his title for the fourth time.
Prior to dethroning Penn for the title, Edgar had already earned wins over some of the lightweight division’s toughest foes, including Sean Sherk, Spencer Fisher, Mark Bocek and Jim Miller.
Edgar continues to hone his skills, sharpening his muay thai under Kru Phil Nurse, his wrestling under Steve Rivera, his boxing under Mark Henry and his submission game under Gracie and Ricardo Almeida. The standout wrestler is now a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with impeccable timing, deceptive strength and frustrating footwork.
Henderson, 28, entered the UFC in 2011 after being dethroned in his final WEC title fight, losing a unanimous decision to Anthony Pettis after succumbing to the "Showtime" flying kick off the cage, which continues to be replayed on highlight reels.
The Colorado native has taken the UFC by storm since his debut, rattling off a string of impressive decisions over top title contenders Bocek, Miller and Clay Guida.
The former NAIA All-American wrestler, a product of the MMA Lab in Arizona, possesses a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt under John Crouch, a Royce Gracie-trained black belt.
The athletically gifted southpaw uses his blend of wrestling and submissions to control fights, while mixing in a dynamic striking attack. A taekwondo black belt, Henderson utilizes unorthodox offense to throw opponents off their game.
During his WEC stint, Henderson defeated Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner, Shane Roller and Anthony Njokuani, establishing himself as a legitimate world-ranked lightweight.
Both Miller and Guida were being groomed for probable title shots, but Henderson’s dominant performances have changed the landscape of the division. The well-rounded challenger performs exceptionally well against other wrestlers and his ability to dictate where a fight plays out could be a valuable asset against the nimble titleholder Edgar.
Edgar and Henderson are evenly matched and they should deliver a frenzied five-round fray in front of the respectful Japanese audience.
Henderson’s primary weapon could be his takedown. A significant size and strength advantage will allow him to control the champion in close quarters. Conversely, Edgar will need to establish his distance and use his movement to baffle the challenger, dashing in and out of range while throwing tactical combinations.
The fighter who gets his hand raised at the end of 25 minutes likely will be the one who better executes his game plan.
Edgar has demonstrated the heart and skill of a champion in his past appearances, and he will need this momentum to carry on into Japan’s Saitama Super Arena if he hopes to come out on top.
Henderson will have his moments, threatening the champion and giving him fits with takedowns, submission attempts and awkward counters. However, Edgar’s output and stifling movement should pay off after five evenly matched frames as judges narrowly side with him in a tight decision.