Viewers' guide to UFC 144
Frankie Edgar defends his UFC lightweight title on Saturday at UFC 144 in Japan
Both Edgar and challenger Ben Henderson rebounded from highlight-reel ignominy
UFC pay-per-view cards are usually three hours long but this one extends to four
The video clips will follow Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson forever.
Edgar's depicts him getting clipped by a Gray Maynard left hook about a minute-and-a-half into their January 2011 bout, Frankie's second defense of the UFC lightweight title. The punch sends the champion tumbling backward, head over heels. And as he tries to get up from the mat, Maynard charges in with more punches. Down goes Edgar, then up, then down amid another flurry, up and down, again and again. Fists are flying, fans are roaring, the referee hovering but allowing the beating to continue until the horn ends the round.
Henderson's highlight-reel perpetuity is a beatdown less sustained but no less breathtaking. It happened just two weeks earlier during Ben's WEC lightweight title defense against Anthony Pettis. There's just a minute remaining in a back-and-forth fight when the man known as "Showtime" demonstrates why he was given that nickname, charging not toward Henderson but toward the fence, then leaping at it, planting one foot on the chain links and springing off with a spinning kick that nails an unsuspecting Henderson in the head and, with the crowd in stunned upheaval, plants the champ on the canvas. Ninja stuff.
These are dramatic moments. These are damaging moments. These are not defining moments.
Edgar and Henderson, who meet Saturday night in the main event of UFC 144 (10 p.m. ET, PPV) in the suburbs of Tokyo, both went on from those video lowlights to later show what they're about as fighters on their own terms.
Edgar (14-1-1) might not enjoy watching the Maynard mauling, but the sting is lessened by the knowledge that he bounced back from that 10-8 round to earn a draw and keep his belt. And when he defended it again against the same guy in October, it was a déjà-vu experience in the first round, as he once again was caught with a big punch and nearly was finished. But in the end he was the one with the finishing touch, putting an eruption of punches on Gray's anatomy in the fourth round to score a heart-thumping knockout. Now that was a defining moment.
Henderson (15-2) also had to wait a while to show his essence as a fighter. He lost a decision -- and his title -- that night against Pettis, but he's won three straight since the WEC and its athletes were absorbed by the UFC. While Pettis went on to lose to Clay Guida and slip a few notches in the lightweight pecking order, Henderson opened a lot of eyes by beating top contender Jim Miller, then bettering Guida via unmistakable unanimous decision. That earned Henderson the title shot in Saturday's main event, while Pettis will be fighting this weekend, too, but buried deep in the undercard against Joe Lauzon.
But Henderson isn't dwelling on comparisons. For him, the past is the past ... although he can imagine it being his future, too. "I wouldn't say I have unfinished business with Pettis," he said during a conference call with MMA media that was held ostensibly to promote Edgar-Henderson but couldn't avoid delving into Henderson-Pettis as well. "I definitely want to avenge that loss, and I have a soft spot in my heart for that loss. Anthony is a great guy. I can't say enough good things about him. He'll work his way to the top. He had that loss to Clay Guida, and I'm sure I'll see him again. If he ever gets a shot at my belt, let's do it."
"My belt," eh? Edgar will have something to say about that -- although the current owner of the belt didn't say a word about his opponent's cheeky pronouncement during the conference call. He's apparently not allowing anything to bother him, so overjoyed is he to be stepping in the cage with someone not named Maynard. Or, for that matter, B.J. Penn, whom Edgar faced in his two fights prior to the Maynard bouts, winning the title from the Hawaiian back in April 10, then defending it against him four months later.
"It's definitely refreshing to train for someone new. With my injury, I had to train for Gray for quite a long time," said the champ, referencing a rib injury that delayed his Maynard rematch. "It's the excitement of having a new opponent, a fresh easel to paint on."
Both fighters in Saturday night's main event have shown themselves capable of a work of genius. And both have been the blank canvas for someone else's tour de force. There's potential here for a masterpiece.
7: Unbeaten streak (six wins, one draw).
812: Days it will have been since he stepped into the octagon to face someone other than Maynard or Penn (second-round submission of Matt Veach on Dec. 5, 2009).
74: Percent of his opponent's strikes that he's avoided, placing him fourth all-time in the UFC, according to Fight Metric statistics. (So despite what you saw in the first rounds of the two title defenses against Maynard, Edgar is no mere punching bag.)
4: Consecutive decisions, after having just two of his previous 13 fights go the distance.
13: Victories in his last 14 bouts.
4: Bonuses won in his nine WEC/UFC bouts (Fight of the Night three times, Submission of the Night once).
What we should expect: Submissions are not a big part of Edgar's game. He has three in his career, just one since joining the UFC five years and 11 fights ago. That's just as well, because Henderson might be anatomically or spiritually immune to the tapout. No fighter has been in as many dangerous positions and Houdinied his way out. Where the challenger might have vulnerability, however, is in the standup. And that's Edgar's specialty -- not so much the one telling blow, a la "Showtime," but an unrelenting flood that douses your spirit and drains you of your fight. If fleet-footed Frankie dictates distance and pace, he can make it a long night for Henderson.
Why we should care: The obvious answer here is that any fight with a title on the line should matter to us. But beyond that, this bout could lead to bigger things. An Edgar victory would all but clear out the UFC lightweight division, other than a possible defense against the winner of May's Jim Miller-Nate Diaz bout. Then the coast would be clear for a UFC vs. Strikeforce showdown against the latter organization's champ, Gilbert Melendez. For Henderson, a win could lead to a Miller rematch, a date with Diaz or even a shot at redemption against Pettis -- not that Henderson would need any redemption, being a newly minted champion.
"I'm not concerned too much with where the fight goes. It could go anywhere. I want to come out strong on the first round and build form there. That would be the best scenario."
--Edgar, speaking during last week's conference call with MMA media
"Frankie is very fast, and he has a great straight right. My boxing coach thinks he'll have a lot of faith in that straight right after knocking out Maynard. I've got accustomed to that. I've been in a couple of big fights myself and I've had my share of big fight experience."
--Henderson during the conference call
"My last two fights, I lost the first round. I don't want to be down big in the fight against Henderson, so I have to be sure I'm on my A-game right out of the gate."
"I think what I'll be most worried about is losing each round by a hair. Frankie does a great job of doing really good work to win a round, and just enough to win the next round and the next, so at the end of the fight, you're down five rounds to none. You might not be too damaged, but you lost to Frankie Edgar. That's what I'm worried about."
Like old times: When he was with the Pride Fighting Championship, Quinton Jackson competed almost exclusively in Japan. So when the UFC scheduled an event across the Pacific, "Rampage" wanted in. Why not? He won 14 of the 19 bouts he fought over there. But here's what his opponent, Ryan Bader, has to keep telling himself: That was then, this is now. Jackson is just 33, but it's a well-worn 33 that's slowed him down from his glory days. Bader got back on track with a first-round KO of Jason Brilz in November after consecutive losses (Jon Jones, Tito Ortiz) blemished what had been an unbeaten record. Can he take the next step?
Changing direction: Jake Shields had taken welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre the distance, and despite losing a decision that night last April, he was still seen as a top-of-the-food-chain fighter. Until he stepped in against Jake Ellenberger in September and was knocked out in 53 seconds. Now he's aiming to turn things around, but so is his opponent, Yoshihiro Akiyama. The man who calls himself "Sexyama" was 13-1 and in control of Chris Leben back in July 2010 before "The Crippler" turned it around against the fatigued Japanese fighter and choked him out. Akiyama hasn't won since, dropping a decision to Michael Bisping, then getting KO'd by Vitor Belfort. Something has to give.
Reputation computation: Hatsu Hioki signed with the UFC last summer with not much fanfare, because 145-pounders don't tend to cause a stir unless the 145-pounder in question is named José Aldo. But Hioki did bring a pretty sparkly resume with him, as a former champion in the Shooto and Sengoku promotions. Then he made his UFC debut and won a lukewarm split decision over middle-of-the-roader George Roop. If Hioki wishes to be seriously considered as a challenger for Aldo, he'd better look impressive against Bart Palaszewski.
The rest of the stacked deck: UFC pay-per-views usually are three hours, but this one will extend to four. That's seven fights, including the main event. Other than the ones mentioned above, there'll be a heavyweight punchathon between Mark Hunt and Cheick Kongo and a middleweight bout between Yushin Okami and Tim Boetsch. Prior to that, FX will air four preliminary bouts (8 p.m. ET), including two featuring popular Japanese fighters Takanori Gomi and Kid Yamamoto. In all, eight of the evening's dozen bouts feature at least one competitor from the home country.
The UFC is returning to Tokyo for the first time since UFC 29 on Dec. 16, 2000. The main event that night featured someone from the long-ago past named Tito Ortiz, who successfully defended his middleweight title with a submission win over Yuki Kondo. Other items from the time capsule:
Pat Miletich, now a commentator on Strikeforce telecasts, also defended a UFC belt that night, choking out Kemichi Yamamoto to retain his lightweight strap.
Future UFC champs fought in the card's first three bouts. Chuck Liddell opened the evening with a unanimous decision over Jeff Monson, Matt Hughes was submitted in 20 seconds by Dennis Hallman and the Evan Tanner TKO'd Lance Gibson.
That same day, the film Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was released in Japan.
Speaking of "Godzilla," the man who earned that nickname on the baseball diamond, Hideki Matsui, was MVP of the Japan Series after leading the Yomiuri Giants over the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. Matsui's future team, the New York Yankees, were World Series champions, having gone crosstown to beat the Mets.
UFC 29 was the fight promotion's last event before being bought by Zuffa.
Saturday's event outside Tokyo will be the 166th UFC event since that last Japan event.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.
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