(Edgar upended Penn at UFC 112. Photo by Paul Thatcher.)
Perception is reality and the fight game is full of harsh reality. UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar and the man he took the belt from, B.J. Penn, know it all too well going into their rematch at UFC 118 at the TD Garden in Boston, Mass.
Edgar defied five-to-one odds at UFC 112: Invincible, an event named in part to honor Penn’s divisional dominance, to earn a unanimous decision over “The Prodigy.” However, observers felt close margins on the scorecards should have gone the other way and the sentiment was strong enough to prompt an immediate rematch and the fighters agreed to square off again as early as the Tuesday following the bout. Despite wearing the title into the second installment, Edgar (13-1, 7-1 UFC) still fields questions about whether or not he’s better suited for 145-pounds and carries a three-to-one underdog tag.
“Some people are putting Frankie in as the underdog. That’s exactly how I feel. I’m the underdog,” said Penn. “I’m the guy that doesn’t want to let the sport pass him by. I want to stay at the forefront of this whole thing.”
Penn was adamant perceptions no one else could hold his crown were misguided. “First of all, no one is untouchable and if they are, they just haven’t run into that guy,” he said. Contemplating whether or not Edgar, who became the first lightweight to beat Penn since Jens Pulver in 2002, was the challenge he’d been waiting for as a champion firmly fixed to his throne, the Hawaiian tore into the hype that comes with the sport’s top spot.
“When you hear people say you’re the greatest lightweight of all-time and this and this and that, its bullshit. It’s not real. It’s fake. Being the champ is fake, all that is all fake,” said the 31-year-old. “You just go out there, you gotta keep training, keeping training as hard as you can, keep winning fights. The only thing that’s real is the fight. Everything else is fake.”
(Penn landed a few counter punches at UFC 112. Photo by Paul Thatcher.)
Edgar commented the belt means a lot to him because “it’s the greatest achievement you can achieve in our sport is to be the world champ for the best organization in the world,” yet it has little bearing on the fight.
“I try not to think about the title. It’s another fight. It’s another great challenge ahead of me and that’s how I approach it,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s a totally new fight for me whether it’s a title defense or new fight or old fight–don’t matter—it’s all the same to me.”
Edgar called Penn a legend and still the greatest of all-time and later revealed he didn’t allow himself to buy into Penn’s mythical stature. In other words, Edgar knew—and perhaps still knows—what Penn does: only the fight is real.
“I really try not to. It’s hard sometimes. You really try not to put a face on somebody,” he said. “It’s a style of fighting. If I can go into every fight like that, it definitely takes the mental part out of it.”
Penn, one of two multi-division titleholders in UFC’s history (Randy Couture is the other), credited Edgar’s camp for a good game plan and Edgar himself for executing it. “That’s always a difficult thing to go against,” said the former UFC Welterweight Champion.
“I sit back and I look at my record and I can’t believe that I have six losses. It just blows me away,” he continued. “Every time I do get a loss, you take a different path. You get back on the right journey of why you started this thing in the first place. Its a journey of never ending–you never stop learning.”
Penn asserted losing to the father of two was a “blessing.” If he won, nothing would have changed in his arsenal. But now, he “can keep evolving and not stay there and become extinct.”
For Edgar, the fight is about establishing himself as a champion, beating one of the best in the world again and seizing respect that oddly eludes him. He feels he’s iron and so is Penn, sharpening each others game to dangerous levels.
Penn, like Edgar, feels he’s in his prime. But as a fighter constantly criticized for wasting prodigious potential, the goal is simply to give it a real go regardless of how hype shifts expectations and betting lines.
“I think Frankie was a good wake up call for me. I’m 31-years-old. I’ve got tons of experience. I think this is it,” said Penn. “Of course I’m not looking past Frankie, but I think I’m going on a run right here. I’m gonna try to be as consistent as I can after this.”