All In The Family
Fresh off a 13-hour flight from UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, a two hour wait at U.S. Customs, and another two-and-a-half-hour ride home, newly minted UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie “The Answer” Edgar was greeted by a phalanx of fans, police officers, and fire trucks for an impromptu parade down Route37 toward Seaside Heights. Edgar spent many high school nights beating up guys like you see on MTV’s Jersey Shore on the seedy boardwalk there.
It wasn’t exactly a ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Stars like the Yankees get after a World Series win, but it was a great gesture by the people Edgar cares most about—his family and the boys he’s called his homies since high school.
Consider that Edgar’s 19-year-old sister, Gina, has never missed one of her brother’s wrestling matches or fights in her entire life. Or that his eight-month pregnant wife Renee left her toddler son Francesco behind with her mother and took the trip to Abu Dhabi to witness her husband realize their destiny. Never mind the fact that this included shimmying into a pregnancy body compression stocking that squeezed her and her rambunctious unborn baby Santino, who kicked her uterus for 26 hours to and from the United Arab Emirates, without one single complaint. Or that Edgar’s mother Mary and father Frank Annese drop everything when their son competes and most likely have a “Frankie Fund” that they put money into for just such occasions.
This is Edgar’s world, and when you meet the people in it, it’s a little easier to understand why he’s so humble, so down to earth, and so freaking tough.
Preparation Meets Opportunity
We’re poolside at the Yas Rotana Hotelin Abu Dhabi, about a half-mile down the road from Ferrari World and Concert Arena, the place where UFC 112 will take place a few days from now.
Edgar is jogging with long time wrestling coach Steve Rivera and boxing coach Mark Henry. Sparring partner Chris Liguori and Muay Thai coach Phil Nurse are lounging on towels, while jiu-jitsu coach and fellow UFC fighter Ricardo Almeida is underwater, holding his breath.
We clocked him at five minutes and 30 seconds. No shit.
“It’s always got to be some kind of competition,” says Rivera as the rest of FRANKIE EDGAR the crew arrives poolside.
The odd thing for me about meeting this crew, first in Las Vegas and then getting to know them in New York City where I made Edgar my fight analyst on FOX Fight Game, and now drinking Coronas with them half-way around the world, is that we all grew up in the same place—Jersey. It’s a little too much six degrees of separation.
Edgar is an assistant wrestling coach for Rutgers, where coach Scott Goodale has nothing but praise for the new UFC Champion.
“I have been in this sport a long time and there is nobody that I have seen that works harder than Frankie,” says Goodaleto The Daily Targum, the campus paper at Rutgers. “I’m sure our guys try to take something from each of us as coaches, but if you can take one thing away from this staff at Rutgers, I would like [them] to take Edgar’s mindset. If you can do that, you are going to win a lot of matches.”
It’s a bit surreal for me, particularly now that most people today only know the Jersey Shore from a cheesy TV show on MTV. It’s easier to remember people called “The Situation” and “Snookie” than it is to remember that Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and now Frankie Edgar are all from more or less the same place.
As Springsteen writes in a lot of his music, the Jersey Shore is a blue-collar area where people emigrated with their young families to make a better life for themselves. Most of our parents are from places like Jersey City, Brooklyn, and Newark, who abandoned those dilapidating cities for greener grass and the beaches “down the shore” a few decades ago. But as they say, you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy, and the people here are scrappy.
Just like Frankie Edgar.
After he dismantled Sean Sherk, people stopped questioning whether Edgar, who walks around at 160 pounds, even belonged at lightweight. Pundits, fighters, even UFC matchmaker Joe Silva thought Edgar would be better served at featherweight, taking on the likes of Jose Aldo and Urijah Faber in the WEC.
But after a lopsided unanimous decision where Frankie outclassed Sherk, a former UFC Champion and a number-one contender at the time, the tide changed in Edgar’s favor.
“Screw those [expletive],” Silva said after Edgar beat Penn at UFC 112, referring to all the bloggers and so-called experts who were harping on Silva and White for picking Edgar over Gray Maynard for the title shot.
Silva knew deep down that Edgar would bring the fight to Penn, and if there’s one thing everyone can agree on (even if they don’t agree with the scoring and the outcome of the bout), it’s that Edgar made BJ fight his fight. He took BJ out of his game and put on a perfect stick-and move performance, and along the way became the only lightweight to ever take Penn down.
For Edgar though, the naysayers and non-believers only add fuel to his fire. “The more someone tells me I can’t do something, the more I want to prove I can,” Edgar says.
Living on a Prayer
Bon Jovi wrote about Tommy and Gina, a fictional New Jersey couple making sacrifices for love in their mega-hit Living On A Prayer from their 1986 Slippery When Wet album, and it’s easy to see Frankie and Renee in the song.
They’re high school sweethearts who’ve known each other since kindergarten. Renee may be the only person on the face of the planet that scares the shit out of Edgar. As the mother of his two boys, Renee knows that her sons will be tough as nails, and she’s got the not-so-envious job of balancing the future family of fighters.
“Frankie’s got little Frankie throwing punches already,” she says. “If the kid falls down, Frankie tells him to get up. He’s already tough.”
In Edgar’s first fight, a smoker in Pete Storm’s Underground Combat League in New York City, Renee witnessed her husband headbutt his way to victory over a game opponent who everyone thought would crush him.
Edgar went on to fight in Ring of Combat in Atlantic City and soon got the call to join the big leagues. For Edgar, it was an opportunity he would not take lightly.
“It was a dream come true at the time,” he says. “It was my shot to prove I belonged there.”
Edgar worked as a plumber in his father’s company while making his way up the UFC ranks. First, it was a win over Tyson Griffin. Then came names like Spencer Fischer, Sherk, and Gray Maynard, who gave Frankie his one loss on his otherwise perfect record.
“He was flat that night,” says Mr. Annese, while sipping a Captain and diet by the pool at the Yas Rotana. Annese blames the thin air in Denver, where the fight took place, for his son’s uncharacteristic performance.
“It wasn’t the altitude,” Edgar says in a throw-away delivery that spoke volumes to those who know him. In those four words, Edgar conveyed that: 1) dad was talking out of school. 2) “I don’t want to talk about it.”
With that message received loud and clear, the subject quickly changes to who wants another Corona on Mr. Annese’s tab.
Everything, by the way, for anyone in the “family,” which includes corner men, trainers, sparring partners, Gina’s boyfriend, anyone in the crew, is always on Mr. Annese’s tab.
That’s how he rolls and don’t even try to pay, because he’ll take that as an insult. One time I handed money across the dinner table at a Portuguese restaurant in Newark, NJ, before UFC 111, and he gave me a look that sent chills down my spine. I put my money away.
Conversely, however, if you’re not in the family, at least fake a reach to your wallet, lest you’ll be labeled a cheap you know-what.
Edgar understands and appreciates the level of support he receives from his family.
In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan after defeating Penn, Edgar thanked his family for “putting up with his moods,” and later at the press conference expressed what it meant to have his family with him in Abu Dhabi.
“They’ve been with me all the way through, so it’s only fitting they’re here with me now,” he said. “I share everything with them, it’s not just my belt, it’s our belt.”
Despite his son’s achievement infighting, Mr. Annese still wants Edgar to one day take over the plumbing business he’s worked so hard to achieve, but right now “busting up toilets in old schools” is the furthest thing from Edgar’s mind.
“I truly am living the dream,” Edgar told FIGHT! in the April issue. “I love what I do. I don’t work for a living. I make a living training and competing. I couldn’t ask for a better job,” he said.
A New Gameplan
As I’ve gotten to know Edgar over the past year, I have witnessed several life changing moments, including winning the belt and the day he signed with GSP’s manager, Shari Spencer, in the lobby of a New York City high rise where Spencer has an apartment.
Edgar believed he had been mismanaged by his previous representation, and he reached out to Spencer through a mutual acquaintance.
Spencer is widely credited for helping shape St-Pierre’s mainstream marketability, first with Creative Artists Agency (which boasts Derek Jeter and other mega-star athletes among its clients), then a first-of-its-kind marketing campaign with Gatorade, and most recently, a year’s long endorsement deal with sports apparel company Under Armour.
After UFC 112, Spencer finds herself managing not one, but two UFC champions.
“Now the real work begins,” says Spencer, who told Edgar backstage at Concert Arena that his life is about to get real busy. Indeed, the interview requests had already started pouring in even before Edgar had his post-fight checkup by the UFC doctors.
“I started feeling the stress last week,” said Spencer. “I had a feeling, and I knew things were about to be different.”
For Edgar, it’s reassuring to know that his manager has been here before and probably forgot more about managing a champ than most others will ever learn.
After winning the belt, which needs a few more holes notched in it to even fit the natural lightweight, the mood was jubilant in his trailer.
When we walked in, BJJ legend Renzo Gracie, who earlier in the night lost via TKO to Matt Hughes, was lying on a mat still recuperating. His beautiful wife Christina and their three children were by his side. Renzo, making his UFC debut at age 43, showed his age that night, and after running out of gas in the third round, succumbed to a barrage of punches from Hughes
While Sakuraba was once the best known“Gracie Killer,” today Matt Hughes lays claim to that title. Hughes beat UFC legend Royce Gracie at UFC 60,and now Renzo at UFC 112.
Edgar makes a beeline over to Renzo and bends down to hug him.
“Congratulations champ,” Renzo says in his Brazilian-English accent. Edgar beams. No matter what happened tonight, Renzo is like a deity in this group, and the respect heen joys from anyone who knows anything about MMA will not dissipate with a loss inside the Octagon.
As the entourage enters, there is so much excitement that it’s hard to make out what anyone is saying. Phil Nurse and Chris Liguori are hugging; Rivera is high fiving with the “Witch Doctor” Steve Friend, who serves as Edgar’s masseuse and overall holistic guru; and Shari Spencer is talking with Joe Silva.
I corner Mark Henry and ask about tonight’s game plan.
“After the Maynard loss, Frankie changed his MMA life,”says Henry. “He started going to Ricardo Almeida regularly, he focused on his boxing, maintained his wrestling, and now with Phil Nurse clicking effortlessly with the camp, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Henry went on to discuss the game plan, and suddenly Edgar, who seemingly was too busy hearing the accolades from his camp to pay any attention to us over in the corner, suddenly turned his head toward our direction
“Hey, hey,” he said in that blue-collar tone of voice. “Don’t giveaway the game plan.”
“I won’t,” says Henry.
Every time I hear Edgar assert himself, he reminds me of one of the opening scenes in Raging Bull, where Robert De Niro—as Jake LaMotta—tells his wife, “Don’t overcook my steak. It defeats the purpose.” Edgar’s got that same tough guy, rough-around-the edgestone to his voice.
In fact, I tell Edgar his next step in life will be Hollywood, not plumbing. “We’ll see,” he says.
Back in the trailer, wrestling coach Steve Rivera is so happy, you would think he just won the belt and not his star pupil.
“We’ve been through many peaks and valleys,” he says. “And this is the apex of those peaks. I’m so happy right now that I’m at a loss for words.”
About 30 minutes later, Rivera begins to panic, as he realizes he has Edgar’s checks for the night, and he can’t find them in his backpack. Eventually he finds the envelopes and hastily hands them over to Renee.
“I don’t want to be the one to lose the money,” says Rivera, relieved to let Renee take over that responsibility.
Back in America, and a day or so after fulfilling his dream to be the champion, reality kicks in for Edgar, and the Monday morning quarterbacking begins.
As Edgar visits a Toms River hospital to be treated for a Staph infection in his leg, bloggers, fans, and MMA journalists begin the debate as to whether the judging and scoring was accurate.
USA Today reports that Fight Metric scored the bout in Penn’s favor with a 49-47 score. “By Fight Metric’s count, Penn landed a greater number of significant strikes than Edgar in each of the first three rounds,” wrote Fighting Stances blogger Sergio Non.
Compu Strike had Edgar edging Penn by a score of 91-80, but had Penn landing 74 “power strikes” to Edgar’s 72.
But no matter how close the fight was, it was judge Doug Crosby’s score of 50-45 for Edgar that drew the ire of MMA purists and fans, and of course, BJ Penn’s hardcore and wide fan base.
Crosby wrote on the MMA Underground forum after returning home to a bunch of BJ Penn fan boys chanting “50-45” outside his apartment building.
“It is a judge’s obligation to interpret the fight and use the criteria as guidelines. But a fight is an observed event that does require interpretation, observation, and wisdom … And, in my considered opinion, Edgar dictated the tone of the fight, successfully implemented and executed a strategy, landed better strikes, and basically outworked Penn. I re-watched the fight in my hotel in Abu Dhabi and saw nothing that would influence me to score it any differently.”
And that is an interpretation by a ringside observer with an understanding and appreciation of MMA, who has judged hundreds of fights.
Crosby isn’t the only one taking the criticism personally. Edgar, who now faces an immediate rematch with Penn, believes he has to prove himself all over again.
“To me, you’re proving yourself every time you fight,“ says Edgar. “In this situation, the chance to prove myself against someone like BJ for the second time would be huge.”
Whatever the outcome of the next fight, Frankie Edgar is the current UFC Lightweight Champion, and for the people who always believed in him, nothing can ever take that away.
It’s fitting somehow, that for the man who is too small for the division he’s champion of, for a guy who has had to fight, literally, for everything he’s achieved, that his ultimate victory is clouded with controversy.
In a way, Frankie Edgar will always be the underdog, even as hedefends his belt. And that’s an okay place for him to be.