Frankie Edgar proved to the world on Saturday night that his shocking upset win over BJ Penn in Abu Dhabi was not a fluke. There was no controversy this time around. No room for excuses. None of that. Edgar outclassed Penn in every facet of the game. I’m not so certain that if the pair fought 10 times that the outcome would be any different.
While nobody expected Edgar to overwhelm the pound-for-pound great, it became very clear early in the first round that Penn was frustrated with his foe’s speed and movement, just like he was in the first fight. One has to assume that Penn properly prepared for the rematch. There is no question that he was highly motivated to exact revenge. So, the question most are probably wondering in the days following the fight is what went wrong?
The answer is nothing went wrong. Styles make fights, and Penn simply has no answer for a guy with comfortable speed and footwork advantages who makes him chase. That hole in Penn’s game wasn’t exposed until Edgar came along and blasted a spotlight on it. Now that we can see it, the results of the two bouts with Edgar make a lot of sense.
In fairness to Penn, all fighters have holes in their game. Edgar’s hole is dealing with bigger, stronger wrestlers, as we saw when he faced Gray Maynard back in April 2008. Thus, while a guy like Maynard may be tailor made to make Penn look good, he will likely experience a lot of success against Edgar when the two men fight again.
The fact that Edgar is the prototypical fighter to defeat Penn and Penn is the probably the prototypical fighter to beat Maynard does not, in any way, suggest that Edgar will defeat Maynard. The fight game doesn’t work that way, which is why it is always so much fun to watch.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR PENN?
Penn said after the loss to Edgar that he was going to take his time and figure out what he wants to do next – “no quick decisions,” was his exact quote. I have no idea what direction Penn will opt to take his career in from this point forward, but the choice seems pretty obvious to me, at least. He should stay the course of trying to become the first man to simultaneously hold titles in two UFC weight classes. And the best way to do that is to remain at lightweight.
A return to welterweight, which is where he won his very first UFC championship, is too rocky of a road when trying to regain his aura as one of the best fighters in the world, pound for pound. Despite the fact that Penn won his first UFC championship by defeating long-time incumbent welterweight champion Matt Hughes, that remains his only UFC win in the division against three losses. Sure, I thought that Penn deserved the judges’ decision in his first fight against Georges St-Pierre, but the rematch wasn’t competitive at all.
Four fights against two of the best welterweights in history isn’t exactly a statistically significant sample. Yet, 1-3 is still 1-3.
It seems to me that a return to welterweight would be filled with far more ups and downs than staying at lightweight. Sure, guys should challenge themselves. But Penn would be better served focusing on putting together another dominant run at lightweight with the goal of recapturing the title if and when Edgar gets dethroned by one of the many contenders lining up to face him. In the meantime, Penn can use bouts against the litany of big name little guys to refine his game, rebuild his aura as a pound-for-pound great and, if a guy who matches up well with Penn happens to win the 170-lb title, he should absolutely try to convince UFC President Dana White for another crack at welterweight glory.
It may make perfect sense for Penn to remain focused on the lightweight division, but it is impossible to predict what the enigma known as “The Prodigy” will do next.
TONEY LEARNS THE HARD WAY
James Toney is one of the best boxers of his generation. He is not a very good mixed martial artist.
The problem with Toney’s effort against Randy Couture is that he allowed nerves and doubt to get in the way of possible success. It was clear that Toney was extremely nervous as he walked to the Octagon. He had that deer in the headlights look that is normally reserved for fight novices, not a legend of fistic combat (oh wait, this wasn’t a boxing match, it was a mixed martial arts bout where Toney is, indeed, a novice). That look did not change during Couture’s cage walk or when the fighters stood only a few feet apart for the final in-ring instructions.
Toney was completely out of his element on Saturday night, and he knew it. His mouth had written a whole heap of checks that his rear end could not cash. Still, one had to think that Toney would come out with guns blazing. He would surely throw a haymaker the moment Couture stepped within reach. Landing a lone bomb before Couture changed levels and took the fight to the ground was his only chance at winning. There were moments where “Lights Out” could have uncorked a bomb – whether it would have landed is a different story. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. Toney instead stood frozen in the center of the ring as Couture circled and feinted. Worse yet, he stood there with most of his weight on his front foot, which made him completely susceptible to being taken down.
Self-doubt and nerves led to indecision. Indecision led to hesitation. And he who hesitates inside the Octagon loses more times than not.
Toney, of course, lost on Saturday night.
Now, everyone must let go of this whole “boxing versus MMA” thing. Couture’s win over Toney doesn’t prove anything. Had Toney knocked out Couture it would have been a case of catching lightning in a bottle and would have similarly proved nothing. Boxing is a component of mixed martial arts, no differently than running is a component of professional football, yet nobody expects Usain Bolt to step off the race track straight into an NFL game next Sunday.
Fans should instead tip their collective hats to Toney in acknowledgement of his courage for even attempting the unthinkable. Maybe we would have something if someone like Kermit Cintron or Miguel Cotto, who are both basically 30 years old, begin cross training now, take a few build up fights over the course of the next two years to further hone their skills and then step into the Octagon. Better yet, if junior welterweight contender Victor Ortiz, who is only 23 years old, made the switch today, maybe we would really get to see what a high level boxer would do once he had three or four years of training under his belt. Toney attempting it at 42 years old with less than a full year of training was downright crazy.
But, alas, Toney has always walked to the beat of his own drummer.
MAYNARD FINALLY EARNS HIS SHOT
After eking out wins by the narrowest of margins in his last two fights, Gray Maynard finally gave the fans the no doubt effort that was needed to officially jump him to the front of the 155-lb challenger line. And he did it against perennial top contender Kenny Florian.
The fact that Maynard-Florian was largely a strategic contest that did not feature much in the way of back-and-forth action is irrelevant. Maynard knew exactly what he needed to do to bring the ever dangerous Florian out of his comfort zone and score the win, and he did it beautifully.
Maynard knows that he has every opportunity to take the title from Edgar when the two meet later this year. He knows that because he completely dominated Edgar back on April 2, 2008, when the pair clashed in Denver, Colorado. Styles make fights, and Maynard’s style is one that gives Edgar fits. Even though both men have improved a ton in the last two years – Edgar has arguably made much bigger jumps in improving his overall game – it is tough to think that he has figured out a way to prevent a bigger, stronger wrestler from taking him to the mat and keeping him there. Enough of that for now. We’ll dive deeply into the breakdown when that fight is officially announced and given a slot on the calendar.
MILLER IS THE FEEL GOOD STORY OF THE NIGHT
I don’t often root for one fighter over another. Nonetheless, it is difficult to believe that anyone outside of John Salter’s friends and family would have rooted against Dan Miller if they knew the things he had been through over the past 18 months.
Entering the cage on the back of three consecutive defeats, there is little doubt that Miller was fighting for his professional life because few fighters in the history of the UFC can point to a four-fight losing streak without also pointing to a terminated fight contract.
Miller has also been dealing with personal issues when it comes to the health of his son. The New Jersey native is a very private guy who doesn’t like to talk about his family’s problems, so this isn’t the proper place to dive into those details, but Franklin McNeil did an excellent job of delicately writing about that subject back in his May 24th article on ESPN.com. Needless to say, those problems add the sort of pressure to a fighter that can be completely debilitating. The fact that Miller has shown the courage and strength to continue fighting – and fighting at a very high level – so that he can continue to provide for his family in the best way possible is nothing short of amazing. And I, for one, was very happy to see him win on Saturday night.
DIAZ CONTINUES TO SHINE
Nate Diaz is becoming more like his older brother Nick every day. If I close my eyes and remember back four or five years ago to Nick’s fights and then immediately watch Nate fight, it is tough to tell the pair apart, aside from the obvious differences in physique and hair.
Stylistically, they are virtually identical. And as Nate continues to mature as a fighter, he is fast becoming the same level of fighter as the brother he so dearly idolizes. Saturday’s win over Marcus Davis is the perfect case in point.
According to just about everyone outside of Northern California, Diaz went into the matchup facing a serious deficit in standup arena compared to his former professional boxing foe. Yet, Diaz completely outclassed Davis on the feet. He peppered him at will with right and left hands, proving that there was a disparity in technique, though he was the one with the superior toolset, not vice versa.
I’m torn when I try to think about whether I prefer Diaz as a lightweight or a welterweight. He seems to be right in between the two divisions.
Diaz certainly has the height and frame for a successful welterweight career. In my opinion, though, he still needs to add another 10 lbs of muscle if he wants to compete with dominant wrestlers like GSP, Kos and Fitch. Similarly, he really needs to add strength and work on his takedowns if he wants to have a shot at beating a monstrous striker like Thiago Alves.
If he opts to return to lightweight, then Diaz needs to figure out a way to maintain his strength and tremendous cardiovascular conditioning while cutting the necessary weight to make the 155-lb limit. In my opinion, he looks much stronger, more explosive and appears to have a deeper gas tank at welterweight.
Whatever the case, this kid is only 25 years old, so he still has a couple of years before he enters his physical or fighting prime. He remains a work in progress, and that is pretty amazing considering the fact that he is already one of the best fighters in the UFC.