Rivalries. Perhaps the most compelling element of any sport. Whether it’s the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celitics, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier or Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, true sporting rivalries have a way of triggering a unique sense of passion and enthusiasm among the masses. This Saturday’s main event, which features the third chapter in the Frankie Edgar against Gray Maynard storybook, isn’t in the same league as those rivalries. In fact, in terms of interest, it isn’t in the same league as some of its MMA counterparts. However, when it is all said and done, the lightweight duo could well have ended up producing the highest quality of action out of any rivalry this sport has ever seen. Should the fight get past the ten-minute mark, Edgar and Maynard would have spent more time battling one another than any other pair in UFC history.
Lightweight title fight: Frankie Edgar (c) vs. Gray Maynard
Their first fight is one of the most misleading 30-27 scorecards you’re ever likely to encounter. That is not to say that it was erroneous, as Maynard could well have won every round, but the fight was far more competitive than the lopsided nature of that decision would have you believe. Little stock can be put in the events of that bout, especially given the dramatic improvements in each fighter’s overall skill sets since, particularly in their striking.. The deciding factor in their 2008 encounter was Maynard’s size and wrestling, which made a crucial difference late in the fight, as a tired Edgar struggled to cope with his opponent’s size, strength, and most importantly, his double leg takedown. What Edgar did show throughout that contest however, was his often overlooked ability to escape and get back to his feet after being taken down. Anytime a fighter comes up against an opponent whose wrestling could ostensibly pose some problems, having the ability to scramble back up is vital.
The most telling aspect of their epic rematch at UFC 125 back in January, was in fact Edgar’s improvement in his wrestling, which was especially glaring given what transpired in their first fight. For the most part, and while neither fighter got particularly out-wrestled, it was Edgar who was getting the better of Maynard in the grappling aspect of the fight. The only round in which “The Bully” was able to muscle his opponent to the ground was the third, where he took Edgar down twice. The first time saw Edgar quickly pop back to his feet, while the second saw “The Answer” lock in a guillotine that coincided with the end of the round. To Maynard’s credit, he too was able to get back to his feet both times he was taken down, but he had far more takedown attempts that were outright stuffed by Edgar.
That, in large part is due to the fact that despite the continuous progress in his MMA game as well as his imposing wrestling, Maynard still struggles to be unpredictable by mixing his striking with his takedowns. His shots tend to be somewhat telegraphed, and he relies on overpowering his opponent to the mat. Edgar on the other hand, excels at utilizing his boxing as well as plenty of feints before suddenly switching levels and driving a double leg through his opponent. It was that particular aspect of Edgar’s game that saw him decisively beat BJ Penn in their rematch at UFC 118, as the champion left Penn confused with constant movement, level changes, and sharp takedowns. Edgar’s ability to secure takedowns away from the cage is also noteworthy, and is another testament to the great improvement in his game. That said, where Maynard outshines Edgar in the wrestling department is when it comes to chain wrestling, as his transitions within a single takedown attempt are that of a seasoned wrestler. Maynard is especially good at transitioning from a single leg takedown to a double leg after pushing his opponent against the cage.
However, Edgar’s footwork and constant movement will make it very hard for Maynard to get a firm grip on him in order to use those wrestling transitions. Footwork has been a key aspect in Edgar’s rise to the top to the lightweight division. Crucially, even when pressed, Edgar never backpedals in a straight line. Instead, he circles out and resets. That, above anything else, is what often makes him the ring general in his fights. Edgar uses that movement to throw kicks from the outside, close the distance, throw combinations, and get out before his opponent gets to counter. It was that approach that gave Penn plenty of fits in both their encounters. Edgar uses his jab and lead left hook to set the tempo of the fight, and the rest of his offense flows naturally. Moreover, he is extremely effective at using them to set up his right cross. Occasionally, Edgar will use a left hook to the body as a distraction before going over the top with his right hand.
The mistake that Edgar did in the opening frame of their January bout was that he was so intent on circling away from his opponent’s power right hand, that he kept running into Maynard’s left hook, which is by far his best punch. The result was almost catastrophic for the champion, as Maynard did everything except separate him from consciousness in that first round. Maynard did a terrific job in close-quarters after having Edgar hurt, as he crushed him with brutal uppercuts that almost put him away. Ironically, the first round worked against Maynard as the fight progressed, as he became a little too trigger-happy, increasingly less composed with his boxing, and kept looking for that fight-ending shot which never came. This time around, he would be wise to stay calm at all times, and use his much-underrated jab and especially, left hook, to dictate proceedings.
The five-round nature of the fight makes me lean towards Edgar, who is the more dynamic and better conditioned fighter. Maynard clearly started to fade in the final stages of their second bout, and while that was due to the tremendous effort he put in trying to end Edgar’s night in the first round, his opponent still looked the fresher of the two fighters despite the clobbering he received early on. Expect Edgar’s speed to be the difference between the two, in a competitive fight that will largely resemble the last four rounds of their classic bout in January.
Official Prediction: Frankie Edgar to defeat Gray Maynard by Decision
PHOTO CREDIT – UFC