If you’re into picking sides, UFC 144 might not exactly be your thing.
In fact, fans who prefer cut-and-dried storytelling, professional wrestling-style good vs. evil tropes and easily definable character roles should probably sit this one out. When Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson meet for the UFC lightweight title in Japan this Saturday night, nobody will be wearing a black hat.
Edgar and Henderson are two of the most likable guys in the UFC’s newest wave of talent. It’s just that one is a little further along in his underdog story than the other.
Edgar, after all, has faced perhaps the longest odds (and the most public scrutiny) of any of the organization’s current champions. When he defeated B.J. Penn to claim the 155-pound strap at UFC 112, the fight was close enough to warrant the ensuing immediate rematch, but it was also as if people couldn’t really believe it. As a former welterweight champion, Penn was considered near unbeatable at lightweight (when he showed up in shape) and the fact an undersized and relatively unheralded challenger like Edgar unseated him just didn’t compute.
That is, until Edgar came back and defeated Penn again, this time by a much wider margin at UFC 118.
Heading into his fifth UFC title match this weekend, Edgar will be the betting favorite for just the second time. His small stature and unassuming personality – not to mention close calls against both Penn and Gray Maynard – make him easy to doubt, I suppose.
They also make him easy to like. Especially in the wake of his three-fight epic with Maynard – where Edgar most recently weathered an early storm to win via fourth-round knockout at UFC 136 – the hype train has started to pick up a bit of speed. UFC President Dana White thinks he should be ranked as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world and it seems like fans might be warming up to the idea of him as a legitimate titlist.
In Henderson, he’ll face perhaps his stiffest physical challenge and a guy out to tell his own redemptive tale.
The former WEC lightweight champion found himself in a pretty unenviable position during the last minute of the last round of the last fight ever hosted by the UFC’s kid brother organization. That’s when Anthony Pettis cast Henderson as the fall guy in one of the most amazing highlights in the sport’s history, leaping off the side of the cage and kicking the champ square in the face with a flying move not seen before (or since).
Pettis won the title, an assumed shot at UFC gold when the WEC was absorbed into the fold and effectively made Henderson the poster boy for, well, getting kicked in the face.
Fast forward 14 months and things look a little bit different. Injuries and the loss of his UFC debut meant Pettis never got his shot (he fights Joe Lauzon on this weekend’s card) and, meanwhile, Henderson has been on a tear. He’s won three straight bouts inside the Octagon, including defeating erstwhile No. 1 contenders Jim Miller and Clay Guida in back-to-back efforts.
Henderson is long, athletic and near-impossible to submit and some think he may be the prototype for the future of the 155-pound class. He’s also got a million dollar smile and a head on his shoulders to rival that of Edgar. Unfortunately, he’s still trying to live down being on the receiving end of Pettis’ kick.
Winning the UFC title this weekend might do the trick, but to get there he’s going to have to take out a champion every bit as dangerous – and easy to like – as he is.