In April 2010, Frankie Edgar boarded a plane and took his seat in economy class — one of those five-seats-across rows in the center of an Emirates Airlines jumbo jet —for a 16-hour flight to New York from Abu Dhabi. Sitting next to his eight-months pregnant wife Renee, Edgar resembled more of the working-class plumber he had once been, instead of the newly minted UFC lightweight champion who, hours earlier, shocked the world by beating the legend B.J. Penn.
While ring girls and announcers stretched their legs in first class, the champion restlessly tried to make himself comfortable. It would turn out to be a fitting metaphor for the under-appreciated two-year reign Edgar would have while sitting atop of the 155-pound division.
An underdog even as champion, Edgar — a natural lightweight — would constantly be dogged by questions about his size. When would he drop to featherweight, where Jose Aldo was king and guys like Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes grabbed the headlines? Even UFC President Dana White talked about it. His coaches talked about it. His family talked about it. And then there were those close fights that resulted in two consecutive rematches with Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson respectively. He would become known as much for rematches as he was known for his iron will and die-hard work ethic.
While he won over millions of fans, along with their chants of “Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!” he never felt like he got the respect he deserved from the brass. He never felt the love. But it only fueled him to reach for greater heights. Six years after that long, uncomfortable flight, holding his pregnant wife in one hand and a shiny new belt in the other, "The Answer" has never been better.
Across the Atlantic, Jose Aldo contemplates UFC 200, where the former featherweight champion will meet Edgar for a second time — this time for an interim title. Just how he got here remains a mystery to him.
He was a kid from the favelas with no money and no food. He was lean and hungry with a pronounced scar on his face. His mother left him. He was far from his home. He went 10 years undefeated.
Then it all ended in a flash. All of that hard work and years of sacrifice, everything Aldo had worked for — erased in a 13-second bout against a brash Irishman named Conor McGregor. It’s one thing to be defeated; it’s another thing altogether to lose to one who's promoted himself as a cocksure, disrespectful, take-no-prisoners kind of prize fighter who taunts opponents by telling them to call their wives and “break out the red panties” when they’re granted an audience with the "king."
After being denied an immediate rematch with McGregor, Aldo can relate to how Edgar felt when he was champion, because he feels he too has been cast aside by the company he has served so loyally. To add insult to injury, "The Notorious" took off to seek bigger paydays and greater competition in a higher weight class. He took his ball and left the field, leaving Aldo and Edgar to each other.
Now two future Hall-of-Famers will clash once again, this time with more meaning than the last. The winner, ostensibly, should get the chance to meet the absentee champion to unify the belts. Will Aldo get his shot at revenge? Or will Edgar get his chance at the big money match-up that has eluded him for years?
While the specter of McGregor hangs over the UFC and two of its biggest featherweight stars at the moment, both Aldo and Edgar have earned support from millions of fans the old fashion way.
Aldo did it with a violent ballet of martial arts skills. Devastating leg kicks. Precision flying knees. Splintering spinning back kicks and elbows. Jose Aldo is the Rudolph Nureyev of MMA. Where the acclaimed Russian ballet dancer would use superior athleticism to enhance traditional choreography, Aldo would do the same for traditional martial arts techniques that are so rarely seen in modern MMA.
Meanwhile, "working class" has been the descriptor used for Edgar time and time again. From his N.J.-accented speech, to his cauliflower ears and his plumbing pedigree, Frankie has won fans by simply outworking his competition. Training partners are inspired when they work out with him. Top-10 ranked fighters marvel at his stamina. Fans cheer his resiliency. Opponents fear his pace.
It wasn't always so, but now whenever Edgar fights the crowd erupts in Rocky Balboa-like unison, chanting his name. The guy has heart. He has an iron chin. He is tough. "Jersey Strong," he likes to say.
Edgar’s parents divorced when he was very young, and when his mother Mary remarried plumber Frank Annese, he found in his step-dad someone who encouraged wrestling as a sport, and a competitor was born.
He was always small, so he had to take it upon himself to work harder than everyone else to compensate. He may not have been the fastest or the strongest, or even the best, but he willed himself to become the hardest worker. A lot of the time, that alone made all the difference.
Indeed, Edgar became one of the toughest guys in high school and collegiate wrestling, but fell just one point short of becoming an All-American at Clarion University. One point. And thank God he did. Although devastated by the setback after some 12 years of being a dedicated wrestler, leaving something on the mat would prove to be the best thing that happened to him.
Having missed his opportunity to become an All-American or NCAA champion, Edgar thew himself into a new challenge. That one point fueled his run in mixed martial arts.
While Edgar may have been looked over during his formative years, Aldo was hardly even seen.
Growing up in one of the poorest favelas in Manaus — a hot jungle climate in the north of Brazil — it took a lot of discipline for him to escape the life of crime to which many of his friends turned. Instead, he channeled that energy into soccer and martial arts.
Aldo was just a boy when his mother left home, and his relationship with his father, a bricklayer, was often hard. Just as Edgar found wrestling at a young age, Aldo discovered capoeira and jiu-jitsu, and thus began the dream of one day becoming a world champion.
With no savings and a one-way plane ticket that friends and coaches pooled their money to buy him, he moved to Rio to train with Team Nova Uniao under coach Andre Pederneiras. There, he felt an immediate shift in his life. He felt like he belonged to a family. The older men on the team would make sure the future champion had food to eat, and with no home to go to, Aldo was allowed to sleep on the mats in exchange for mopping and sweeping the gym.
The journey to UFC 200 for Aldo and Edgar — while different — are both the stuff of movies. But now is not the time for storybook endings. Instead, the two men will enter the Octagon on July 9 knowing full well that only one of them will take another step towards their destiny.
For Frankie, winning the interim belt will put him in rarified air — becoming only the third fighter in UFC history to hold championships in two different weight classes. B.J. Penn and Randy Couture are the only others to achieve such an honor.
For Jose, a win over Edgar will bring him the opportunity he wants much more than just a bit of gold. No, the belt is now just a stepping stone in his quest for revenge against the man who embarrassed him with a one-punch knockout on the sport's biggest stage.
The irony about McGregor, Aldo and Edgar — who all picture prominently in the featherweight division — is at heart, they are all very much alike. They all have enormous pride and an undying will to win. They have each demonstrated a willingness to learn and relearn, to hone their crafts on mats and in gyms where they check their egos at the door. It is the only way to become great.
Even with Jon Jones fighting for his own redemption against Daniel Cormier, newly crowned women’s bantamweight champ Miesha Tate making her first title defense, and the return of Brock Lesnar hanging over it all, Aldo vs. Edgar is likely the dark horse for Performance of the Night.
With so much at stake for both fighters, Performance of a Lifetime might be more appropriate.
(Images via MMAWeekly.com)