Frankie Edgar has never looked better.
I'm not talking about the way he fought. I'm talking about the way he looked after the fight.
This is a guy who habitually walks out of the cage with a face looking like it's been through some Jersey butcher shop's meat grinder. But on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 150, Edgar went five rounds with Benson Henderson, who had taken away his lightweight championship six months ago and in the process had put a bruising on Frankie that was comparable to the scratches and dents dealt to him by Gray Maynard in his two bouts before that. When the final horn sounded this time, however, Edgar had no more than a slight trickle of blood on his mug.
That had to be a good sign for the former champ, no?
Another positive for Edgar was, yeah, that other thing I mentioned above: the way he fought. After a slow start in which his left calf was reddened by a steady diet of Henderson leg kicks, Frankie seized control of the fight and the crowd of 15,008 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. He scored the bout's lone knockdown. He had the only two takedowns. He threatened with submission attempts. And seemingly every time the champ tried to attack, the ex-champ slipped a punch and landed a counter. When the first judge's scorecard was read -- 49-46 in Edgar's favor -- that face that had taken uncharacteristically minimal damage seemed on the verge of breaking into a smile.
But those who follow mixed martial arts know that when Bruce Buffer begins by bellowing out a single score, he's telling us it's a split decision. And sure enough, the next score was 48-47 for Henderson, building the drama for Buffer to read another 48-47 and then, after a pause that seemed an eternity, "And still lightweight champion..."
And Frankie Edgar winced, turned away, removed his ball cap and fired it across the cage.
Back home on the Jersey Shore, hats suddenly were being sold by the dozens in boardwalk kiosks just so outraged fans could throw them. I hear JWoww and Snooki both threw their hair extensions clear across a dance floor.
As MMA decisions go, this was not exactly highway robbery. It was more akin to having your favorite Springsteen CD pinched from your unlocked car while it's parked in a Seaside Heights lot. (Yeah, I'm battering you with Jersey references.) It seemed an injustice, sure, but you can't say you're surprised it happened.
Maybe what allowed Henderson (17-2) to make the first defense of his title a success was that he made the better first impression. Even though Edgar (14-3-1) sprinted out to the octagon, eager to get started, and made an annoyed face when Buffer introduced him as the former champ, Benson got off to the far stronger start. Before the first round was halfway over, he'd landed several hard kicks to Edgar's calf and had taken little in return. And the round ended with the champ turning an Edgar takedown into a guillotine, the submission attempt tight enough that Frankie was fortunate that there were but seconds remaining before the horn.
It was clearly Henderson's round. All three judges saw it his way. But from there, the fight turned around.
Round 2 was up for grabs until the midway point, when Edgar floored Henderson with a right hand. The punch had caught the champ off balance and didn't leave him dazed, but it allowed Frankie to seize control on the ground and go for a submission. Of course, Henderson is Gumby-like in the face of sub attempts, so he wasn't seriously threatened. But he spent more than a minute with Edgar controlling him on the ground, then got clipped once the fighters were back on their feet. All three judges gave this one to Edgar.
But then the judging went awry. Tony Weeks gave Edgar all of the remaining three rounds, but Mark Van Tine and Dave Hagen gave Rounds 3 and 4 to Henderson.
The third could have gone either way. Neither fighter seized it. If you preferred Henderson's low kicks and knees, fine. If you were more impressed by Edgar's counters and increased ring generalship, then by all means salute him. I have no problem with anyone's scoring of this tight five minutes of fighting.
But Round 4? Edgar repeatedly either beat Henderson to the punch or ducked under punches in order to land a counter. He took Henderson to the mat again, got the guillotine again and maintained ground control for a good spell. Later, the fighters were stalking each other and Henderson, desperate to turn the tide, threw his hands to his side and waved Frankie in, trying to goad the ex-champ out of his stick-and-move rhythm. For his trouble, he ate a couple of Edgar right hands. It was Frankie's round ... other than on two scorecards.
Of course, the scorecards are the only things that matter. It didn't matter that by the fifth round the Jersey boy had even gotten a "Frankie! Frankie!" chant out of a crowd that had come to cheer on its Colorado native son. It also didn't matter that afterward UFC president Dana White, who never shies away from sharing his opinion of who won a fight, wouldn't say anything other than, "I had it even going into the fifth round." Which tells us all we need to know.
"A lot of people told me I won the fight," Edgar said at the post-fight press conference. "But it don't matter. The judges didn't."
Henderson, for his part, didn't seem all that sure. He said he did enough to win the fight, but then, in response to a question about his religious faith, launched into a brief sermon about how it wouldn't have really mattered if he had lost, because there are more important things in life and "the sun will still come up in the morning." He sounded a little like a man who'd been blinded by the light.
This is not to take away anything from Henderson. He's as tough as nails, a supreme athlete and a class act. He'll next fight Nate Diaz, and that has the potential to be a thriller. And maybe it's now time to start thinking about that, not to dwell upon a fight that had no finishing moment and therefore no definitive victor. It's just that ... well ... no, there's nothing more to say other than what a forsaken Edgar said in the immediate aftermath of the decision. "It don't matter," he said, his face saying otherwise. "I thought I brought it to him. But congrats to Ben."
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