Something worth pondering before UFC 118 at TD Garden in Boston on Saturday: If B.J. Penn (11-2-1 at 155) is the best lightweight of all time, what does that make Frankie Edgar (12-1) should he pull off consecutive wins against the 31-year-old Hawaiian?
Go ahead, laugh. Those of you among the crowd dismissing Edgar's unanimous decision in April against Penn in Abu Dhabi as a) a gift or b) a fluke, probably consider the question ludicrous. That's fine.
We can argue all you want about the outcome, which only became controversial in the wake of judge Doug Crosby's ridiculous 50-45 total. The fact of the matter is Edgar, 28, definitively proved he belonged in the cage with Penn.
Speed, wrestling and the ability to focus over 25 minutes. Fighting in the Middle East or near Middleton, Mass., won't change tangible, tactical truths for the man walking to the Octagon with the belt this weekend.
"I didn't train to get slower," Edgar said. "Hopefully I'm faster. I believe confidence is a powerful weapon and can only make you a better fighter."
Yet the champion remains a 3-to-1 underdog in the main event of what promises to be another compelling UFC card, the first for the company in Massachusetts. Never mind that Edgar (12-1) pushed Penn, one of the best known and praised fighters of the past 10 years, as hard as he's been pushed at lightweight since Jens Pulver defended the title against him in 2002. Respect for Edgar is as elusive as he was last spring, and according to many people, including UFC president Dana White, Penn remains the preeminent lightweight mixed martial artist of all time.
Fair? Doesn't seem so. But this is how it works when Penn is in the picture. Setbacks and missteps don't register. Penn is "The Prodigy," a fighter with loads of talent, a fan favorite. Seems he always will be.
"You take a title from B.J., it's going to take a while to win over everybody," Edgar said.
Titles, hypothetical or represented by the UFC belt, are apparently no longer worth Penn's energy. He has talked in the past of wanting to be the best, of desiring to clean out the lightweight division, of eyeing bigger prizes like championships across multiple weight divisions. But Penn is speaking and acting differently in advance of his 11th title fight in 22 career bouts.
"When you hear people say you're the greatest lightweight of all time, it's [expletive]," Penn (15-6-1) said. "It's not real. It's fake. Being the champ is fake. You just go out there, keep training and keep winning fights. The only thing real is the fight."
Now Penn has designs on cobbling together a winning streak. "I'm going to try to be as consistent as I can after this," he said. To do so he must be better than he was in April, which wasn't very good. How much of that was a result of what Edgar did is difficult to know. But the simple truth is Penn, who reportedly suffered from a sinus infection in the Arabian desert, looked sluggish and slow next to a challenger that never stopped moving.
"It's hard for me to talk about that fight because I feel I could have done so much better in so many different ways," Penn said.
The former champion split his training camp between Hilo, Hawaii, and Southern California. He utilized small, quick sparring partners such as Bibiano Fernandes and Antonio Banuelos to emulate Edgar. He said he "rested hard," and worked on being happy.
"I've always been out of balance I guess," Penn said. "Living for training. Living for fighting. It wears on you after a while. Too much of anything isn't good. You can only do that for so long until you realize I'm not just a fighter, I'm a human being. I'm just like everyone else."
Just like everyone else?
If that's the case then Penn is in the midst of experiencing serious doubts about his game, about his strategy, about his place in the sport. Because that's what normal people would do.
"What sets you apart is how you face doubts and what you do to combat them," Edgar said. "By the time I get in the cage all those doubts are gone, though."
Will they disappear in time for Penn?
Perhaps he deserves to be a solid favorite over Edgar. Perhaps he was jobbed by the judges in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps Edgar was at his best and Penn was at his worst in April.
But what if Edgar repeats? Will he get his due?
When it comes to the evening's co-main event between Randy Couture and James Toney, which has generated much of the hype heading into UFC 118, there's very little to handicap.
It will take a major mistake on Couture's part to fall to a boxer with limited understanding of the strategies and techniques necessary for competing at the highest level of mixed martial arts. And I guess I just don't think it's possible.
Toney prefers to box in the inside, but he won't have a referee to help break up the fight once Couture (18-10) clinches with him. More than anything else, I just can't envision the multidivision boxing champion fending off Couture, 47, when they're locked up.
Expect it to end fast, two minutes or less. Couture will shoot a double-leg or wait until he can grab Toney's arms and control the boxer's upper torso. Either way, the fight will go to the floor and once Couture establishes his base he'll unload punches and elbows. Will Toney, 42, turn his back and give up a choke, or is he willing to get pounded on in his first MMA bout?
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to look for is whether or not Toney can keep it clean. Instinct may take over and a disqualification in the name of self preservation certainly seems plausible.
Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard meet for the right to fight for the UFC lightweight belt, and it should be a terrific clash.
Florian the tactician versus Maynard the bull. Who wins? I'm leaning toward Florian, whose intelligence, spirit and ability to implement a game plan are as good as you get in MMA these days.
Is it possible that Maynard (9-0), the only fighter to hold a win over Edgar, is too big and too strong? Yes, of course. He's giant for the lightweight division and an excellent wrestler. That kind of combination cannot be discounted, especially because Maynard has displayed more sophisticated striking each time out in the Octagon. But compared to Florian, Maynard still offers a basic game.
Footwork, distance, and striking are the difference for Florian (14-4) in his hometown.
B.J. Penn split decision Frankie Edgar 5R Randy Couture TKO James Toney R1 Demian Maia submission Mario Miranda R2 Kenny Florian unanimous decision Gray Maynard 3R Marcus Davis unanimous decision Nate Diaz 3R Joe Lauzon TKO Gabe Ruediger R2 Nik Lentz unanimous decision Andre Winner 3R Dan Miller submission John Salter R2 Nick Osipiczak submission Greg Soto R3 Amilcar Alves TKO Mike Pierce R2