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Edgar finds appeal in vulnerability

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That was UFC president Dana White speaking in his usual assertively emphatic way late Saturday night at the press conference in Houston following UFC 136. He was talking about Frankie Edgar after the lightweight champion's stirring TKO of Gray Maynard. It was quite the endorsement.

Now you might disagree that Edgar is deserving of the No. 2 spot, below Anderson Silva but above Georges St-Pierre. And, no, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking that way. There's no pound-for-pound division in the UFC, and until someone figures out how to stick 240-pound Cain Velasquez and 135-pound Dominick Cruz into the octagon together on equal footing, ranking these and the champions at every weight class in between will be nothing more than an opinion. Edgar said as much himself after being asked about Dana's bold assessment, although he acknowledged that it's always good to impress "the boss."

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Edgar did more than impress. He energized White and more than a few others at the Toyota Center. In fact, a whole lot of people in the building had some words for Edgar:

"Fran-KEE! Fran-KEE!"

The chant went up several times during the fight once it became clear that, just as he recovered from a vicious first-round Maynard onslaught to fight his way back into their New Year's Day draw, Edgar was perked up from another early beatdown and was taking charge. Watching him circle Maynard, in constant and unpredictable motion, attacking with lightning-flash combinations of punches, kicks or takedown attempts, then zipping out of harm's way was quite the spectacle.

And so was the "Fran-KEE!" chant, if it's possible for sound to be a spectacle. We surely didn't hear anything like that the night 18 months ago when Edgar took the championship from B.J. Penn in Abu Dhabi, or even four months later when he defended it against Penn. The Boston crowd booed Frankie that day, as I recall, which could be a Boston vs. New York/New Jersey thing, although Springsteen never had any trouble winning over a crowd in that town.

Edgar did not have the cache of other UFC champions, it seemed, because he wasn't beating anyone to a pulp, like Chuck Liddell used to do and Brock Lesnar did before himself being beaten to a pulp by Cain Velasquez. Frankie was winning, but most of his wins were coming courtesy of judges' decisions. And those decisions weren't showcases of domination in all phases of the game, like GSP's decision wins. Edgar was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as just squeezing by on points, which didn't exactly stir up the fans.

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Sure, when arena video screens showed Frankie sitting at cageside during UFC 128 last March, a big cheer went up. But that was in Newark, just an hour up the Garden State Parkway from Toms River. Of course, it also was just a couple of months after Edgar's heroic comeback in the second Maynard fight. Given the location, though, it was impossible to tell whether fan perception had changed.

Now we know. The fans got behind Edgar in a big way as Saturday night's main event unfolded, especially once Edgar began playing bullfighter in gracefully dodging everything Maynard threw. All the while, Frankie peppered the challenger with punches and kicks, finally hurting him with an uppercut off a wrestling scramble, then finishing him with robust, accurate right crosses and, after Gray had fallen face first, a few lefts for good measure. The crowd loved it. Dana loved it.

What has made Frankie Edgar a suddenly larger-than-life star, however, is not simply that he made Maynard miss or even that he scored the TKO. No less important to the total picture was that he got hit. And hurt.

Edgar's near-destruction in the first rounds of both Maynard title defenses transformed every moment of every round that followed, in each of those fights, into nonstop don't-blink tension. You came away from those first rounds thinking it's only a matter of time. How could you think otherwise? Even last Saturday, knowing what you knew of the New Year's comeback, you couldn't help but believe that Edgar's luck finally had run out. So when Edgar and Maynard came out for the second, you couldn't take your eyes off the action, for fear of missing the punch that would make Maynard the champ.

That meant you saw every Edgar feint, every head bob, every nimble step of Arthur Murray footwork. You saw Maynard become seemingly mesmerized and stop throwing punches. And instead of booing a fight that was becoming boring, you understood what really was going on. Because when you really watch Frankie Edgar -- which you have to do, intently, if you're waiting for him to be knocked out -- you pick up on little details that might have gone unnoticed when he was outpointing Hermes Franca, Sean Sherk or even B.J.

And when Maynard started punching again, you kept your eyes on everything he threw, knowing that it might take only one to turn the tide. That's the beauty of a Frankie Edgar fight. He wears no "S" on his chest. In the same way that watching a Silva fight became way more interesting after we saw him being beaten down by Chael Sonnen, an integral part of Edgar's appeal is his vulnerability. He always has something to overcome.

Performances like Edgar's made Rocky Balboa an icon. That's just Hollywood, true, but the same truism holds in sports: The biggest heroes are not the frontrunners. Some fans in Houston the other night might have been old enough to remember the 1993 AFC playoffs, when their Oilers were ahead in Buffalo, 35-3, in the second half, only to lose to a Bills team that had no quit that day. An even better analogy for Edgar -- and one Frankie no doubt would hate, being a Jersey guy -- is the 2004 Red Sox, who trailed the Yankees, three games to none, in the American League Championship Series before winning eight straight games, the last four in capturing the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Talk about a turnaround in perception.

Frankie Edgar might be the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Or maybe not. That's up to you, Dana White and everyone else who watches this sport to form an opinion on. Here's something else that's merely opinion, but based on evidence from this past weekend, I think I stand on more solid ground with this than with any pound-for-pound pecking order: If there's such a thing as a heroic figure in sports, the UFC lightweight champion is one.