LAS VEGAS – There are towel boys working for the New York Jets who tower over Frankie Edgar. But none of the Jets were crediting their towel boys for inspiring them in a dramatic come-from-behind victory Nov. 21 over the Houston Texans.
The night before the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan asked Edgar to speak to his team. The following day, it was clear the players had listened. After rallying his team in the final minute, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez brought up Edgar's speech in the postgame news conference when asked about his club's mental toughness.
"The guy's barely taller than this podium, and this guy, he beats B.J. Penn in a UFC championship bout when everybody counted him out," Sanchez said. "They wanted a rematch and then he went back and beat him even worse. I mean, talk about a guy who is mentally tough, physically tough. He came in and spoke to the team last night. What a time! What a perfect time, talking about never giving up, being counted out, playing until the end, fighting, believing in yourself, believing in the team, believing in the people around you.
"Those were the only people telling him he could win the fight. Everybody else counted him out. I think there are a lot of people who might have written us off today, last week and the week before that. We just look at each other, look at the guys wearing the Jets decal. We have a chance until the thing is over. It was perfect timing for Rex to bring somebody in like that and give us a little extra inspiration. It was great for Frankie to come in."
Edgar probably won't have anyone up to his suite at the MGM Grand on New Year's Eve to give him an inspirational pep talk; he's got all the inspiration he needs from the hundreds of doubters who continue to question his ability.
In a bout many expect him to lose, Edgar will defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title against Gray Maynard on Saturday in the main event of UFC 125 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Edgar's only pro loss came against Maynard at Ultimate Fight Night 13 in Broomfield, Colo., on April 2, 2008, when Maynard's takedowns made the difference. Since then, Edgar has beaten a who's who of the UFC's lightweight division, defeating one-time title challenger Hermes Franca, former champion Sean Sherk, undefeated-at-the-time Matt Veach and then the legendary B.J. Penn in back-to-back bouts.
He's also got a win over the fast-rising Jim Miller in his final pre-UFC bout, back in 2006. This is a guy who has fought the best there is to fight at lightweight, and yet he can't seem to do enough to please the skeptics.
Edgar jokes that his record is "13 and Gray Maynard," perhaps because it seems like that one loss looms much larger in his career than any of his victories.
No one around him will make an excuse for him because Edgar himself won't hear of it. He has plenty of legitimate excuses for the loss which he could tap, but he has refused.
He fought Maynard just 10 days before his marriage to his wife, Renee, and had cameras from MTV following him around as he prepared for the fight.
On top of that, he didn't arrive in Colorado to allow himself to acclimate to the altitude until five days before the fight. Most of the fighters on the card were there at least two weeks early.
None of it, though, is good enough for Edgar to use as a reason for the loss.
"Nah," he says, dismissing the notion that fighting 10 days before his wedding was a distraction. "If I had any other job, I'd still have to work 10 days before my wedding. This is what I chose to do. I have to be accustomed to handling outside pressures."
True, but a plumber – which Edgar once was – doesn't have to worry about an All-American wrestler trying to dump him on his head, either.
Renee Edgar wants to say the MTV crew that followed him around was a distraction, but she can't bring herself to it. She's known Frankie since kindergarten and they began dating at 19. She understands his demeanor better than anyone. He's not a guy who tolerates excuses, even a built-in one.
"My opinion is different than Frankie's," Renee said. "If you ask me, putting cameras in his face and going on MTV and all that kind of pressure … "
She stopped, catching herself before she went down that path, and smiled.
"I'm not making excuses because he doesn't want to hear me making excuses for him," she said. "He won't hear of any of that. But I'm sure it probably had something to do with it."
Edgar just says that he and Maynard are vastly different fighters than they were in 2008. His boxing has gone to another level. He's sparred with promising middleweight boxing prospect Denis Douglin for the past two years and has made significant progress in his standup.
Via Twitter, Douglin said Edgar's boxing is "pretty good … and it keeps getting better."
Edgar said he was "just a kid with some natural ability" to box when he met Maynard in 2008. He ranked himself a six then, but said he'd rate his boxing skills an eight now. He's also significantly improved his jiu-jitsu while working with Ricardo Almeida, and has become a devastating kicker since making Muay Thai guru Phil Nurse a part of his team.
In a way, the loss was a blessing for Edgar because it made him realize that he was deficient in many areas of his game.
"It opened my eyes," Edgar said of his only defeat. "A lot of times, when guys don't lose, they think, 'Why do I have to fix anything?' "A loss – if you approach it right and deal with it the correct way physically and mentally, talk to your coaches about it – you can definitely learn much more from a loss than you can from a win."
It's that drive to improve which has impressed Almeida, Edgar's jiu-jitsu coach and a UFC welterweight contender. Edgar isn't without physical skills, but it's his desire to learn, to always get better, to become the best, which opened Almeida's eyes.
"He's got a great mindset and he has a very strong mind," Almeida said. "He definitely has the speed and the athleticism, but you need that to be in this sport. But he has this mindset that he wants to be the best in the world, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that."
Edgar's not one to boast about it, but that drive has made him one of the best fighters in the world. He ranked fifth in the most recent Yahoo! Sports poll and has clearly become the top lightweight in the world since routing Penn in their rematch at UFC 118.
Edgar's boxing coach, Mark Henry, said the ability has always been there but he's just gotten more confident with his other skills.
"He'd show flashes here and there, but he was a wrestler and that was his bread and butter," Henry said. "He's really worked so hard on his boxing, on his jiu-jitsu, on his Muay Thai, and he's gotten confidence in it. In the Sean Sherk fight, we knew Sherk was a great wrestler and his boxing would be important, and he was able to transition so well.
"I don't understand why people question him or doubt him. He's not the kind of guy who is going to tell you he's great or brag about himself, but he's a tremendous worker and he's willing to commit to making himself better every single day."
If Edgar beats Maynard, his manager, Shari Spencer, might just get a little busier. There will probably be a few NFL coaches who want to follow Ryan's lead and have him talk to their teams as well.
Who knows? If Edgar talks to the right team, he might just wind up with a Super Bowl assist to go with his lightweight title belt.
- Frankie Edgar
- Gray Maynard