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HOUSTON – There is something about getting hit in the head and on the chin that seems to turn Frankie Edgar into a smart, cunning and extraordinarily successful fighter.
Edgar remains the UFC lightweight champion and figures to edge his way up the various pound-for-pound rankings precisely because of his ability to take a pummeling and come back as if he weren't even hit.
For the second fight in a row, Edgar faced the powerful Gray Maynard. And for the second fight in a row, Maynard battered Edgar around the cage in the first round and seemed to be on the verge of a knockout victory.
The Toms River, N.J. native, though, fights with the spirit that made the late boxer Arturo Gatti one of the most popular fighters of the past 50 years. And not only did Edgar survive a very rocky first round against Maynard on Saturday in the main event at UFC 136, it was Edgar who won by knockout when the bout had finally ended.
Fighting with his left eye nearly shut, his jaw swollen like he had a wad of tobacco in his cheek and blood streaming from just about every orifice on his head, Edgar cracked Maynard with two right hands that sent the Las Vegas native staggering back against the cage late in the fourth round.
Edgar jumped on top and landed a series of quick and hard shots on the ground before referee Josh Rosenthal stopped it at 3:54 of the round, sending the sellout crowd of 16,164 into a delirious celebration.
He is barely as big as many of the UFC's featherweights, but Edgar not only manages to survive, he thrives. UFC president Dana White couldn't believe what he was watching and leaped from his seat when Edgar won the bout.
"I grew up a boxing fan and watching 'Rocky' movies," White said. "I love 'Rocky!' Even when you watch 'Rocky,' you say, 'This is such [expletive].' Nobody could take that many punches and be able to come back and actually win a fight. It would never happen. Well, [Edgar] is the Arturo Gatti of MMA. That's really who this kid is. I have so much respect for him, and I am going to say this here tonight and I don't care who disagrees. You're wrong and I'm right. He's the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Period.
"The only thing that keeps him from being No. 1 is that Anderson Silva has not been beaten in the UFC since 2006 and most of that time has been the champion. That's the only thing that keeps Frankie Edgar from being the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter."
That's open for debate, but what isn't is that Edgar is clearly moving up the list of most exciting fighters to watch. He earned a $75,000 bonus Saturday for Knockout of the Night, adding to four previous Fight of the Night awards he's gotten.
He's a great wrestler, though his wrestling often doesn't come into play against big men like Maynard. White called Edgar the best boxer in the UFC and that may not be too far off, except for Edgar's habit of getting tagged with a haymaker at some point in every fight.
Edgar started quickly on Saturday, but Maynard began to rake him – and hurt him – with a series of uppercuts. Suddenly, much like he was in their fight in Las Vegas on New Year's Day, Edgar was staggering around the cage like a drunken sailor, looking for a place to hide.
It was eerily similar to the first round of their last fight.
"I was thinking, 'Damn! Not again,' " Edgar said. "He came at me. He hits hard. I was definitely out of it, but I knew obviously from the previous fight that I was able to come back, so there was no doubt in my mind that I could come back this time around."
Maynard didn't go as ferociously after Edgar when he hurt him on Saturday as he did in January. In January, all three judges scored the first round 10-8. On Saturday, only Doug Crosby had the first 10-8. Nelson Hamilton and Cecil Peoples each had it 10-9.
Maynard (10-1-1) tired himself out in the first round of UFC 125 and needed to take Round 2 off to regain his wind. On Saturday, he played it close, but he kept wondering how Edgar managed to take what he did land.
"I hit him with a knee, I hit him with a right and I hit with a hook," Maynard said of his effort to finish it in the first round. "What else? If there was a bat there, I'd probably have hit him with that, too."
Fortunately for Edgar, there was not and he came back to win one of the most dramatic bouts on one of the strongest cards of the year. Edgar's clearly established himself not only as a champion, but as one of the top fighters in the sport.
He wasn't of a mind to think about the future, though he said a bout with Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez would "probably sell a lot of pay-per-views."
Edgar was just happy to finally put his nemesis behind him. Maynard beat him on April 2, 2008, at Ultimate Fight Night 13 in Broomfield, Colo, for Edgar's only career loss. They drew in January at UFC 125 and Saturday, Edgar finally got the win.
He deservedly was looking for a vacation – two weeks, his cornermen shouted to him at the post-fight news conference – and for an opponent other than Maynard.
"This puts some closure on it," Edgar said of his trilogy with Maynard. "When it ends in a draw, there is no definitive winner. It's good to go home and be done with it."