Long before he realized his potential to earn a living as a fighter, Frankie Edgar fought neighborhood kids in elementary school. Crowds would gather. Then, Edgar would snap. But he never wanted to hurt anyone.
During a brawl with another 8-year-old, Edgar heard someone in the crowd yell, “Knee!” So he threw the knee and knocked the kid’s teeth out. He didn’t like that.
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“At 5-years-old, I was always a kid that was willing to scrap,” he said. “I remember not wanting to hit people in the face. I’d slam them and punch them in the stomach.”
Still, his edge remained as he secured accolades as a standout wrestler in high school and college. But his size made him a target for tough guys. Edgar never mastered trash talk, so he relied on his fists.
His best friend, Kurt Wehner, remembers all the times Edgar won against cocky amateurs in street fights.
The jacked kid who tried to KO Edgar at the Surf Club in Seaside Heights, New Jersey?
“[Edgar] whipped his ass,” Wehner recalled.
The dudes at the soccer game who thought they could pick on him but left with bruises?
“They would always point Frankie out, and then he’d have enough of whatever the situation was,” Wehner said.
Beyond all the star power that will anchor Saturday’s massive UFC 200, an opportunity awaits a fleet of fighters who hope to turn this event into their moment. Perhaps their last moment.
Somewhere between Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor stands a cage. It’s full of brawlers chasing a slice of the mainstream success captured by a handful of the UFC’s most popular stars.
Frankie Edgar is in that cage. Frankie Edgar has forever been in that cage.
That’s why the scrappy fighter from Toms River, New Jersey, understands the stakes of his second fight against Jose Aldo in a battle for the UFC’s interim featherweight championship. Edgar has won five consecutive fights since Aldo earned a unanimous decision against him at UFC 156 in 2013.
A victory against Aldo on Saturday could propel Edgar, a 145-pounder, into a high-profile match against McGregor, or an intriguing fight with Dominick Cruz for the 135-pound belt.
“I’m excited, obviously, with all the media hype. This is real big,” Edgar told ESPN.com. “I know the implications this has. I know what this weighs. I just want to capitalize on it.
“In the cage, it’s real. You’re only as good as your last fight. One slip sets you back so far in this day and age.”
When Edgar won the lightweight belt against B.J. Penn in 2010, he boosted his street cred and marketability. Before that win, most viewed him as the tough, nice-guy-outside-the-cage competitor who searched for brawls others avoided. He never seemed comfortable until he caught a left hook to the head or an uppercut on the chin. In those depths, Edgar competed for fight-of-the-night bonuses and the heavy-handed backslaps of fans who appreciated his spirit and his love for the melee.
Earlier this week, Edgar predicted a win against a basic Aldo (his words) in their rematch. He’s not looking past Aldo, but he plans to go through him. He’ll welcome the brawl if it comes.
The first fight helps. But it’s not the only blueprint his camp will use to prepare for the second fight. Aldo is shifty and even mysterious. He throws kicks from odd angles and punches with a speed few can match.
“We just always prepare to be ready for everything,” said Mark Henry, Edgar’s trainer. “You just don’t know where the fight is gonna go. … If it becomes a brawl and Frankie’s winning the brawl, we want him to brawl. We want him doing whatever’s working.”
But Edgar is not sure that Aldo’s focus is centered on Saturday’s bout. The former champion spent the months leading up to UFC 200 discussing his last loss to McGregor, not this critical matchup.
“I just think he’s dealing with that KO,” Edgar said. “Conor could hurt you with just his words.”
McGregor reduced Aldo’s decade of dominance to a viral meme with an eight-second knockout that erased any doubts about the Irish champion’s position in the division.
A lopsided loss Sunday would leave Edgar floating in McGregor’s orbit. It’s a common abyss for contenders who had then lost it.
Holly Holm. Luke Rockhold. Cain Velasquez. Edgar’s name belonged there after a three-fight losing streak and a drop to 145 pounds that began with the loss to Aldo three years ago. Saturday could send him there again.
“I think in the first fight, Frankie and the whole team maybe gave a little too much respect to Aldo like in the B.J. [Penn] fight,” Henry said. “Maybe we did some things that we were too cautious on.”
Now, Edgar is 34 in a division occupied by young fighters awaiting their respective shots at the crown in the UFC, which employs an abundance of competitors who remain dreamers still recovering from past defeats. Edgar knows he’s approaching an age when former aspirations often become the residue of lost opportunities.
“He just wants it, he just wants it bad,” Henry said. “Whenever you want anything in life, whether it’s the opening of a business or the championship of the world, it’s desire. His desire goes deep. Everything he wants so bad. Some people are content with maybe reaching the pinnacle, but some people want more. He just lives for this. He tasted gold and he’s wanted it ever since he lost it.”
On Saturday, Edgar will take Toms River into the cage with him. Those moments, that pressure and those childhood scraps with the neighborhood watching. Those fights with the young men who always underestimated him — they’re all coming with him.
From 2,500 miles away, his supporters will ask him to throw everything he has at Aldo. They’ll urge him to embrace the moment and its meaning. They’ll root for him to leave the cage as a champion.
“It’s his time,” Wehner said. “He’s gonna keep coming at you. He’s just gonna keep coming.
“He needs this. He knows he need this.”