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The main event of UFC 136 on October 8th is Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard for the UFC lightweight championship. From purely a fight perspective, I think this is the most important fight the UFC has to offer.
It might not be the flashiest, it might not be receiving the most media attention, it might not be filled with the best trash-talk sound bites, but, bar none, there are no two fighters who deserve to battle each other for a belt in the Octagon more than these two, if for no other reason than the first time they squared off with a title on the line they put on a “Fight of the Night” that could very well be “Fight of the Year”. And at the end of that memorable match, there was no clear winner.
On New Year’s Day in Las Vegas at UFC 125, Maynard challenged Edgar for the UFC lightweight championship and the two fought a five round war from bell to bell. It was an emotional fight with highs and lows for both competitors. It was a grueling contest where without a doubt both fighters left everything they had in the cage that night and they were both standing ready for more. When time expired, the final decision was laid in the hands of the judges.
The verdict: a draw.
“I know it's easy to have that quote, ‘don't leave it up to the judges’, but you're in a championship fight and you're going up against the top in the world, so more than likely it's going to be a close one,” says Maynard. “That's the way the sport is headed. I don't care who you talk to, if they know the sport, with two top athletes it's going to be a close one. I wasn't pissed off at the judges. Whatever, it happens. At that time, I felt like I wanted to do it again. Over and over. I don't care if I had to sign a contract that I had to go up against this guy 100 times to prove to everyone that I can beat this guy 100 times then I would have done that. I still feel that way. I want to fight him. I'm not tired of fighting him. I want to fight him. I want to prove to everyone that I can beat him.”
At 32 years old and about to enter the Octagon for the 11th time, Maynard’s determination is unparalleled in preparing to challenge Edgar for the belt for the second time this year. There are dozens of reasons to push “The Bully” to train harder than ever to win this fight: the title, stay undefeated as a pro, it’s what Maynard’s been working for these past four years in the UFC, and on and on. But the beauty of this particular matchup is the untainted simplicity of the competition.
Maynard wants to beat Edgar to settle any doubts in any person’s mind that he is better.
“I'm not tired of it because there's a question and I hate questions,” asserts Maynard. “There's a question of who can beat who and that's what I want to prove. That's what drives me. I want him. I want to fight him. I want to prove it.”
The three-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler from Michigan State University specifically knows he can defeat Edgar because he did it. Back in 2008, well before either were within sniffing distance of the weight class’ gold, Maynard scored a unanimous decision victory over Edgar, which handed the New Jersey native his first and only loss. It was a great matchup then between two burgeoning stars with wrestling backgrounds in a clash of “speed” (Edgar) vs. “power” (Maynard). Three years later, it is an even better matchup because they are undeniably the best in their division and have marched their way to the top since that meeting in 2008.
“We both have obviously grown and evolved,” explains Maynard. “When you are going up against the top in the world one after the other you are going to get better. For me, after him I had Rich Clementi, Jim Miller, Roger Huerta, Nate Diaz, Kenny Florian. For him, Sean Sherk, Hermes Franca, and BJ Penn twice. You have to evolve and have to change. For me, I'm not trying to hold onto the fact that I beat him before. I forget about that stuff. You can ask me who I beat and I will tell you to check for yourself because I don't remember. But if you ask me who beat me - I'll tell you when, the date, the time, who it was, his background - I'll tell you everything about it. I just hate to lose. I hate draws. I hate everything but a win.”
“The Bully” knows winning. UFC fans have watched Maynard win and win and win, from his nine second knockout of Joe Veres on September 19, 2007 until the dominant decision victory over Kenny Florian at UFC 118 on August 28, 2010. In between, Maynard has faced and defeated notable lightweight after notable lightweight on his way to the much deserved title shot at UFC 125.
Before the belt had even been put up for grabs, a number one contender had already been named in WEC lightweight champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. After the murky pseudo-conclusion of the bout, it was up in the air whether Edgar’s next challenger would be Pettis or a “rubber match” with Maynard for a decisive ending. From the perspective of “The Bully”, title shots are hard to come by in the UFC and he got one and it ended in a draw. First, the fight’s fate lay with judges; now the rematch’s fate lay with UFC President Dana White.
“It was heart-wrenching,” admits Maynard. “I feel like I've earned this. I didn't try to back door it. I didn't drop to my knees. I didn't think this marketing plan will have me at 300,000 Twitter followers and that's going to get me a title shot. I just asked for the best guys every fight until I had the opportunity. I felt like I won that. The judges say it was a draw - ok. But this dude hasn't beat me and he's the champ. I don't understand how I don't get another shot at that. I don't understand how it's a question. Thank God they did. I think it was Dana who called and said it was mine and I think I told him I loved him and cried a little bit because that was awesome. He could have chose whoever he wanted to because that's his job and he chose me and I appreciate that more than anything - it's unreal.”
The rematch for the UFC lightweight championship is set, a date is picked, a venue is picked, so everything is going great. What could possibly go wrong? Injuries. Originally, Maynard and Edgar were supposed to square off on the Memorial Day card in Las Vegas at UFC 130. Less than a month out, the fight was called off due to injuries to both fighters. It was a blow emotionally to Maynard with another hiccup in his journey to his first UFC belt, but it was a blessing in disguise for Maynard physically because he will be entering the rematch healthy.
“There had been a lot of injuries, but I wasn't going to pull out of it,” tells Maynard. “My knee was screwed up and my back and I got cut over my eye. I got a call saying he had to pull out of the fight because of his back. Obviously, it was crushing to me. I talked to my coaches and they said this is probably the best for me because I was hobbling around and my elbow had problems and I had a cut on my eye. I just jumped right back into camp after January 1st because I was pissed. For me, I just never healed up. I had to have a scope done on my elbow. Obviously, it's a tough sport and injuries happen.”
Now, “The Bully” is closing in on the same opponent, the same championship and the same fight he’s been training for this past year. “That draw helped me to keep on track because I want to think about him every day,” states Maynard, who has had 10 months to ruminate on the January bout; meanwhile, the most talent rich division in the UFC has been jockeying for position to be the next in line. “If I start to look past him or there are some other good fights out there, then his head pops up in my mind and I think who gives a s**t about anyone else. I want Edgar. I want to fight him.”
There are no secrets about who either Edgar or Maynard is as a fighter after they have dueled in the Octagon for eight rounds, 40 minutes and two close decisions. There is no mystery. They know the other is tough, is ready to fight the full 25, wants to fight on the feet, wants to fight on the floor, and will not give an inch until the referee stops it. Maynard would not want it any other way because taking that hardest road against the best competitors will make success taste even sweeter.
“For my career, for who I am, I want to be known that I'm a normal person - I'm a blue collar type, I train hard and I work hard,” affirms Maynard. “I just want people to know that I really do put everything I have into this sport - into my dreams. Whether it is cash, time, I put it ahead of a lot of things - of everything. It isn't a game to me; it's my life and it's who I am. You only have a couple times to achieve your dreams and I want to make the most of it. I feel that I'm the guy who can beat him. I feel like I'm the guy who can beat everyone. I'm not trying to say I'm the best or anything, but I put a plan and camp together and I feel like I have the edge in that aspect. I believe in myself.”
On October 8th at UFC 136 in Houston, Texas, Maynard and Edgar will battle for the supremacy of the UFC lightweight division. For the third time, these two will entertain UFC fans in the purest way possible: fighting each other in the Octagon. It’s as if Maynard and Edgar are destined to fight each other forever in the most grueling hard fought contests assembled. There’s undoubtedly a historic rivalry between Maynard and Edgar. Not built on bitter words or disrespect; its foundation is in the greatness of their competition in the cage.
Regardless, Maynard knows it’s unfinished. Come fight night, hyperbole will not help “The Bully” earn that belt. It will be Maynard’s pragmatism of simply beating the opponent in front of him that will get him another win and the UFC gold.
“I try not to look deep into this stuff,” relates Maynard. “I try to have a goal for the day. I try to keep out of that other stuff. But there is a lot of s**t going into this fight if you look at the history. I get asked, ‘this is a trilogy fight and you two have gone back and forth, how does it feel?’ Well, I guess when I'm an old man and I'm having a couple beers it will be cool. But right now, I'm amidst a war.”
It was a war in 2008. It was a war on January 1st. And at UFC 136, there’s no reason to think it won’t be another war with the belt on the line. If that doesn’t make it the most important fight to everyone watching, then I don’t what does.