Out-Striking Frankie Edgar
Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, decreed that to win in boxing all that is required is speed; speed of hands to win exchanges, and speed of foot to dictate when they take place. Frankie Edgar has both of these qualities and as the UFC lightweight division's "Cinderella man" upset BJ Penn twice before having two back and forth matches with the gigantic wrestler, Gray Maynard. Frankie Edgar is always entertaining to watch, but he is never going to be a big draw such as Anderson Silva or his predecessor, BJ Penn were - he is neither a submission finisher or a knockout artist. What is unique about Edgar, however, is his method of taking apart lightweights - exploiting the same lack of striking confidence and experience in the lightweight division that Bantamweight champion, Dominick Cruz does in his own weightclass: a lack of ability to deal with lateral movement. Is it possible for Benson Henderson to out-strike Edgar? Of course. Will he actually out-strike Edgar? That remains to be seen, but the opportunities do exist to pick Edgar apart, it is whether Henderson's coaches have noticed this and whether he can focus when he is face to face with Edgar's perpetual motion style.
To understand how one might beat Edgar on the feet it is important to note his greatest successes and the times which he has shown weaknesses. In looking at Edgar's fight tape and record, nothing stands out more than his defeat of then number one lightweight in the world, BJ Penn. Penn was touted as a phenomenal boxer with a counter jab that jacked his opponent's head back, slick counter-punches and power which is rarely seen at lightweight. What Edgar exposed in Penn, however, was an inability to deal with lateral movement. Just as Nick Diaz does, Penn often stands in a boxing stance with his front foot turned in to maximize the reach on his dipping counter jab. This does, however mean that circling to the outside of this foot makes it hard for him to set up his punches and exposes the back of his leg for low kicks and his jaw for right hand leads. This circling is Edgar's modus operandi, and against Penn - whose dipping jab and emphasis on head movement is tailor made for inexperienced opponents who are willing to run straight at him, hoping to overwhelm him with combinations - it worked a treat. The fact that he kept having to turn and face Frankie meant that he was often unprepared from Frankie's own charging combinations.
Edgar's weakest showings on the feet have been his slow starts against Gray Maynard. Though traditionally not a big finisher (his only notable KO coming over himself), Maynard caught Frankie hard in the opening rounds of both of their title fights. In the first of these two title fights, at UFC 125, Edgar was caught with a slapping left hook, which did not carry a full rotation of Maynard's hips, but caught Edgar so off guard that it was enough to send him stumbling backward and almost cost him his hard earned UFC title. In watching this knockdown, Frankie is circling away from Maynard's left hand, then pauses as if he is ready to circle back the other way, in traditional Edgar fashion - unfortunately his right hand is down by his chest when he intends to change direction so he meets the full force of the left hook while leaning into it.
More including animated gifs after the jump.
Edgar's habit of dropping his hands as he circles is a bad one, and while Penn was inadequate at chasing him, instead trying to bait him in, Maynard's aggressive pressure in the first rounds of both of their title fights put him in position to punch into the space into which Edgar was moving. Circling into the left hook without adequate protection has produced some fantastic knockouts in the past, despite the hook lacking power it is hard to see coming and much of the force is provided by the opponent's movement into it. Here is Mitsuhiro Ishida, whose chin is fairly solid, circling into a short left hand of Hirota (the arm which Aoki went on to savagely break). Notice how Ishida is almost immediately out cold, and that the hole through which Hirota's punch entered was not especially large - Ishida could still be seen to have his hands up, but still lacked protection.
Edgar showed the heart which has come to be recognized as his trademark in gritting his teeth and fighting to the draw in his first title fight with Maynard. He also showed a brilliant ability to change strategy on the fly - while he did not change his hand positioning in circling to the left, he pretty much abandoned circling into Maynard's left hook and instead dashed straight in, throwing combinations, before ducking out to Maynard's right side. As Maynard fights squared up, putting power in his left hook most of the time, his right hand lacks the power of his left as well as the room to loop in from the side, making exit to Maynard's right side a much safer option.
That is not to say that Edgar could avoid the circling which had been hardwired into him from training, or that Maynard didn't catch him with good right hands once he realized Edgar had simply changed direction. Frankie's habit of dropping his outside hand on the side to which he is circling is very dangerous for someone who is fighting much bigger, heavier men.
In their second title match Maynard was less able to take advantage of the left hook, but he did find massive success in another hole Edgar's new game exposed. Edgar, not wanting to take the punishment of the first fight, was no longer circling into Maynard's left hook, but firing combinations, ducking and circling into Maynard's right hand. Maynard's coaches had picked up on this from the latter half of their first title meeting and Maynard was stood more side on, waiting to throw a powerful right uppercut rather than his typical left hook. It met with Frankie's chin several times, and once again Edgar was forced to change up his style. Reverting to more wrestling, clinch boxing and even switching to southpaw, Edgar never looked truly comfortable on the feet in his title fights with Maynard as he did with Penn. In fact it was out of a sprawl which Edgar caught Maynard his own uppercut to rock Maynard before finishing him against the cage, rather than in a pure stand up domain.
Of course these are only ways to exploit Edgar's circling, and Maynard got hit plenty of times while attempting to herd Edgar into his punching power. A factor which has been overlooked by many of Edgar's opponents is why he is able to circle so freely - something which also applies to UFC Bantamweight champion, Dominick Cruz. In high level kickboxing and Muay Thai you will never see men circling as freely as Edgar and Cruz because they eat low kicks - something which neither of Edgar's recent opponents have brought to the table. In order to stop Edgar circling, it is important to kick his lead leg, particularly when he is circling to his right - which would make his lead leg the trailing leg and allow a sizable amount of damage to be done to the inner thigh as well as to slow him down.
The objective of kicking Edgar's lead leg need not even be to hurt him, in order to shin check low kicks he will need to stop moving to lift his leg , and that is the time to barrel in and take him on in head to head exchanges where his lack of size and power will work to his detriment, rather than in the open where they simply make him a smaller, faster target. Even BJ Penn, who has reportedly never formally trained kicking in his camps, found remarkable success stifling Edgar when he attempted some kicks in the later rounds of their second fight. Being BJ Penn however, he was reluctant to acknowledge any success that he had which wasn't boxing related and so it was pursued no further. Benson Henderson, however, has decent kicks, and perhaps the defensive wrestling to stave off Edgar's trademark running knee tap takedown should he get his leg caught.
Whether anyone will take advantage of these holes in Edgar's much vaunted footwork remains to be seen. It is unlikely that he will be matched with Maynard yet again, who seemed to be making decent progress in sussing out the champion, so it is up to the rest of the lightweight field to learn from Maynard's successes. Edgar and Cruz are not excellent strikers in terms of technical proficiency, but have found a gaping chasm in the understanding of striking in mixed martial arts circles and are able to move around their opponents on the feet in a manner which no experienced boxer or kickboxer would allow. It is ultimately Edgar's choice to stand most times, having the wrestling to take down even notable grapplers such as Maynard, Penn and Franca, and if he is being out-struck he has the good sense to adapt and avoid the tactics which are getting him hurt. What will be intriguing about this match is that Edgar has fought the same two opponents for the past two years, with his better performances always being in the rematches, it should be interesting to see what Edgar can do against Henderson with no previous experience against him.
Jack Slack breaks down striking strategy and technique at his website www.fightsgoneby.com
He can also be found on Twitter @JackSlackMMA
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