Only four men have competed for the UFC lightweight championship since the beginning of 2010. Over the last two-and-a-half years, the title has been contested via five close fights filled with back and forth action, ending in sometimes controversial decisions, only one finish and one draw. However, it is possible the era of lightweight title rematches could come to a close on Saturday in Denver when Benson Henderson defends his belt against Frankie Edgar at UFC 150. A win for Henderson would open up a clogged pipeline of lightweight contenders, through which several interesting challenges await.
Let us see how these two stack up on paper in key performance measures and then dive deeper into their first fight.
Tale of the Tape
The tale of the tape reveals an even fight history for the two fighters but also a slight anthropometric edge for Henderson. The defending champion comes in with age, size, reach and stance advantages, but it is also important to note that Henderson is just about average in size for a lightweight, in terms of height and reach. This means that Edgar is undersized for his division -- something even UFC President Dana White has been quick to point out. Yet despite not cutting weight and generally facing larger opponents, Edgar has fought his way to a title and defended it several times. However, in a matchup this close, even small advantages could become meaningful.
Both fighters have had an equal opportunity to recuperate from their last fight and to analyze their performances. One interesting question lies in which team can make the better adjustments -- and I do mean team here. The coaches, trainers and sparring partners of both men will certainly have learned a lot watching that first fight. At championship levels, it is almost never a purely physical contest. Whatever tricks or holes either fighter may have shown in the first fight will be ripe for identification, analysis and exploitation by the opposing team this time around. Let us see if either side can outsmart the other in the rematch or if we see more of the same. Both fighters are also slightly below the average lightweight rate for finishing fights, which is all the more reason that a five-round game plan will be necessary to win.
The Striking Matchup
Based on career stats, it certainly looks like Edgar has been the crisper striker on paper. His standup and clinch striking accuracy has been well ahead of the UFC lightweight averages (22 percent and 51 percent, respectively), while Henderson has lagged behind Edgar in both categories. However, Henderson has made up for his lower accuracy by outpacing his opponents by 30 percent, all while Edgar tended to get edged by his opponents.
The two fighters threw a nearly even mix of jabs to power strikes and had very similar striking defense. One other area of difference is that Edgar has been knocked down four times in his career. Henderson has been knocked down twice -- once by the Anthony Pettis “Showtime” kick in the WEC finale. While we have seen Edgar get hurt in prior fights, we have never seen him get finished, and we have also seen him rally to victory. As a result, no one questions Edgar’s heart, and despite being the undersized fighter in most matchups, his striking stats have been solid. He certainly has the potential to win standup exchanges, something he proved against Penn, and eventually against Maynard.
The problem is that judges sometimes do not reward the more accurate or effective striker but rather the more active striker. We are all wondering if Henderson will again outwork Edgar. Both fighters have plenty of experience going five rounds, and fatigue has not been a problem. If this goes to a decision, and odds are it will, it may come down to who is faster on the trigger and controls the pace of standup striking. With a size advantage, it will be easier for Henderson to do so. That leaves Edgar looking to counter and land the harder shots. He will need to make them count.
Takedowns and the Grappling Matchup
Keep in mind, the analysis includes 64 more cage minutes for Edgar than Henderson. After correcting for that factor, the two fighters have attempted takedowns at an almost identical rate of 2.5 per round, which is almost twice the average UFC lightweight pace. While Edgar’s 37-percent takedown success rate is about average, Henderson’s success rate of 49 percent is well above it. Their takedown defenses are even. Overall, that gives a slight takedown edge to Henderson.
Once on the ground, both fighters have leveraged their college wresting experience to dominate their opponents. They both advanced position early and often, out-struck their opponents by a more than 2-to-1 ratio and defended all submissions their opponents threw at them, all while finishing a few of their own. Again, once we correct for cage minutes, it looks like Henderson has been the more aggressive grappler. The one key statistic that pops out for Edgar is in ground sweeps. He has swept position on opponents twice more than Henderson. This could come in handy for Edgar if he finds himself on the receiving end of Henderson’s ground attack.
UFC 144 ‘Edgar vs. Henderson’
We have seen how they should match up, but let us rewind and take a look back the numbers from when they did actually fight against each other. As with any other sport, putting all analysis aside, there is a reason why they play the game or fight the fight. As we will see, the historical trends of the two fighters did not pan out when they faced each other in February.
At UFC 144, Henderson came in as the slightest of underdogs at +120, with the defending champ as the -120 favorite. The fight proved to be as close as the line, but it was Henderson who stepped up his striking game against Edgar. The challenger not only outpaced the champ by a significant margin but was also more accurate. Edgar struggled to land his power punches, and his jab was less accurate than usual.
In transition, Edgar was desperate for a takedown with 17 attempts. Despite landing more takedowns than Henderson, he failed to advance position or do any damage on the ground. Oddly, the most vicious blow of the fight came from a second-round upkick from Henderson, which rattled Edgar and began a steady flow of blood from his nose that may have changed the entire course of the fight.
As the bout went on, Henderson pulled away by outpacing and outlanding his foe, mixing in a few solid submission attempts that ate up the clock and forced Edgar to play defense. Unlike his fights against Maynard, Edgar was never able to pick up enough steam to turn the tide. Edgard’s gas tank has always been strong, so to see him outworked in the later rounds lends additional credence to the theory that he was rocked early on and did not fully recover.
In the end, the challenger took the title via the judges’ scorecards, though not without a few observers expressing some doubt. Hence, a former champion who was forced to rematch Penn and Maynard is now being granted a rematch of his own. The question a lot of fans are now asking is if he can prove the naysayers wrong yet again.
The Final Word
Henderson will make his first title defense as a -185 favorite. Edgar will be challenging for the belt for the first time since 2010, but he is back in the familiar underdog position at +150. That is still a pretty tight line and for good reason. Also keep in mind that Edgar has put on a “Fight of the Night” performance five times, and Henderson has done it himself four times, so there is more than enough reasons to put the Olympics on pause and watch these guys scrap. The betting line does not quite factor in Edgar’s heart.
The numbers say Edgar has the potential to win this fight if he can strike and fade with superior standup accuracy, all while using takedowns to secure rounds. However, the numbers also show he faltered in his last performance. Was that upkick to the nose a bigger factor than Edgar let on? Has Edgar finally lost his famed resiliency? Or was Henderson’s rapid pace and size advantage just too much to overcome for the always undersized Edgar? We will find out soon.
How do you see this going down? Does history repeat itself with Henderson rattling Edgar early and outpacing him on the way to a close decision victory? Or will Edgar author another gritty comeback performance with another bonus to add to his belt? What do the numbers tell you? Does anything stick out as a potential difference maker?
Later this month, I will take a look at the exceptional statistics of Jon Jones and Dan Henderson, who will fight for the light heavyweight title at UFC 151 on Labor Day weekend.
Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics, FightMetric and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.
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