Penn, Edgar, and the Sonic Element of Surprise

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro


Instant success in mixed martial arts is something Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn know a thing or two about. Rising meteorically up the MMA ranks early in their careers, both fighters experienced the whirlwind vacuum of success, quickly ascending to the highest echelon of sport.

Relying on their proven repertoires of Brazilian jiu jitsu and boxing, both Edgar and Penn established themselves as crafty and eloquent mixed martial artists, engaging in a pair of memorable battles. But as the two former UFC lightweight champions prepare for the final installment of their Octagon trilogy at The Ultimate Fighter season 19 finale on July 6, it is essential that they demonstrate a pugilistic evolution in order to cement their rivalry as one of MMA’s all-time greats.

Music, like mixed martial arts, also requires its practitioners to develop and adapt in order to make a deep and lasting impact on an ever-changing creative climate. And while bands that storm out of the gate on their first albums are often afforded a sophomore misstep on the follow up, it is on the third release that artistic merits are often fully realized, an analogy that directly relates to the upcoming Edgar-Penn contest.

First meeting in April 2010 at UFC 112, Edgar and Penn danced around the Octagon for five rounds, trading punches and kicks, as Edgar held tight to the perimeter, weaving to and fro, evading a stalking Penn, who performed from center stage. The contest, a controversial decision, crowned Edgar as the UFC’s new 155-pound titleholder, and thus, a new star was born.

The debut offering from Edgar and Penn set a new tone in the UFC’s lightweight division, much in the same way Led Zeppelin gave birth to the hard rock genre with their first album, Black Sabbath with heavy metal, and Metallica with thrash. And although Penn’s performance was far from seminal, Frankie Edgar displayed uncanny speed and slick head movement, never before seen at 155 pounds, altering the landscape of the weight class.

With their second matchup booked a mere four months later, Penn and Edgar fell prey to the business of art, forced to capitalize on the success, and contempt, of their initial foray, much like bands, who are afforded minimal time to develop creatively, and are pushed, often contractually, to recapture the triumph of barrier-breaking debuts.

Still, Edgar-Penn II improved on the first encounter; Edgar, remaining sharp on his angles and elusive on his feet, was able to capitalize on his takedowns, while Penn at least made some attempt to submit the then champion from his butterfly guard.

Essentially a more-of-the-same type offering, Edgar and Penn’s follow up mirrored the marginal growth Zeppelin made between their first two eponymous albums, as well as Metallica’s marginal steps from Kill ‘Em All to Ride the Lightning, or The Strokes’ bump from Is This It to Room on Fire.

But with Edgar retaining the title at UFC 118, improving to 2-0 against Penn, the need for another contest, or album, full of the same movements and styles became unnecessary. And although the UFC leveraged the popularity of both fighters into coaching stints on The Ultimate Fighter reality show and the ensuing matchup on Saturday, both Edgar and Penn must demonstrate something new, something improved, something special in the trilogy. There needs to be some element of surprise.

Take Radiohead, for example, a band that nailed the Britpop genre on their first two albums, only to throw away their tried, true, and trusted musical algorithm for their third release, OK Computer. A sonic masterpiece, and by all accounts the best alternative rock album of 1997, OK Computer smashed the paradigm of contemporary music like a clean, high-velocity head kick landing square on the jaw.

A band already praised and lauded for the critical and commercial success of its first two albums, Radiohead redefined their game much in the way that Led Zeppelin did a complete about face on III, challenging existing fans and critics with new instrumentation and sonic landscapes.

Metallica also went off the deep end for Master of Puppets, constructing elongated thrash epics, mixing in classical tinges and baroque scales into their arsenal of high gain distortion and thunderous kick drums. Even Queens of the Stone Age redefined the boundaries of stoner rock on the concept-driven Songs For the Deaf, and The Clash, the only band that matters, incorporated reggae, rockabilly, and ska into their established punk ethos on London Calling.

Without these influential third albums, none of these artists would have reached the legendary status they presently enjoy, and in order for Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn to solidify their rivalry, they need to evolve inside the Octagon, elevating their fighting styles to new peaks.


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