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There’s always a way of staying ahead of yourself and staying ahead of this evolving MMA game. That’s motivating in itself, and there’s no way I want to lose this third time out. – Frankie Edgar

UFC featherweight Frankie EdgarThe topic at the center of this Sunday’s third fight

between Frankie Edgar and BJ Penn has been a persistent one since it was announced. Will Penn, the former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion, who fought his last fight in December of 2012 at 168 pounds, make weight for his first featherweight bout?

All signs point to yes, but even before seeing “The Prodigy” show up downright svelte for fight week in Las Vegas, his opponent wasn’t too concerned.

“I’m not,” said Edgar. “I don’t think he’s got a big frame, and when we filmed the show (The Ultimate Fighter) it seemed like he was in striking distance, and he’s working with (Mike) Dolce, so I’m not really concerned with it. I’m just worrying about me.”

And if you know Edgar, you’ll realize that if Penn showed up at 185 pounds instead of 145, the New Jersey native would likely strap on the gloves and scrap anyway.

“I probably would, I’ll be honest,” he said. “But maybe we’ll make him work out for that hour and get a little off. (Laughs)”

That’s Frankie Edgar, who probably wouldn’t even do that. It’s just the way he’s made. He’s a fighter, and as far as all the other drama that comes along with the fight game goes, he’s not interested. It’s the same way he’s been his entire UFC career, making him not just one of the sport’s top competitors, but one of its best people as well.

“I’m not really a big ego kind of guy,” he said. “I just treat everybody how I would like to be treated, no matter what. Even on the show, I didn’t think I was any better than the guys there, or the guys behind the camera. I don’t think I’m better than anybody. Everybody’s got their own life, and that’s about it.”

It may come from his blue collar background, one where he used to have to juggle his fight career with a full-time gig as a plumber. Sure, he was a great athlete, but he wasn’t a coddled one. And that makes a big difference.

“I had to juggle two things,” he recalls. “I had to work and do some degrading things at times, like busting up urinals and digging holes, and then had to go to the gym right after. It definitely puts things in perspective.”

Consequently, you won’t see Edgar with an entourage, won’t have to go through five people to get one interview, or hear him engaged in any trash talk wars. That’s just not his style. Jeez, even Penn, who always enjoyed a little verbal sparring over the years, won’t say a cross word about the man who already holds two wins over him.

So with no bad blood between the two former lightweight champs, and Edgar already 2-0 against the Hawaiian, you had to wonder if the Toms River product was surprised when he got the call to face Penn a third time.

“At first I was,” he said. “I think at the time, he was supposed to be retired, or at least inactive, and not at 145. And when they first offered it to me, I thought it could possibly be at ’55, so I didn’t really know what to expect. But I’m a gamer. I’m always willing to do what is asked of me. I keep it simple, and when you do that, you don’t let things get out of hand.”

And it is a high-profile fight against one of the sport’s superstars on the biggest UFC weekend of the year. All enticing prospects indeed, but after being out of action since his July 2013 win over Charles Oliveira, Edgar is just happy to be back in action.

“A hundred percent,” he said. “I’m a little ornery (Laughs), and it’s funny, I always get to this point where I’m sick of training. I’m ready to fight. But a week after the fight I’ll be twiddling my thumbs saying, ‘all right, let’s get back in the gym.’”

He’s seen enough of the gym over the last year, and when he wasn’t working on his game and staying sharp he was spending time with his family, which got a new addition when he and his wife Renee welcomed a daughter in June.

“I really didn’t take much time off,” said Edgar of life after his Fight of the Night win over Oliveira at UFC 162. “I probably didn’t take off more than a week at a time at any given point in this year. I went on vacation with my wife and my family, and even then I was running on the beach. I can’t really sit too idle; I’m just not that guy. So I was in the gym and working constantly to get better. I didn’t go there and beat myself up the whole year, but I was definitely in there trying to improve my skills, and helping my teammates get ready helps also.”

Edgar also faced off with Penn without gloves on, as the two coached on season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter. It was an opportunity for Edgar to introduce himself to the public in a way they hadn’t seen before, and before he takes care of his business on Sunday, both TUF 19 final bouts will be contested by fighters Edgar coached on the show.

“It’s a testament to how we do things, and I don’t want to take all the credit because I brought my coaching staff – the guys I work with on a daily basis – there with me and I think it has a lot to do with the chemistry that we have, and I’m just following the lead of the guys before me,” he said. “I notice a lot of my coaching techniques are what I get from the guys that coached me. So it’s definitely nice to know that we’re doing the right thing. And if we can do it with myself and then with guys we were only with for six weeks, then we’re on the right track.”

And probably about to get a lot of calls about training with him and his team in Jersey. It’s not for everyone though.

“It’s unique what we have here in Jersey,” he said. “We’re not really a one-stop shop. You’ve got to really want to do this because you’re got to travel, you’ve got to adjust your schedule, and it’s not like you go to one gym and everything’s there; we kinda move around a little bit, so it’s not the easiest thing for guys to do.”

Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway traffic in the summer is no joke either, and Edgar agrees, but for now there is only Penn, who the 32-year-old defeated twice in 2010. And while the first fight was close, the second one was a clinic by Edgar. So how does he top that fight this weekend?

“I don’t think it’s about topping the last BJ fight, it’s just topping my last fight, period, and just trying to be a better fighter,” he said. “It will be over four years since we fought, so I just want to show the world that I’ve been doing things these past four years. I’m not the same fighter. I don’t think I’m the same fighter I was a year ago or even three months ago. There’s always a way of staying ahead of yourself and staying ahead of this evolving MMA game. That’s motivating in itself, and there’s no way I want to lose this third time out.”

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BJ Penn: The Last Run

BJ Penn looked bored. There was plenty of action on the stage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in May as fighters like Ronda Rousey, Chris Weidman, and Chael Sonnen entertained fans who showed up for the press conference to kick off the promotion for this weekend’s UFC 175 / TUF 19 Finale shows.

And you don’t want a bored BJ Penn. You want a fired up “Prodigy” talking about what he does for a living in the way only he can. So having covered Penn extensively over the course of his storied career, I had an idea that involved a reach into my bag of tricks. I simply read him a quote he gave me years ago when I asked why, through the ups and downs of his career, his fans never left him.

“There’s just something about BJ Penn that gets people amped up. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, but something’s gonna happen.  He might disappoint you, he might make you happy, he might make you cry, he might make you jump out of your chair, but he’ll do something to you.”

He listened intently and then I asked him “is that guy still there?”

Penn smiled and grabbed the mic.

“That guy’s still there. He’s sitting right here. He’s right here everybody.”

Just like that, Penn wasn’t bored anymore, and neither were the fans that roared when he made his declaration of relevance to the world. It’s the only thing they wanted to see, the fire that epitomized his best performances and made him a two-division UFC champion and one of the most intriguing figures to ever set foot in the Octagon.

Those same fans hope that fire is still burning this Sunday, when Penn returns to the Octagon for the first time since December of 2012 to face a man who has already beaten him twice, Frankie Edgar. To the oddsmakers, it’s a steep mountain for the 35-year-old Penn to climb, especially after losing two straight to Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald, having a long layoff, and doing it all at 145 pounds for the first time. “The Prodigy” knows all of the above, but facing a stiff challenge never scared him.

“I took a lot of time off,” he said. “I’ve been getting some mixed results in the fighting and I had to regroup, watch the sport, see how far it’s evolved, and come back in, revamp myself and see if I can compete at this level.”

He already hinted at retirement after his one-sided loss to Diaz in October of 2011, but after a similar defeat 14 months later against MacDonald, most believed that they had seen the Hawaiian fight for the last one. Penn was one of those believers.

“After the fight with Rory and losing another decision, I’m sitting there thinking that maybe I made the correct decision the first time,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here fighting at the top level anymore. I believed I was done after the Rory MacDonald fight.”

But for any fighter, the itch never goes away that easily. Eventually, Penn felt like he was ready to give it one more shot. The goal? Frankie Edgar. But why?

“I just don’t like how my lightweight reign ended,” said Penn, whose two losses to the New Jersey native came in 2010. “Frankie came in and he beat me the two fights, which is an amazing accomplishment on his part. Frankie’s one of the best of all-time and one of the best to enter the UFC, and you’ve got to know that coming in to fight him.”

So those losses haunt him then? He says no, but after a pause, he reconsiders.

“Maybe the fights do haunt me.”

Determined to make one more run at redemption, he called up UFC President Dana White and told him how he felt.

“If I get a few victories, I can fight Frankie Edgar,” said Penn.

White wondered why Penn still wanted to compete, but he also knew how stubborn the former two-division champ could be. He also wanted someone to go against Edgar as a coach on season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter.

At featherweight.

“I said, I’ll take the fight, I’ll drop the weight, and here I am now.”

He laughs.

“This might be my real weight. We’ll find out.”

We will on Sunday, but more importantly, Penn will find out if he still has the right stuff to fight on the UFC level. “The Prodigy” might be stubborn, but he’s not delusional, and if “it” isn’t there anymore, this might be the last time we see him in Octagon.

Or maybe not, and once again, Penn’s response to such speculation both entertains and intrigues. It’s just his way.

“I could make another run all the way and wipe everybody out, or…I think that’s about it,” he said. “I think we’re going to make a run at this point. There’s not much else to do. Go make a run, go see if we can become the greatest of all time, right at the finish line. Right at the very end.”

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