gabrielk@phillynews.com

IT'S FRIDAY, but it's quiet in the gym.

There are only a few fighters on the mat listening intently as jiu-jitsu instructor Ricardo Almeida instructs how to utilize a lock called the "seat belt" inside his dank yet spacious studio in Hamilton, N.J., on the outskirts of Trenton.

There is nothing exciting about this place. The blue mats offset white walls and there is very little light shining through the storefront windows, though outside a sunny January morning greets a new day. There is virtually no artwork, just some punching bags in one corner and a few weights in another.

It's obvious right away that this is a home for serious fighters.

Among the handful of fighters is Frank Edgar, better known as "Frankie," a quiet, diminutive guy you wouldn't initially assume practiced mixed marital arts until a closer look revealed rampant cauliflower ears and a nose that leans a bit to the left, thanks to multiple fractures.

Edgar sits on the floor, eyes peeled as Almeida goes through the motions. He looks almost like a school kid, intently watching, asking questions and seeking approval as he attempts the move himself. His attitude is what you'd expect from someone new to the fight game looking to improve.

Not from a UFC lightweight champion.

"That's Frankie. He just wants to improve, he wants to be better and he knows that if he wants to stay the champion that he needs to get better," said Almeida, who knows a thing or two about the fight game.

Raised in the Gracie jiu-jitsu system, the Brazilian retired from UFC in March 2011. One of his most notable wins was a unanimous decision over Kendall Grove at UFC 101 in Philadelphia. Today, he shares his immense knowledge with anyone willing to make the trek to his studio.

"Frankie has so much potential that is still untapped," Almeida said. "He wants to evolve his boxing, his jiu-jitsu and even his wrestling, which he's done his whole life. He's willing to do the work and put in the time to find out just how good he can be."

This mentality makes Edgar one scary force to be reckoned with. Even at 5-6, 155 pounds. Don't believe it? Just ask his meathead victims - some twice his size - from when he spent summers on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, N.J., perfecting his craft just a few miles from his hometown of Toms River.

"Growing up in Toms River, it's right over the bridge from Seaside, and that's just the nature over there," Edgar said. "You go out, there are the loudmouths, guys perhaps having a bit too much to drink, stuff like that. I'm a little dude and they'd always like to single people out like myself; it's just what it is. But I find it's us little guys you have to watch out for."

But Edgar is a long ways away from beating up Jersey Shore types. Today, he's an accomplished mixed martial artist heading into one of the biggest fights of his career, a world away in Japan. He's the main event of UFC 144 tomorrow live from Tokyo. He will defend his lightweight title against top contender Benson Henderson (15-2). For Edgar (12-1-1, UFC, 14-1-1 MMA), fighting far from everything he knows in Jersey is no big deal. He won the title in April 2010 against then-UFC lightweight beast BJ Penn in Abu Dhabi, UAE, entering as an underdog while keeping tabs on his wife Renee, who made the 26-hour trip despite being 8 months pregnant with Santino, the couple's second child.

 

Competing, not plumbing

Mixed martial arts seems to be the natural progression of freestyle wrestlers these days. For starters, if one is good enough to make it into the UFC, it can be a lucrative, albeit dangerous transition. For Edgar, after finishing an All-America wrestling career at Clarion University, it was hard to imagine life off the mat. With a degree in psychology in tow, Edgar decided to work for his father's plumbing business, busting up toilets and soldering pipes. It was a job, but Edgar knew right away that it wasn't his calling.

"I worked for my father's plumbing company, but I still wanted to train and make my living another way," said Edgar. "So, I'm still training but I'm asking myself, 'What the hell am I training for?' See, I knew I wanted to train, but I wasn't sure if it was going to be something I did after work or something I'm doing to make a career out of. MMA filled that void for me."

Edgar's first fight came just 3 months after he took off his college wrestling singlet for the last time. It was an underground smoker fight in the Bronx, and Edgar recalls, "no one thought I had a chance against" the opponent. Edgar dismantled the challenger, eventually winning courtesy of a head butt to the nose.

Edgar teamed up with UFC in 2007, thrusting the still-green fighter into three fights that year, the first against Tyson Griffin at UFC 67. He won by unanimous decision. Next, a Round 1 knockout of Mark Bocek at UFC 73. Edgar capped his breakout year with another unanimous win over Spencer Fisher at UFC 78, 5 months later. And the wins kept coming. In fact, only one fighter has given Frankie fits, Gray Maynard, Edgar's only loss and draw in the UFC.

"Frankie is one of the most accomplished fighters in the history of our sport," UFC chief Dana White said. "He has been at the top of his game for a long time and that's why he's champion. He's a smart, scrappy fighter and he's got that East Coast kick-the-[stuff]-out-you mentality."

 

'We just clicked'

Renee Edgar likes to think she met her husband by coincidence, that it was a moment of perfect timing. But one look at their timeline and it's hard not to argue fate played a role in their pairing.

The two were in the same kindergarten class and remained tied by some way or another throughout their lives. By the time they were both classmates at Toms River High School East, they were friends and could have been more except . . .

"He was a cutie so he always had a girlfriend," Renee said. "We just both were never single at the same time, but we had the same high school friends and we remained close. But I was about 19 and we were both starting our freshman year at college and just starting liking each other."

Edgar married Renee 10 days after his first loss to Maynard at UFC Fight Night in January 2008. The couple soon after had Francesco, better known as Frankie Jr. In turn, Frankie Edgar the fighter also became Frankie Edgar the father and husband. But it's hard for Edgar to imagine himself with anyone else. Renee has been his source of strength in a profession he claims can get pretty lonely at times.

"I truly feel like I've never gone through this journey by myself and this can be a lonely sport. It's all on you when you are in there and you are pushing yourself to the limit," Edgar said. "I drive all over, I'm here in [Hamilton] or I'm driving to [New York City] or I'm driving to train in Philly and you spend a lot of that time solo. But to have someone to share it all with makes it easier. She's been with me since college as far as me competing. She knows how to handle me and how much this means to me and it's great to share this with her."

Renee has yet to miss one of her husband's fights. On Tuesday, she kissed Frankie Jr. and Santino goodbye at her mother's residence and boarded a plane to be with Frankie in Japan. Though she loves sharing his success, while in the moment Renee admits it isn't something she particularly enjoys.

"I am a train wreck on fight night, a mess," Renee said. "I mean, keep in mind we are two kids later into this, it can be nerve-racking. I mean he's broken his nose a ton of times, so that's no big deal anymore, but I don't want it to be more. But when it's over, I am really happy for him. He has always been very determined and he deserves everything he gets."

 

Stuck in the moment

Sitting on the royal blue mats at Almeida's Jiu-Jitsu Academy, legs straddling his opponent, Edgar takes one last look at his instructor before applying the "seat belt" to his partner.

Instinctively, his partner drops his hands to loosen Edgar's grip on his sternum. Edgar digs his chin into the top of his partner's shoulder as he drives his hips over and goes to the mount. His partner's neck exposed, Edgar quickly changes his grip, now one arm under his partner's armpit and the other around his neck, feverishly attempting to wrap and drive his legs around the waist and thighs of his prey.

Rolling to his back, he has the move applied. Rear naked choke. Enough pressure and within seconds his partner taps, signaling Edgar completed the move to near perfection. Almeida gives a glancing smile of approval. Edgar flashes a quick look of gratification before it becomes his partner's turn to try his luck on the current lightweight champion.

It's one move in hundreds of combinations and variations Edgar is on his way to perfecting.

But he's not there yet.

"I'm always kind of stuck in the moment, I really never think of my career from then until now," Edgar said. "Even Ricardo tells me I need to 'step back and take it all in because it's not going to last forever.' But the person I am, always so goal-driven looking towards that next fight because I want to win so bad, sometimes I do lose sight of the fact that, yeah, my career has been pretty awesome so far. If it ended today, I can honestly say it's been great."

 

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