Frankie Edgar stood in the center of the UFC Octagon caged into the middle of the floor of Denver's Pepsi Center. Draped to his right, holding his wrist, was referee Herb Dean, bookended by UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Edgar, the kid from Toms River, N.J., whose heart, guts, soul and talent has won over an inordinate amount of MMA fans, held his head high. He was wholly confident he did just enough to take back the belt Henderson wrested away six months ago in Tokyo, yet also nervous because another 25 minutes standing toe-to-toe with Henderson had again left his fate into the minds of the judges, three men whose colleagues' approval rating and competence factor rate on the level of Sarah Palin.
Ring announcer Bruce Buffer read off the scores. "Judge Tony Weeks scored the contest, 49-46 ... Edgar." Such words were bittersweet because while Edgar convinced one decision maker he had recaptured the lightweight title, they were also a prelude to a split verdict. Dave Hagen's scores were read next, which were 48-47 for the champion, and Buffer extended the suspense an extra five seconds once he read Mark Van Tine's numbers.
If Edgar left Tokyo believing he was screwed by the judges, what happened next in Denver was a low blow requiring more than the optional five minutes of recovery time. As Buffer's words left his mouth announcing Henderson was the winner and still UFC lightweight champion, Edgar snapped his arm away from Dean's hand and stomped back to his corner. Destiny was to be his, or so he thought, and the trio at ringside took it away.
It's very easy to pick apart ringside judges -- and many of them deserve it. Too many rightful winners have been royally screwed by a select group of clowns whose eyes saw something completely different from the large portion viewing public. In this social media-dominated world, Twitter was the forum for fans and UFC fighters to use an an outlet of outrage.
From this observer's point of view, Edgar won the fight, 49-46, and coming from one who calls out judges and inferior officiating quite often, it's time to be fair. You may argue that Edgar didn't lose this fight, but Henderson won this fight, and the judges had nothing to do with it. Rounds 3 and 4 were about as difficult to evaluate as Gordon Ramsay picking his next head chef. The margin of error was so minuscule that the judges could have decided each round based on that one extra punch, kick or intricate Octagon control. Even Dana White, a regular blaster of shady judging, gave the trio the benefit of the doubt and Henderson the praise he deserves.
"It's one of those controversial decisions," White said. "I'm not a judge, but Ben Henderson won the fight tonight. He retained his title, and that's the end of it. I know there were a lot of people that scored the fight differently, but I tell these guys all the time, 'If you don't like the way the judges score, don't let it get there. Don't let it get there.'"
Of course there will be people who for days will still be steaming over the perceived highway robbery in the Mile High City. If you're one of those, get over it, because there is a greater plan still in place for "The Answer."
Edgar's next logical move, even if he disagrees, is a step down to 145 pounds. If he does he leaves the lightweights with his head held high and nothing more to accomplish. He's beaten the best -- future Hall of Famer B.J. Penn twice -- and twice took Henderson to the limit. From where I sit, Edgar is right now No. 5 in the division behind Henderson, No. 1 contender Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis. It's at featherweight where apparently all he'll need is one win for a chance to become the third UFC fighter (Penn, Randy Couture) to become a champion in two different weight classes. A victory over a top contender (Chan Sung-Jung?) and it looks as if Edgar would be matched against the winner of champion Jose Aldo vs. Erick Koch.
"I think Frankie would have to fight somebody at 145," White said. "We've got all these backed up titles right now. I don't want that backed up, and if I know Frankie, he's going to want to get in there right away."
But White is leaving that up to Edgar, because even though the wait is a lot longer, the opportunity for Edgar to be not just great, but a legendary lightweight, remains for the taking. Edgar has neither been knocked out or stopped in 18 MMA fights and is the author of some of the division's most memorable moments. At age 30 there's a lot left in him, and the long road back may still conclude with the crowning of Edgar as the UFC's first-ever two-time lightweight champion.
"He's always proved that he can stay at 155," White said. "There's never been a case where Frankie's not good enough to stay at 155, he's not tough enough to be at 155, he's not talented enough to be at 155 or that he's not even big enough to stay at 155. I just think at 145, he's a monster. But he likes 155. He wanted this fight bad. We gave it to him because I respect him so much, and he went out and fought his ass off."
In the shadow of a heartbreaking defeat, sliver linings are aplenty in Edgar's new road to gold. If he stays at lightweight, Edgar has a chance to be bigger than Penn or Jens Pulver. A move to featherweight and he presents the biggest challenge to the seemingly invincible Aldo if he defeats Koch come October. Someday Edgar will come to grips with how Henderson squeaked by him again, but the anger will serve as more oxygen for the fire that burns inside.
The first step was the acceptance of fate that was out of his hands, which in the minds of Edgar and many others was how judges ripped away his destiny at 155.
"I thought I did enough to win," Edgar said. "A lot of people told me that they thought I won. But it doesn't matter. The judges didn't, I did think I did enough. I felt I pushed the pace. I felt I brought the fight to him. But here we are. … It doesn't really matter what I think at this point. That decision is never going to change, so it is what it is."
Edgar can't go wrong with his next career decision, but a step down in weight would be a step up and a set up for ultimate glory.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC