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(This story first appeared in Thursday’s edition of USA TODAY.)

Frankie Edgar had been training in mixed martial arts for only a few weeks when his coach floated the idea of throwing him into a no-rules fight of questionable legality one sweltering summer day in 2005.

For reasons likely related to the same personality traits that would make him a UFC titleholder five years later, Edgar thought this sounded like a fine idea.

He didn’t have much going on at the time. He had just finished college and was working as a plumber. He spent fight week “digging holes all day in the heat,” he says.

Then Sunday came, and he headed up to a gym in the Bronx. It wasn’t the MGM Grand, and this wasn’t the UFC.

“There were no rules,” says Edgar (16-4-1 MMA, 10-4-1 UFC), who faces fellow former UFC lightweight champ B.J. Penn (16-9-2, 12-8-2) for the third time at The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale in Las Vegas on Sunday (Fox Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET).

The veterans serve as rival head coaches on the latest season of the UFC reality series, which concludes at the event.

“We didn’t weigh in,” Edgar says of his 2005 debut. “There were no rounds. The gloves I used in the fight were the gloves I was training in for the last four weeks. We just showed up and fought.”

These were the early years of New York’s Underground Combat League, which sprung up in 2003 to give local fighters a place to compete in a state where the sport still remains technically banned.

The trade-off, according to Jim Genia, author of “Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts,” is a complete lack of regulatory oversight and pre- and postfight medical care.

“They sign a waiver, there’s no screening, and it’s just people agreeing to fight,” says Genia, who has covered the UCL since its inception and who recalls Edgar’s bout against local fighter Eric Uresk as sort of resume-builder gone wrong.

“Everyone thought (Uresk) would be like (former UFC lightweight champion) Sean Sherk; he’d go to the UFC, all that,” Genia says. “Frankie was brought in to lose. He was brought in with the expectation that Eric was going to stomp him. Obviously, it didn’t pan out that way.”

What happened instead was Edgar put his college wrestling skills to work along with what little he knew of MMA at the time. He also used the lack of rules to his advantage, at one point head-butting Uresk in the face.

“It felt more like a street fight than anything,” says Edgar, whose UFC headliner Sunday comes the day after the UFC 175 pay-per-view, also in Vegas. “But I’d been in my share of those.”

With friends and relatives screaming encouragement from just a few feet away, Edgar stopped Uresk with strikes a little less than four minutes into the fight. What he didn’t realize, until he was celebrating at a post-fight dinner with teammates, was that he’d suffered damage of his own.

Uresk had broken Edgar’s orbital bone with knees to the face early in the fight. When Edgar went to blow the blood out of his nose in the restaurant bathroom, he recalls, “My sinus passage opened up, and my whole face swelled up with air. My eye started drooping. I could feel the air between my skin and skull just crackling.”

Talk about a memorable welcome to the sport for a future champion. But that would be years down the road. Back then, Edgar was just another guy bleeding in a restaurant bathroom.

Still, he knew what to do.

“I went back out and finished my meal,” he says. “Then I went to the emergency room.”

For more on UFC 175 and The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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