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'The Ultimate Fighter' returns with Frankie Edgar leading the charge

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Back in 2006, up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter Frankie Edgar tried out for the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter, where he could have competed under coaches BJ Penn and Jens Pulver. “I thought the tryout went well,” Edgar says. “The TV producers said, ‘We’ll give you a call back within a couple days,’ and then I flew home. I remember I went with a buddy of mine, and he got the call before we even landed, and I didn’t get it at all.”

Eight years on, Edgar is coaching a team on The Ultimate Fighter against Penn, one of his biggest rivals. Edgar has an incredible UFC career on his resume, including a two-year run as the organization’s 155-pound champion. Wednesday night, he begins his quest to guide a team of 16 fighters in competition against Penn’s squad. The two coaches (now both competing at 145 pounds) will square off in July, with the show building up their rivalry, which began a few years ago with two close decision victories for Edgar that ended Penn’s run as lightweight champion. “We’re competitive guys. We fought in the past, and I have a couple of wins over him, and he wants to get them back, and I want to make sure he doesn’t get any,” says Edgar, whose nickname is “The Answer.” “It carries over to the show. I want my guys to beat his guys. I don’t want to lose one single fight, and neither does he.”

Video: B.J. Penn, Frankie Edgar renew their rivalry in TUF 19

The season premiere of any episode of The Ultimate Fighter (which airs on Fox Sports 1 at 10 p.m. ET) is super high-stakes, and this one is no different. The show welcomes 32 fighters (16 185-pound middleweights and 16 205-pound light heavyweights) to the cage, and each contestant must fight his way into the actual competition show. Those first looks act as the immediate resumés for the coaches, who must pick their teams based on those fights. “It’s tough to judge someone’s fight ability based on one fight,” says Edgar. “I just look for toughness. You want to make sure they’re sound fighters and technically have ability, but for me, I want to see if they have some toughness. In the setting of the show, fighting numerous times in six weeks, toughness really matters.”

The season premiere has a handful of stunning finishes and upsets, including a nasty knockout. “[UFC President] Dana White dubbed it the best knockout in TUF history,” says Edgar. But just in case you’re not wholly committed to pugilism, there are plenty of narratives to get lost in among the competitors. “The fights are fun and entertaining, but seeing the personalities of these guys is great,” says Edgar. “You really get a deeper look at the character of these guys, who they are, and what they’re going through to achieve their goals. Everybody can relate to that.”

The full night of fights starts at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1 with the live event UFC Fight Night: Bisping vs. Kennedy, followed by the season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Edgar vs. Team Penn. And in case you ever want to get in the zone the way Edgar does, just fire up some Notorious B.I.G. “For the past seven or eight fights, I’ve been coming out to [the cage to] ‘Kick in the Door’ by Biggie Smalls,” explains Edgar. “I’m a big fan of his, and I’m in it: ‘The most shady/ Frankie Baby.’