Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Although nobody is saying anything, if you look at an overview of the UFC's bantamweight division, Eddie Wineland may be one step away from a shot at gold for the second time.
But unlike the first time he was champion, if he gets there this time, people will know about it.
Wineland (19-8-1), the first-ever WEC bantamweight champion, faces Brad "One Punch" Pickett (22-6) on the FX prelims at UFC 155 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The winner of this fight would seem to be in the best position to challenge the winner of the Feb. 16 interim title fight between champion Renan Barao and challenger Michael McDonald.
With champion Dominick Cruz on the shelf until late 2013 after his second major knee operation, there will be at least one more title match in the division before whoever is interim champion faces Cruz.
In looking at the top challengers, Urijah Faber is clearly among the best in the division, but has lost his last four championship opportunities in two different weight classes. Even though Faber is still the biggest name in the division in a sport where name value is a premium, it is likely Faber is going to need to put together a string of wins before getting a title shot. It appeared the two big fights for which a contender would be picked from would be the Dec. 8 fight in Seattle, where Raphael Assuncao defeated Mike Easton by decision, and Wineland vs. Pickett.
But Assuncao won a boring fight in unimpressive fashion, and suffered a broken arm in the process, which likely takes him out of contention for the time being. There are only a few things that would look to take the Wineland vs. Pickett winner out of getting the next title shot. One would be a boring fight, which would seem unlikely, particularly since Pickett's track record shows he simply doesn't have them. Another would be if the winner suffers a serious injury. The third dark horse reason would be if Ivan Menjivar upset Faber on Feb. 23 in Anaheim, Calif. The enormity of that victory could cause Menjivar to leapfrog the pack.
Either way, Wineland hasn't heard anything, hasn't charted out the division to figure his chances, and isn't looking past anything but a tough fight next week. Wineland isn't someone who makes sure to watch all his potential competition unless they are the next thing on his agenda.
Regarding seeing the name fights in his division, Wineland said, "I know when they're fighting, but unless one of my friends says, 'I'll get the fight,' I don't know if I'll see the fight or not."
"I haven't heard anything (about the winner of this fight's chances of getting a title fight)," he said. "I just keep doing what I do. If that's what they want to give me, good. If not, I'll keep fighting who they want to give me and go on from there."
Wineland won the WEC title when the promotion was operating out of the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in Lemoore, Calif., on native American land, just outside of Fresno. At the age of 21, on May 5, 2006, he knocked out Antonio Banuelos in just 2:36 to win the title. But just as WEC was getting on national television in 2007 after being sold to Zuffa, he lost the title via decision to Chase Beebe.
If you trace back the bantamweight title history, since the UFC belt derived from the WEC belt in 2011, Wineland would in a sense be the first champion. That's hardly something he anticipated back in 2006.
"I had no clue when I first won the belt," he said. "I didn't know what I had done. It's kind of a blessing."
At the time, there wasn't much of a future in being a 135-pound fighter. MMA was just getting off the ground, but the major promotions weren't using anyone less than 155 pounds.
"I never once imagined that I would be able to take it to the level I'm at now," he said. "I got lucky. Well, maybe not lucky. I've been fighting since before it was the cool thing to do. I had a love of fighting and wanted to do it. I never once thought that I'd be where I'm at. I made it, and it's a good thing."
He was around in the WEC on Versus years, but after losing via submission quickly to Rani Yahya, had to climb back up the ladder. It wasn't until last year when he was back in contention, being in a title eliminator that he lost via decision to Faber.
Wineland won the first round but Faber's conditioning edge really took over in round three.
"In the Urijah fight, he had a hell of a time getting me down, and he's one of he best wrestlers in the division," said Wineland. "I stuffed all his takedowns before he was successful."
After a loss to Joseph Benavidez, he rebounded with the most impressive performance of his career on June 8, being the first fighter to knock out Scott Jorgensen. Wineland said that the Jorgensen fight, where he showed strong stand-up and great takedown defense, was the first time the real him fully came out.
"That's who I am normally," he said. "I finally let loose. I finally got to show all that I am. It's an every day occurrence in the gym for me and it's what you should expect from here on out."
But with Pickett, a popular U.K. fighter who is known for entertaining battles, Wineland sees someone very similar.
"He's a tough dude, and it'd kind of going to be like fighting the man I see in the mirror," he said. "He's not afraid to stand and trade. He's got heavy hands, good wrestling, good submissions. I think it's one of the most evenly matched up fights there is. I'm eager to test myself. It's almost like fighting myself. I'll get to feel what it's like for guys who fight me.
"I think I'm stronger and faster, and a more technical striker," he said. "I think he's not afraid to stand and trade and he can take a punch. I'm better in some aspects. I think our ground games are similar. I think I'm a better wrestler. I'm sure he sees places where he has advantages."
Wineland feels the entire bantamweight division at the top is all about who has the best day on fight night.
"Anybody in the top ten can be a contender," he said. "They're all there. They're all really well-rounded. They're all really good. That's just the sport. On any given day, anybody can win. That's why fans are so into the sport. It's an actual fair sport. You really don't know who is going to win. You think you know, but it doesn't always happen like you think."
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