One of UFC's little secrets is how the year-end show, which takes place on Saturday night in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, may be traditionally one of the biggest of the year, but it's also one show that a lot of fighters would just as well not fight on if they had their choice.
Fighting on the show means not only intense training, but intense dieting during Thanksgiving and all through the Christmas season. The kind of workload involved makes it difficult to enjoy the holidays, can create stress with families, and for those who go away to camp before fights, it means missing the family the entire time. But at this stage of his life, for bantamweight contender Brad "One Punch" Pickett, who would be in consideration for a title match with a win over former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland, the last few weeks haven't been a problem.
"A job is a job," he said. "Since both of my parents are deceased, Christmas has never been a big thing to me. It's not that I don't celebrate the holiday, don't get me wrong. But I'm not worried that I can't eat what I want. For me, I just want to keep fighting and stay healthy. I wanted three fights this year. I'm healthy. I'm not getting any younger and would like to fight when I'm healthy."
Pickett has battled all kinds of injuries over the past few years, most notably chronic back problems, so fighting relatively pain-free is in his mind nothing to be taken for granted.
"Knock on wood, really," he said. "For once, I haven't had any injuries. I don't remember the last time I went into a fight without something really bad. It's helped me to train better. In my last camp, I really hurt my hand, really hurt my ribs. My training sucked. I did light training, and it sucked. I trained through it. Now I'm really enjoying training and when you enjoy it, you learn more. I'm still learning. I can learn a lot from Mike Brown (former WEC featherweight champion)."
The fact his fight isn't on the pay-per-view card hasn't even been an issue.
"I'm seeing a lot of people want me on the main card, but UFC may want us on the prelims because they know it's going to be an exciting fight," said Pickett. "It can be a case like the Korean Zombie vs. Leonard Garcia, where they want an exciting fight on TV to get people to want to pay for the pay-per-view. A boring fight last on the prelims may affect pay-per-view buys."
"Basically, this fight now could cap off a great year for me and pave the way for my new year," said Pickett, who beat Damacio Page via choke and Yves Jabouin via knockout so far in 2012. "If I win, next year looks completely different than if I lose. If I win, I'd like to do a fight against the winner of (Michael) McDonald vs. (Renan) Barao."
The way the division looks right now, if Pickett wins and is healthy, it would likely be down to him and the winner of the Feb. 23 fight with Urijah Faber vs. Ivan Menjivar in Anaheim, Calif., for the opportunity at the interim bantamweight title held by Barao. Barao faces McDonald on Feb. 16 at Wembley Arena in London. If Faber wins, even impressively, there is an issue regarding UFC giving Faber in another title match after just one win since his last loss to Barao on July 21 in Calgary.
Faber has challenged four times for titles in the last four years, losing each time. Pickett would seem to have a leg up on Menjivar, since he beat him two years ago. But a Menjivar win over Faber would be a higher profile win than Pickett beating Wineland, or vice versa.
"I've been in this position a couple of times before, or thereabouts, and before I was thinking it would be a case where Barao would wait for (champion Dominick) Cruz," he said. "But now Cruz will be out for a long time. It does leave it wide open for me and Wineland. It makes sense. I don't like to look into it too much. With Barao vs. McDonald in London [where Pickett is from], I can watch the fight and do some P.R. But that's looking past Wineland which I never want to do. He's a tough opponent. I have to make sure I win and good things will happen."
At 34, Pickett (22-6), has been around long enough that he recognizes it's not going to last forever. But he's also not worried about his short-term future, win or lose.
"I'm excited, but I don't put pressure on myself, I'm used to it," he said. "I'd like to enjoy this. I'd like to perform the best I can. If I perform my best and lose, then I lost to a better guy. Rather than put so much pressure on winning, I want to put on a good show. Some people are in different career positions where they'll lose their job if they lose. If I lose, I'm not going to be out of a job, with my fighting style."
Pickett was not too long ago singled out by UFC President Dana White as the type of guy they want in the organization. In his last five fights, he's gotten three fight-of-the-night bonuses and one best knockout bonus. Wineland earlier in the week talked about the fight, which will air on the prelims on FX, saying it would be like fighting his mirror image. Pickett sees where he's coming from, but also sees differences.
"We're similar, but we have different styles," he said. "But we're similar in mentality. We both like to stand. We're both tough, but well-rounded. We both have submissions and takedowns, but we still both like to stand. He's more of a counter puncher. I look to come out for war. He's throws straight punches. I throw hooks. It's a case of whose style will come out on that night."
Pickett said he expects Barao to come out of the McDonald fight still as interim champion, but also made it clear he wouldn't consider himself a champion unless he beats Cruz. While he said he's healthy for this fight, he can sympathize with Cruz's position, because he's battled a number of injuries the past few years.
"I felt bad for him," Pickett said about hearing the news of Cruz needing a second knee operation and being out likely until the end of 2013. "I've had a bad back and it sucks to be out for a long time. If I was out that long and coming back, I'd try to get a warm up fight first. But he can't. When he comes back, he'll have to fight the next person in line. I really feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for Barao, because he wants to fight Cruz. Nobody really wants the interim belt. With him fighting McDonald, he's risking losing his shot at the real belt."
Pickett knows about Barao firsthand, since Barao put himself in championship contention by beating Pickett on Nov. 5, 2011, at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England.
"When I look back at Barao, he was a little of an unknown entity," said Pickett. "He told me at the time I was his toughest fight. I didn't overlook him at all, but it was his UFC debut, the co-main event, and I wanted to rip his head off. I respected him. I wasn't scared of him in any way. I wanted to put it on him and blast his head off. He stayed very calm and composed and dealt with me very well. He impressed me. He just coped with the pressure really well and won the fight. Obviously, if I fought him again, I'd fight a lot different.
"McDonald is young. I think he's got a lot to learn. I don't think personally he'll beat Barao. I think Barao is a better fighter. I think I know the sport inside and out, but I get proven wrong every weekend. That's what makes the sport so exciting, is that you can never tell."