The UFC finishes 2012 on Saturday night with UFC 155. The event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas features the UFC heavyweight title rematch between Junior dos Santos and former champ Cain Velasquez. Who stands to gain, who has a lot to lose, and what looks like the fight of the night? My esteemed colleague Dave Meltzer joins me to discuss that and more.
1. Who is under the most pressure?
Dave Meltzer: Cain Velasquez. From before he started in UFC, people talked of Velasquez as a future world champion, which he became. Everybody loses and Velasquez had both his best night, where he beat Brock Lesnar, and his worst, where he lost to Junior Dos Santos, on the biggest stage possible.
But losing twice to the same person is simply something he can't afford at this time with people like Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem and Daniel Cormier all in line for a title opportunity. Two losses to the champion puts you in that position Rich Franklin was in years back with Anderson Silva, where B.J. Penn found himself with Frankie Edgar and where Edgar found himself with Benson Henderson. Not only are you out of consideration for title matches, but the promotion is going to avoid putting you in with any top contenders, because it makes no sense. All you can do is eliminate title matches with no promotional up-side.
The difference between Velasquez and the aforementioned names is they were all able to switch weight classes and avoid booking purgatory. Velasquez doesn't have that option. Very rarely will you find a fighter that is so good, has had such a stellar career, and so well respected in a position here they would almost be forced into meaningless fights.
Dave Doyle: Dave M. pretty much nailed this one. If dos Santos loses, the UFC can go straight to a trilogy fight with Velasquez, or at worst, depending on timing/injuries/etc., he'd be maybe one fight away. But if Velasquez loses, he's not getting another title shot while dos Santos holds the belt. He doesn't have the option of changing weight classes and he's also too early in his career to ease into the "let's make fun fights we've always wanted to see just because we can" phase, like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva. So yeah, it's not an overstatement to say that for Velasquez, Saturday represents as must-win as a fighter still in his prime can face.
2. Who, besides Junior dos Santos, has the most to lose?
Meltzer: The real answer here is Velasquez for all the reasons stated above, but rather than repeat, the second person is Jim Miller. Miller has been a top-tier lightweight for years, but if he loses to Joe Lauzon, that would be his third loss in four fights. Miller has a great reputation with the promotion, so he's likely in no danger of losing his job with a loss. But it would dig his career into a deep hole he'll have a lot of trouble getting out of, where he'd become just a guy on undercards.
Doyle: I'm going to take Miller's opponent here. Lauzon has been a consequential fighter at lightweight since he made his Zuffa debut at UFC 63 and finished Jens Pulver in under a minute. Lauzon has made a nice living for himself over the years, earning 11 post-fight bonuses. But at 28, if Lauzon is going to mature into a legitimate lightweight title contender, the time is now. A win over a respected, tough veteran like Miller wouldn't make Lauzon the next in line for a title shot, but would be his fourth win in his past five and would put him on the short list. A loss here, and he's pretty much sealed his spot as a guy with exciting fights who alternates wins and losses. Which is far from the worst spot to have, but UFC 155 is make-or-break for Lauzon's championship ambitions.
3. What is shaping up to be the fight of the night?
Doyle: I'm going to go with the fight everyone was looking forward to a couple weeks ago: Jamie Varner vs. Melvin Gullard. It's a fun fight for all the same reasons it was before. They're two lightweights who like to go for broke, and they're both looking for a rebound after losing Fights of the Night in their previous fights (Varner against Lauzon and Guillard against Donald Cerrone). Add in the theatrics going back to the day of the TUF Finale, when Varner had to pull out of the fight, the two traded barbs over Twitter, and Guillard's classic interview on Fuel where he said he'd never fight Varner and then immediately contradicted himself, and you have added spark for a fight which was already hot.
Meltzer: Miller vs. Lauzon matches up the best because they are two guys proficient everywhere, who are both good at creating opportunities and neither will go down easy. Lauzon is also a bonus collecting machine. And it's a crossroads fight for both of them. The one thing about this show is the lineup almost guarantees several strong fights, enough that picking one ahead of time as the standout fight is difficult. Before their first meeting, Velasquez vs. Dos Santos was thought to have the potential to be the classic heavyweight fight of the era, but it ended in 64 seconds and people didn't even get a taste of the fight expected. It's likely to be one of the fastest moving heavyweight fights.
4. Most underrated fight?
Doyle: I'm going with Alan Belcher vs. Yushin Okami. There's been so much talk about all the other contenders at middleweight, from Michael Bisping to Chris Weidman to Tim Boetsch to Vitor Belfort, that Belcher and Okami have slipped under the radar. Okami's not quite the fighter he was back in the days when everyone at 185 was looking to avoid him, but he's still a formidable force. Belcher has impressed when he's been healthy, but hasn't been able to stay healthy quite long enough to build the sort of momentum needed to make a real push to the top. Granted, if the patient, grinding Okami shows up, we could be in for a long 15 minutes, but if Belcher manages to dictate the terms of the fight the way he did against Rousimar Palhares, we could have a stealth fight of the night contender.
Meltzer: Wineland vs. Pickett is the most underrated in a sense that not only could it win fight of the night, but it looks like a strong possibility to determine the next opponent for the interim bantamweight title. As far as ramifications go, it's probably the second biggest fight on the show, but it's on the FX prelims.
5. Who's on the chopping block?
Meltzer: Byron Bloodworth, who faces Erik Perez, if he loses, would go 0-2 in UFC competition, and unless he puts up a great fight, would be in the most jeopardy. Others who may have their backs against the wall would include Leonard Garcia, who comes in with three straight losses. Garcia has had so many great fights that he may still be spared, but he's clearly in danger with a loss, especially if he's blown out. A loss by Melvin Guillard will be his fourth in five fights, but he's another one with a style and attitude where the company is likely to bend over backwards to keep him.
Doyle: I have to go with Garcia here. No matter how much fighting spirit he shows in the cage, there's a certain point where you simply don't belong in the big leagues anymore. Garcia didn't look like he belonged in his last fight, a loss to Matt Grice. Most agree Garcia got a gift decision in his first Nam Phan fight in 2010. If that decision went the way it should have, we'd be talking about a fighter with five straight losses, and how many in Zuffa get that long a leash? As is, even with the Phan decision and his tight split decision win in his first fight with Chan Sung Jung, you're talking about a fighter who is 2-5-1 in his past eight fights. Garcia pretty much needs to come up with a win here to keep his job.