With UFC on FUEL just a couple hours away, there are plenty of questions, concerns, and predictions to help us kill the time. Here are eight of them, in no particular order.
I. What’s to become of Diego Sanchez if he loses this fight? Remember when he was the storm-harnessing iconoclast on the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter? It seems like just yesterday that we were first getting to know this unique little snowflake, but it was actually about seven years ago. Am I the only one whose mind is blown by that fact? Maybe, but it’s been a long, sometimes bumpy ride for Sanchez since then. He’s challenged for a title, looked both wonderful and terrible in the Octagon, and with a style dependent on toughness and exuberance, earned himself some scars that he’ll carry for the rest of his life. But at 30 years old and with nearly ten years in the sport, Sanchez seems to be at a fork in the road. If he can find a way to beat Jake Ellenberger, he just might put together one last title run. Then again, oddsmakers don’t expect that to happen, and it’s not hard to see why. If Sanchez can’t pull out the win here, what then? If his best days are truly behind him, how much longer can he continue to trade his willingness to bleed (a lot, if need be) for a paycheck in the UFC? Better yet, how will the MMA world remember Sanchez once it’s all over? He’s made his share of mistakes, both in and out of the cage, but he’s also been so unflinchingly honest about them that it’s been almost uncomfortable to witness at times. There has to be a place in this sport’s collective memory for a true original like Sanchez, regardless of whether he ever reaches the mountaintop. Maybe he’s already gotten as close as he’ll ever get. And maybe that’s okay.
II. The FUEL issue isn’t going away any time soon, which might be just how the powers that be want it. As many of you have made very clear recently, not everyone with a cable package has access to FUEL and all its UFC-related programming. Even with FUEL’s free preview week going on ("UFC’IT for Free: Feb 13-19," the FUEL website proclaims) it’s still not available in all areas to all cable subscribers. That’s a bummer for fans who want to watch tonight’s fights -- although you can still find a bar to post up in, if you’re of the right age and temperament to make that work -- but it’s also a proven formula to increase the demand for an obscure cable channel. Remember Versus? Much like FUEL, it was a wasteland of niche programming, attempting to do with hunting and fishing shows what FUEL has tried to do with skateboard and motocross-related shows. The addition of MMA events gave a whole new audience a reason to agitate for its inclusion in their cable packages. Personally, I know I wouldn’t have bothered to get the "Platinum" cable package that included Versus if not for the fact that I just had to see WEC fights. Nor would I have cared too much about adding Showtime if it didn’t have Strikeforce -- no offense to...whatever else is on Showtime. The problem for many fans is that FUEL isn’t even an option with some cable providers right now, which is what the UFC and FOX are hoping to change. As White put it back in December, when he was asked whether the UFC had taken the case for FUEL directly to cable providers:
"I have not. We’ll see what happens though. I think that once all this programming goes out on FUEL, I think the fans are going to end up doing that. More and more people are going to want FUEL. ...I lay in bed, I have DirectTV and I have Cox cable. What’s that, [expletive] 2,000 channels? And nothing’s on! I’m laying there, right, I’ve got every single movie channel and everything you can have, and I’m going, how can I have 2,000 channels and nothing is on TV that I want to watch? And it’s true. There’s so much [expletive] on television, and I think that as far as our fanbase goes and as many fans as we have and the amount of content that we’re going to have on Fuel TV, people are going to want it and people are going to demand it."
In other words, get on the horn to your cable providers, disgruntled fight fans. Then go stake out a good spot in a sports bar so you don’t miss anything in the meantime.
III. The weird situation at welterweight is only going to get weirder. My colleague Mike Chiappetta had a great look at the difficult situation that could arise if Diego Sanchez beats Jake Ellenberger and vaults himself into the (interim) title picture. As Chia pointed out, Malki Kawa reps both Sanchez and Carlos Condit, which could create a potential conflict of interest for one of MMA’s most prolific managers. On the other hand, if Ellenberger wins, he has a pretty solid case for a shot at Condit, assuming Condit can be talked into taking it. Then there’s Johny Hendricks and Josh Koscheck in May. If Koscheck wins, the UFC would probably want to stay away from any scenario that could result in a third GSP-Koscheck fight, and with good reason. But if Hendricks wins? That’ll be back-to-back victories over Jon Fitch and Koscheck -- two the world’s best welterweights. How could you possibly deny that man a shot at some form of UFC gold, interim or otherwise?
IV. 218.3 pounds. That’s how big Ronny Markes is today, according to his official Twitter. The former light heavyweight clocked in at 185 pounds at Tuesday’s weigh-in, and apparently didn’t have too much trouble packing the pounds back on. Will the extra bulk help him shut down Aaron Simpson’s takedown attempts? We’ll have to wait and see, but you can count on Simpson to shoot early and often in an attempt to find out.
V. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of amazing that Jake Ellenberger has flown under the radar for so long. He’s only 26 years old, but still has over 30 pro fights, including six in the UFC (the bout with Sanchez will be his seventh). Since 2005, it seems like he’s fought just about everywhere but the Pride ring and Yamma pit. I first saw him fight in person when he took a short-notice bout with Delson Heleno in the IFL. Heleno was submitting people left and right back then, and Ellenberger wasn’t even a full-time team member with Pat Miletich’s Quad City Silverbacks. We all thought he was doomed, but even in defeat he surprised everyone by escaping from one submission after another before the lack of a real training camp seemed to catch up with him late in the second round. In the UFC he’s put together an impressive win streak that seems impossible to ignore, and yet, for whatever reason, he still doesn’t get talked about that much. Is it a charisma problem, a lack of exposure, a general aversion to doing all those little things that get your name in the news when you’re not fighting? Probably a little bit of all three, if we’re being honest. At the same time, as long you keep winning you can rest assured that the headlines will eventually find you rather than the other way around. Ellenberger already got the key to the city of Omaha, even if that was hilariously strange to some. If he can perform the way most people expect him to against Sanchez, they might not be laughing for long.
VI. One man’s tragedy is another man’s opportunity. Finland’s Anton Kuivanen was originally supposed to face fellow UFC newcomer C.J. Keith on this card. Then Keith’s father’s house burned down, and he understandably decided to delay his debut while he helped his family recover. That opened the door for lightweight Justin Salas, who for months had been trying to break into one of the UFC’s most crowded divisions. The UFC kept telling him that it just didn’t have an open spot for him, then, thanks to the fire, a spot opened up. It’s weird to think of it those terms, isn’t it? To think that something good might happen to you because something bad happened to someone else, it’s vaguely unnerving. It’s also how life works out sometimes. If you’re Salas, you might as well make the most of it.
VII. I can’t say for sure that Dave Herman was the first fighter to rock the pink scarf on a shirtless, hairy torso at a UFC weigh-in. What I can say with some measure of confidence is that, even if someone else did it first, Herman probably did it best. Anyone with both fashion sense and hair on his shoulders is someone I don’t want to fight. Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, Stefan Struve.
VIII. One way or another, I don’t see Stipe Miocic and Phillip De Fries going more than one round. That’s always a fairly safe bet with heavyweights, but between Miocic’s hands and De Fries’ submissions, my guess is that someone will slip early and pay for it dearly. Oddsmakers think it’ll be Miocic left standing at the end, and I think they’re probably right. His UFC debut against Beltran was the first time he’d ever gone the distance in MMA. I doubt he’s looking to make a habit of it.