With UFC 149 just hours away, time to look at the big questions, concerns, doubts and fears before a big night in Calgary.
I. Even with all Urijah Faber’s skills, charisma is still one of the best things he has going for him. Should Faber lose this interim title fight with Renan Barao, I suspect the UFC will still find a way to slide him into a fight with Dominick Cruz somewhere down the line. We’ve seen all the ways this can be accomplished. Maybe Faber wins one more against a barely credible bantamweight, then gets the title shot against Cruz he was promised after their TUF coaching stints. Or, if Cruz drops the belt to Barao, he and Faber fight to settle their trilogy and determine who still matters at 135 pounds. My point is, Faber’s not fading out any time soon, largely because people like him and will pay to see him. At least in the North American market, he’s probably the only UFC bantamweight you can say that about right now. He was the WEC’s biggest selling point back when it had precious few of them, and he’s still the most recognizable MMA fighter below the 155-pound division. It helps that he’s also an excellent fighter. But then, so is Cruz, and the last time he defended his title without the benefit of Faber’s fame to help sell the card, the UFC gave it away for free on Versus. It’s nice to be good. But for sheer staying power in the fight business, it’s even better to be popular.
II. What are we supposed to make of Barao’s streak, anyway? As you’ve no doubt been reminded by the endless UFC 149 hype reels over the last couple weeks, Barao hasn’t lost in a little while. And by a little while, I mean his pro debut back in 2005. Not all of his wins since then have come against household names (not unless you happen to live in the same household as "Dande Dande," who Barao beat in his fourth pro fight), but the last few have. His first-round submission of Brad Pickett back in November was a highlight reel unto itself, and his decision win over Scott Jorgensen proved that he can wrestle a little bit when he has to, and we all know that’s the cover price for entry into the upper echelon of just about any division in the UFC. But let’s not kid ourselves, Barao’s winning streak is padded at least a little bit. How could it not be? Back when Faber was fighting guys like Ivan Menjivar and Bibiano Fernandes, Barao was beating up on the likes of Gleison Menezes (3-6) and Danilo Noronha (6-9). It’s still impressive that he managed to go seven years without a loss, and you have to admire something a guy who lost his pro debut and then decided that he didn’t care for that feeling and did not wish to repeat it. That said, until we see what he can do against a vet like Faber, let’s maintain some perspective on the streak. It works far better as a marketing ploy than a predictor of future results.
III. Speaking of marketing gimmicks, here’s where I would usually launch into a tirade about the pointlessness of an interim title -- especially one that might very well go undefended. But I’m not going to do that, because you’ve heard it enough by now, and either you already know that the belt Faber and Barao are fighting for is nothing but a decoration piece that will, by itself, leave the winner of it completely unfulfilled, or else you still cling to the illusion that interim titles mean something, in which case there is no hope for you.
IV. If you haven’t already, go watch UFC.com’s weight-cutting video with Faber. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: how much he truly resembles Skeletor by the time he gets down to 135 pounds, or how little that seems to bother him.
V. Hector Lombard does not play well with others, and that’s okay. Over the years, he’s developed a reputation for being a somewhat difficult sparring partner (just ask Josh Barnett), and in the lead-up to his first UFC fight he’s made it very clear to media members that he plans to be just as difficult an interview subject. Some fighters are always getting asked how they manage to turn it on when it’s time to hurt another human being for money. I doubt anyone wonders that with Lombard, since he never seems to turn it off. That, plus his undeniable skills in the cage, make him an interesting addition to the UFC’s middleweight division. You know how people on reality shows are constantly saying that they aren’t there to make friends? Lombard seems almost as if he’s specifically aiming to make enemies, and not in the gimmicky Chael Sonnen way, either. If I’m Tim Boetsch right now, I’m not sure I’d be expecting a friendly glove tap to start this one off.
VI. Of all the fighters affected by the constant reshuffling on this card, Cheick Kongo might have gotten the worst deal of all. The big Frenchman went from fighting an aging MMA legend in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to a relative newcomer in Shawn Jordan. What’s worse, the switch didn’t even result in a significantly easier fight for Kongo. Jordan might be nowhere near as famous as Big Nog, but the former LSU fullback is a dangerous style match-up for Kongo, and at a time when he could really use a win over a big name. Something tells me that in this one he'll face an uphill struggle just to get any sort of victory -- and to stay conscious.
VII. Of all the fighters who stepped in to cover for their injured comrades, Brian Ebersole probably has the most to lose. You can’t help but respect his willingness to turn around and take this fight just a few weeks after a hard-earned decision win over T.J. Wadlburger. Ebersole is definitely getting that paper, and endearing himself to his employers in the process. The thing is, beating James Head doesn’t do much else for his career right now. We already know he wants to move to lightweight, and we know he wants to jump right into the title picture when he gets there. This fight will help pad his bank account, but if he looks at it as just a little extra freelance work he could easily wake up tomorrow morning with all his momentum gone.