Tim Boetsch's stunning third-round comeback victory over Yushin Okami last night was not the greatest comeback in UFC history. Frankie Edgar over Gray Maynard (II or III) or Frank Shamrock hammerfisting a kneeling Tito Ortiz en route to a TKO stoppage also stand out as a class above what happened at UFC 144.
What is true, though, is that both are accomplishing something very legitimate late in their careers. Both desperately wish to compete while they still can. Both are turning in performances that exemplify the athletic courage fight promoters crave.
Recognizing they still have limitations, both deserve to be rewarded by the UFC with big, winnable fights.
I'm not suggesting we pretend they are something they are not. Hunt is closer to 40 years of age than he is 30. Boetsch showed clear defensive weaknesses against Okami in the first two rounds of their fight. The success of Boetsch and Hunt is more about making us reconsider what they have left, not proving they are something we never properly recognized.
Yet, neither deserves to be cynically dismissed. It would be promotional malpractice to place either in a predicament where they were at the bad end of a stylistic disadvantage. It would equally be a disservice to have them face the division's cream of the crop (Boetsch should get close, however).
Whatever the UFC chooses for Hunt and Boetsch, their next fight should satisfy three conditions. First, it should be a fight that's winnable even if they're the underdogs. Second, the fighters should be able to win without having to use skills they've never really possessed. Third, the fight should live at or near the top of whatever card it's on. Why pick these conditions? They make best use of the resources Hunt and Boetsch bring to a fight while being fair to their chances of success. They also won't necessarily wreck the division's order should the unpredictable happen.
For Boetsch, he should be given a marquee fight against rising middleweight contender Chris Weidman. Weidman and Boestch are united by their toughness, talent and deserved reputations as risk takers. Weidman proved in his win over Demian Maia at UFC on Fox 2 he might be ready for the best middleweight has to offer, but he's also young enough that a little more seasoning could only help him. For Boetsch, it's a chance to face a top-10 opponent who is a worthy adversary but won't be able to lord physical strength over him (unlike Phil Davis at light heavyweight).
Relative to Boetsch, Hunt's future should be closely guided by his ability to deliver exciting action. We have to keep managed expectations about his upside, but that's no adjustment from what we're already doing. Pat Barry, Stefan Struve or Travis Browne are all excellent choices as potential opponents. Mike Russow, on the other hand, is not. Hunt is 37 and shoulders no great expectations. His best use on a card is where he can help himself while facing younger contenders willing to strike. Placing Hunt against a submission-savvy wrestler in his mid-thirtees is nothing short of criminal.
Where could these fights live? The options are plentiful. A Boetsch-Weidman bout could easily serve as the co-main event of a pay-per-view (even a stacked UFC 146 could be upgraded). If you scoff at that claim, consider UFC 145's Rashad Evans vs. Jon Jones is preceded by Che Mills vs. Rory MacDonald. Hunt vs. any of the aforementioned strikers could be great as a headliner for UFC on Fuel or a co-main event for UFC on FX. Any of those potential bouts is fun enough to get good fight card placement at any type of UFC event, but there isn't great need for them to be on a card of major significance. The most important consideration is that whatever space these fights occupy, they deserve to be of a higher order of magnitude than the treatment Boetsch and Hunt are typically given.
When fighters are ignored, dismissed and nearly beaten yet manage to persevere, that's a special moment in fight sport. That's especially true when all that happens on a night where a listless Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson is improperly prepared and psychologically distracted. His seeming ambivalence stands in sharp contrast to the delightfully surprising career turnarounds of Boetsch and Hunt. As athletes in their thirties, time is not on their side, but our good will should be. We can honor their achievements, treat them fairly with careful but fair matchmaking and reward the fans without one ideal compromising the other.
Boetsch and Hunt proved they were right to not give up on themselves. By hook or by crook, they brought their careers back to life. Let's be fair to those revivals by giving them a chance to breathe.