With the intense focus on Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen this weekend, the answer to the question of what's under the radar at UFC 148 is simple: everything else. It is somewhat poetic that in his swan song, Tito Ortiz is fighting in the co-main event. Ortiz is the blueprint for what will follow when Sonnen takes on Silva in the middleweight championship match.
Ortiz wasn't the creator of ground-and-pound, but for a brief time, he was the best at it, a wrestler who realized his clearest route to victory and never wavered in chasing it. He wasn't just about the fight either; he was a showman who was willing to take the role of antagonist in order to up the stakes and increase interest. He innately understood that fighting sells, but fighting plus drama sells more.
It's the same template employed by Sonnen.
In the lead-up to UFC 148, the stage has justifiably been Sonnen's while Ortiz has been muted. Perhaps he's simply mature enough to cede the spotlight to the title bout, or perhaps he is relishing in no longer carrying the load. At any rate, his verbal fireworks are unnecessary. A few pay-per-views will be sold to those wanting to see Ortiz's last fight, but in reality, it's a bonus add-on, an appetizer before the main course.
With his career winding down, it's fair to examine Ortiz's career as an example of how difficult it is to compete at a high level for a long time. Ortiz won his first UFC title in April 2000 when he defeated Wanderlei Silva. Over the next six years, he went 11-2, with wins over Evan Tanner, Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin.
In December 2006, he was knocked out by Chuck Liddell, and since then, his career has been marked by struggles. In his last eight fights, he's won just once, a stirring submission win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132.
In that context, what Sonnen's done becomes even more remarkable.
The two began their MMA careers in the same month of the same year, May 1997, and while the 37-year-old Ortiz has stumbled to the finish line, the same can't be said for Sonnen, who is 35 yet has experienced a career rebirth in the last few years.
Sonnen spent the first part of his career as a solid if unspectacular journeyman. By the time he lost to Jeremy Horn at UFC 60 in May 2006, he was 15-8-1. He was winning the fights he was supposed to win while losing to to top competition. Horn, who was at that time a top 10 middleweight, had beaten him three times. Sonnen had also lost to Terry Martin and Renato "Babalu" Sobral.
Since then, he's gone 12-3, with top 10 wins over Michael Bisping, Brian Stann and Nate Marquardt. Since then, he became the mouth that roared, the headline-stealing, ground-and-pounding machine that has talked and smashed his way to the spotlight. It is about as unlikely a journey to [near] the top as we've seen in the sport. And that leads me to UFC 148's under-the-radar stat of the day: with 11 career losses, Sonnen could become the first fighter ever to win a UFC championship with double-digit defeats. The fact that he would be doing so against the man that many believe to be the sport's all-time best makes the fight that much more riveting.
Other under-the-radar storylines of UFC 148…
* Good omen for Sonnen? Thirteen UFC title fights have spawned rematches. In those rematches, the original loser has won seven times.
* Bad omen for Sonnen? One of those rematches is Silva vs. Rich Franklin, and we all know how that turned out. Even though the rematch took a bit longer than the first one, Silva brutalized Franklin even worse the second time around.
* We know that Saturday night might be the end for Ortiz, but what about his opponent, Forrest Griffin? He's subtly indicated that if he loses, he too, would probably call it quits. And while he's considered the favorite, both fights between the two have been razor close, with each awarded a split-decision. Griffin will forever be a seminal figure in the rise of the modern UFC for his role in the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and his fate-changing fight with Stephan Bonnar. Griffin came in unnoticed with minimal fanfare, and even though he became a massive crowd favorite along the way, it would certainly be apropos if he goes out the same way.
* Demian Maia has had a bizarrely fascinating and fascinatingly bizarre UFC career. He entered the promotion with the reputation of a jiu-jitsu master, and promptly submitted each of his first five opponents. In his next fight, he was knocked out by Nate Marquardt, and since then, he's been to seven decisions in a row. Now, he drops down to welterweight where the size differential should be more manageable to him. Of course, in his first fight, he draws Dong Hyun Kim, a fairly large welterweight who's never before been submitted. Once upon a time we wondered if anyone could stay out of Maia's traps, and now we're wondering if he'll ever catch anyone again.
* Am I the only one confused by the Chad Mendes vs. Cody McKenzie matchup? McKenzie certainly comes to scrap, but how is this a fair matchup for him in his featherweight debut? For one thing, McKenzie used to train with Mendes, so we know that Mendes has experienced the "McKenzietine," which seems to be his only route to victory. For another, if decorated black belts like Javier Vazquez and Rani Yahya couldn't come close to tapping Mendes, are we supposed to believe that McKenzie has a chance? Given the style matchup and fight experience of both, this fight is about as close to a lock as you'll find on a UFC main card.
* During the UFC 148 press conference, Sonnen was asked about his testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) usage, and he claimed that if he didn't take it, he'd die. On the other side of the TRT divide at UFC 148 is Shane Roller, who in the past had received a TRT therapeutic use exemption from Nevada, but has since decided he would no longer use it. On Saturday, he'll be facing John Alessio au naturale. Interesting to note that Roller, who has lost three bouts in a row, is basically fighting for his job TRT-free while Sonnen is competing for the belt while proudly on the treatment. Two fighters in the biggest fights of their lives, two very different approaches. Those differing messages are a good example of why the waters are so muddy when it comes to TRT.