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James Vick finally gets his opportunity to become a UFC somebody

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

James Vick is the best fighter the fight world knows nothing about. Few know that Vick played college basketball until being kicked off the team for ... you guessed it, fighting. Few know that it was the kindness of a police officer that directed Vick toward a boxing gym and indirectly guided him toward his future, or that he didn’t begin his MMA training until age 22, or that he once worked in an oil field, and later, in a strip club. Or that a strip club patron financed his life-changing trip to Las Vegas to try out for The Ultimate Fighter.

Few know this because up until now, Vick has mostly been another in the assembly line of athletes filling the UFC’s roster. As good as he’s been, he’s mostly been anonymous.

All of that can start to change on Saturday at UFC Lincoln, when in a city as blue-collar as him, Vick gets his first taste of the main-event spotlight.

In facing Justin Gaethje, Vick, currently ranked 10th in the division, will have an excellent foil with which to prove his bona fides. He’s already done much to make a strong case for himself. In the five years since joining the UFC, Vick has gone 9-1. Still, he did all that almost completely without the acclaim he has surely deserved. Part of that was due to circumstance; Vick’s strong run has come during one of the great all-time periods of divisional parity and upheaval. Over the past few years, the lightweight class has seen the meteoric rise of Conor McGregor, the incredible streaks of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, the flashy heyday of Anthony Pettis, and the improbable rise of Rafael dos Anjos, just to name a few developments. With the focus firmly elsewhere, toiling in near-obscurity was an arduous but necessary path for Vick.

It didn’t help that his list of opponents hasn’t exactly been a Who’s Who of divisional elite. While recent wins like those over Abel Trujillo, Joseph Duffy and Francisco Trinaldo are meaningful, only the victory over Trinaldo came against a ranked opponent. Worse, Vick’s only been on the main card in two of his last six fights. While the UFC does try to showcase fighters on its prelim shows, particularly those in the “featured” bouts of either its Fight Pass digital service or on FOX Sports 1, the hierarchy of cards is largely inferred by fans: if you’re not on the main card, you’re simply not deemed to be a key player at the moment.

That changes now for Vick. When you’re in the main event, your value becomes self-evident. The trick is to stay there, and to do that, he needs to win.

The matchup against Gaethje is no cakewalk. Gaethje, a 29-year-old former college wrestler currently ranked No. 7 in the division, is one of the most frenzied fighters in all of MMA. For years, his fights have promised—and delivered—preposterously chaotic action from bell to bell, with seemingly no regard for his own well-being. And for years, it worked. Following his path of unchecked aggression, Gaethje ran out to a dazzling 18-0 career start, which included a lengthy reign as World Series of Fighting lightweight champion. Any doubt regarding future success always involved whether he could continually win firefights against UFC-caliber competition. As we have discovered, he cannot. After knocking out Michael Johnson in his Octagon debut, Gaethje has been stopped in two straight fights, knockouts at the hands (and knee) of Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, respectively.

So Gaethje (18-2) doesn’t exactly come in with a head of steam, while Vick will walk into the cage bursting with confidence. Expectations are in Vick’s favor as well, with betting lines making him a slight favorite in the matchup.

Vick (18-1) doesn’t have any specific skills that have overwhelmed opponents. He has only three career knockouts in 13 wins, he’s only a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and he has no wrestling background to speak of. Yet he does nearly everything well, and that aptitude combined with his division-outlying length—he’s 6-foot-3 with a 76-inch reach—make him a daunting adversary. Unlike many fighters with height and length, Vick has a strong understanding of how to use the advantage, often fighting behind a long jab and shifty footwork that forces his opponents to attempt closing distance against him. The man has some tools; so far he’s only been missing the platform.

On Saturday, it’s his. Up until now, his complaints have centered around a lack of key opportunities and recognition, that the top-ranked fighters don’t want to take a high-risk, low-reward matchup, and that the fans and media don’t know what they’re missing.

Well, here it is, everything coalesced into a single moment. A name, a spotlight, a main event. Vick finally has the things he wanted and now has to deliver the result he truly needs. His future after Saturday night is plainly obvious: either onward and upward, or back to the obscurity he so despised.