America loves an underdog. I learned that the hard way on Monday as my head-to-toe swaddle in Duke gear — I did my undergrad there — was met mostly with taunting, derision, and the occasional wedgie. While I was certainly thrilled with the outcome of the national championship game, I understand why most of the country found Butler’s loss miserable. The thrill of an outmatched opponent beating long odds is a huge part of why we watch sports in the first place.
Saturday night, UFC 112 will broadcast live from the United Arab Emirates. While seeing the UFC branch out into the Middle East is certainly exciting, the top of the card is marked by fights that leave something to be desired competitively. Yes, we’ll get to see the best middleweight and the best lightweight in the world ply their trades in championship bouts, in addition to an exciting outdoor venue that the UFC and their foreign partners are committed to doing right. But without good fights, will it be worth tuning in? Well, how badly do you want to see a longshot?
To be the man, first you’ve got to knock the man off the other man’s shoulders.
Jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia is getting between 3:1 and 4:1 odds for his attempt to take the middleweight belt off Anderson Silva. BJ Penn is even more of a favorite than Silva, defending against Frankie Edgar who is getting approximately 5:1 for your money. Both of the underdogs are legitimate competitors; Edgar has solid grappling and Maia is well-recognized as a BJJ master. Against the best in the world, however, that likely won’t mean they’ll put on much of a show.
Maia’s last two fights have exposed serious holes in his stand-up game, first when Nate Marquardt blasted him for a 21-second KO and again in February when Maia looked tentative slugging his way to a weak decision over Dan Miller. As we well know, “Spider” Silva can knock you out even moving backwards, as he did to Forrest Griffin. Maia will have an edge on the ground, but the only way that Silva is likely to let Maia get to the mat — barring another pull-guard snoozer like Silva vs. Thales Leites — is without consciousness.
Meanwhile, Frankie Edgar has proven he can wrestle. But he was overpowered by Gray Maynard’s superior size and wrestling before, and Penn is no slouch on the ground with some of the best jiu-jitsu on the planet. Penn has also answered questions about his conditioning, battering Diego Sanchez for 22 minutes in his last fight. The Sanchez fight should be a warning to Edgar should he try to win by boxing, as Penn looked awesome at counterstriking and stuffing takedowns.
So: don’t expect a shining, Matt Serra-esque moment for Maia or Edgar. The best we can probably hope for is excellent displays by the champs matched by gritty toughness and effort from the challengers, much like UFC 111′s GSP/Hardy fight. That, I’d be happy with.
Even below the headliners there’s a huge name fight with Matt Hughes battling Renzo Gracie. Despite being from MMA’s first family, Gracie will be another big dog to Hughes. While it’s been over three years since Hughes lost the strap to St-Pierre, he’s still solid in the cage and has far less ring rust than Gracie, who hasn’t fought a sanctioned MMA bout in over three years and is making his UFC debut. Hughes may not be as familiar to recent MMA converts, but was an absolute world-crusher back in the day and a no-doubt first-ballot UFC Hall of Famer. If you missed his one fight in 2009 or his one in 2008, catch him here. Also keep an eye out for submission artist Terry Etim against Rafael dos Anjos and TUF 3 winner Kendall Grove against the solid Mark Munoz.
Finally, one interesting story to keep an eye on is the weather in Abu Dhabi. As this is an outdoor venue, the possibility exists that wind (especially dust and sand) could affect the event in a significant way. Dana White can’t control the weather — although I hear he’s working on it.
Watching two of the best fighters on the planet step into the cage – even against inferior competition – is worth making time on your schedule for UFC 112. Just don’t start humming the theme song to Underdog yet.
Image from EdMulholland.com