Many view Johny Hendricks as a legitimate threat. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
A 20th birthday is always met with tempered excitement. You have already been an adult for two years, so buying cigarettes and voting is no longer cool. You are an excruciating 365 days away from being able to purchase your own beer. There really is no basis for celebrating two decades of existence.
However, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is always looking for a reason to party, and in honor of its 20th anniversary, the promotion has put together one of the year’s best top-to-bottom cards with UFC 167 on Saturday in Las Vegas, where they always -- wink, wink -- check IDs.
How We Got Here: The familiar MGM Grand Garden Arena will house an excellent card complete with five welterweight bouts, none bigger than Georges St. Pierre’s defense of the longest current championship reign in MMA. Two-time NCAA wrestling champion Johny Hendricks patiently waited while Nick Diaz cut in line after a loss and failed in his attempt to dethrone St. Pierre. On the same night as St. Pierre-Diaz at UFC 158, “Bigg Rigg” made good use of his time with his “Fight of the Night” win against former title challenger Carlos Condit. He asked, even begged, for a shot at the crown. The answer was a no-brainer for UFC President Dana White ... Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen exist in a career twilight zone at 205 pounds. Both have lost to champion Jon Jones and are wandering aimlessly through the division. It makes sense to have them wander right into each other ... Rory MacDonald says he will not fight Tristar Gym teammate St. Pierre, which makes a possible win over the surging Robbie Lawler all the more intriguing. White hates it when the bonds of brotherhood cannot be bought off, so this is a gentle push for the 24-year-old.
Lawler is dangerous, but is not a top 10 fighter, according to the latest Sherdog.com divisional rankings. Beating him does little for MacDonald’s advancement, but a loss would crush any title momentum.
The Not So Underdog: GSP is a -225 favorite, the lightest he has been since his rematch with B.J. Penn almost five years ago. Hendricks pulls into this title fight as a legitimate threat to the UFC’s top pay-per-view draw, with his aforementioned wrestling credentials and coma-inducing paws. Correctly or incorrectly, the bookies seem to think Hendricks has a better chance than most to stop St. Pierre’s ability to jab, secure takedowns and control his opponent. I guess a highlight reel that includes quick, one-punch KOs against Martin Kampmann and Jon Fitch would make anyone a believer.
A Good Start: St. Pierre has become sick and tired of everyone calling him a cheater. From greasing and boring fights to accusations over performance-enhancing drugs, the haters are hating, and he hates that. He tried to take matters into his own hands by offering Hendricks an opportunity to participate in more extensive drug testing. However, multiple moving parts from both camps complicated the issue enough for Hendricks to throw his dangerous hands up and say, “Screw it.” The champ did not care and enrolled in the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association without the challenger’s participation. He has kept the masses updated with the tests via Twitter, all of them negative so far. These tests have nothing to do with the Nevada Athletic Commission, so the consequences of a failed test remain unclear ... The pantheon of MMA’s best brothers is a large club with no clear number one. The Shamrocks, Emelianenkos, Diazes, Ruas, Freires, Nogeuiras, Millers and others all jumble together. What if two brothers held UFC titles and did so simultaneously? Anthony Pettis has filled his end of the bargain by capturing the UFC lightweight belt; now, the 20-year-old Sergio Pettis tries to play catch-up.
The 9-0 bantamweight makes his UFC debut against short-notice opponent Will Campuzano at UFC 167. Will the Pettis Brothers stake their claim as the best one-punch family or simply settle for being a pair of top-level professional ass kickers with the same last name?
Useless Fact: Though he currently holds a 1-2 record in the UFC at 205 pounds and former champion Rashad Evans owns a 12-3-1 mark at the same weight, Sonnen is a mere +155 underdog; and yet, it does not seem that weird. Coming off arguably the best win of his career, a guillotine choke submission against Mauricio Rua, Sonnen is back in the spotlight as a credible opponent and not just a guy who knows how to successfully lobby for the match he wants. Evans has tiptoed through the tulips in his last four fights, sleepwalking through decision wins against Phil Davis and Dan Henderson and decision losses to Jon Jones and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. The timing is perfect for Sonnen fans to get excited about his chances.
What It All Means: Regardless of the outcome against Evans, Sonnen is already booked to face Wanderlei Silva after he coaches against “The Axe Murderer” on Season 3 of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.” The world of combat sports has always been about building on your last win, as if you are always in the playoffs. Skirting that scenario gives the impression that you are outside a tangible path to a title. Since this is Sonnen -- the weight class-jumping, titleholder-challenging master of manipulation -- we are talking about here, it makes sense. It is the ultimate hall pass.
Awards Watch: The last free fight on the UFC 167 bill could easily be the best, as Donald Cerrone and Evan Dunham get down on Fox Sports 1. Both men find themselves on the rebound after losses to Rafael dos Anjos, and neither is a stranger to the bonus check. Expect them to grab “Fight of the Night” honors ... Ed Herman has a bizarre set of skills through which he can submit high-level fighters and yet struggle to defend submissions at the same time. Tangling with Thales Leites on the canvas is a quick way for the Brazilian to score “Submission of the Night” ... A lot of heavy hitters are on the UFC 167 roster, from Hendricks and Lawler to Evans, but each of those fighters is matched with an opponent who game plans perfectly around oncoming power. It makes my job difficult. Normally when this happens, the guy you least expect delivers the jaw-dropping, beer-spilling strike. Tyron Woodley fits the bill against Josh Koscheck. “The Chosen One” walks away with the “Knockout of the Night” check.