Jose Aldo sports a gaudy 23-1 record. | Gleidson Venga/Sherdog.com
For the first time since 2003, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s traditional Super Bowl Saturday pay-per-view leaves the Las Vegas desert and instead stops off in Tony Soprano’s backyard at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
While only one title will be on the line the following day in Super Bowl XLVIII at Metlife Stadium just 10 miles north on I-95, two divisional belts are up for grabs at UFC 169. There, Renan Barao defends his 135-pound title against Urijah Faber while 145-pound champion Jose Aldo faces off against Ricardo Lamas. In your face, Roger Goodell.
How We Got Here: If you cup your ear just right, you might hear the melancholy sound of Dominick Cruz slowly dragging his feet in San Diego. Perhaps the most unlucky UFC champion ever, the Alliance MMA product was finally set to defend his title after undergoing two knee surgeries and sitting out for more than two years. A torn groin was the culprit this time, prompting UFC President Dana White to strip the 28-year-old of his title and promote Barao from interim to undisputed champion. As if Cruz’s luck was not bad enough, he will have to watch his archrival fight for what was once his belt. Surging Team Alpha Male patriarch Faber got the call to replace Cruz on the back of a four-fight winning streak in 2013. Their ongoing rivalry dates back to 2007 and has not cooled much. Faber and Cruz are 1-1 against each other ... Lamas had to wait for more than a year -- he was passed over at least once -- before receiving his shot at the gold. He was promised a title fight if he defeated Duke Roufus-trained featherweight Erik Koch at UFC on Fox 6, and he did so in devastating fashion. A fight with Chan Sung Jung at UFC 162 was called off when “The Korean Zombie” was pulled to replace an injured Anthony Pettis, who was going to challenge Aldo for his featherweight belt.
Lamas played the waiting the game and watched Aldo dispatch Jung before the UFC finally awarded him the title shot ... Luckily for onetime Strikeforce champion Overeem and former UFC titleholder Mir, someone has to win when they face one another. The highly paid heavyweights are slumping and need a win to avoid running the risk of no longer receiving paychecks with “Zuffa” at the top.
Say What: Faber’s third crack at a UFC championship comes just 49 days after his win over Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9 and just 26 days after the matchup with Barao was announced. This crunch-time situation caps off a five-fight, 11-month schedule for “The California Kid.” In an era when top UFC fighters usually only compete two or three times a year, one has to wonder why he accepted a bout against a quality champion who already holds a victory over him. Faber answered that question on the SiriusXM Fight Club shortly after the rematch was booked. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “Of course you want to give yourself every benefit to win, but you don’t know how this world works. You don’t know what happens as far as opportunities coming to you. It doesn’t make sense to turn down a huge opportunity -- ever.”
Last Laugh: Faber is 0-5 in his last five championship fights and 30-1 everywhere else, including a Gladiator Challenge title bout loss in 2005. From 2008-2012, Faber fought 11 times and earned five title shots, falling short in each one of them.
Some fans wonder why a fighter who cannot seem to find gold keeps being handed keys to the gold mine. Faber responded with a “Fighter of the Year”-worthy campaign in 2013 and was unquestionably the man to fill in when Cruz bowed out. Of the 10 fighters on the main card, six are current or former champions from Zuffa-owned promotions. Faber may be the one with the most to prove.
Nova Un-Wow: Team Alpha Male normally gets credit as the premiere training facility for fighters below the 155-pound division. However, a pair of Nova Uniao fighters, Barao and Aldo, sits atop two of those weight classes. The Andre Pederneiras-trained duo represents the perfect example of the iron-sharpens-iron belief since Aldo and Barao are only separated by one weight class and constantly force each other to improve in training. These are not your average, ordinary champions. Barao and Aldo have combined to win 37 consecutive fights, with 21 of those coming in the UFC or World Extreme Cagefighting. I cannot think of anything I can do perfectly 37 times in a row.
Useless Fact: Despite the UFC’s ambitious international expansion, the best fighters on its roster usually hail from the United States or Brazil. Believe it or not, only four champions in the entire history of the UFC were not American or Brazilian: Andrei Arlovski (Belarus), Bas Rutten (Holland), Carlos Newton (Canada) and Georges St. Pierre (Canada). When Chris Weidman dethroned Anderson Silva at 185 pounds and Georges St. Pierre vacated the welterweight crown, it left Barao and Aldo as the only remaining non-American UFC champions.
Awards Watch: Lamas is resilient, skilled and well-deserving of a shot at UFC gold, but Aldo is an altogether different beast. He has handled all styles of challenger with his stifling takedown defense, game-changing striking power and invaluable big-fight experience amassed over a 10-year career. Lamas is built to last against Aldo, even if winning sounds farfetched. Mark down “Fight of the Night” for these two … Overeem is coming off back-to-back knockout losses, but he was winning handily before his incredibly tough opposition rallied and snatched away victory. Mir has come back from bad striking exchanges before but never from a beating like Overeem delivered to Antonio Silva and Travis Browne. The Dutchman bludgeons Mir and gets a “Knockout of the Night” bonus … Keep an eye on the undercard when Minnesotan Tony Martin pits his undefeated record against former M-1 Global champion Rashid Magomedov. Martin has racked up six submission wins on the regional circuit and is my favorite to take “Submission of the Night.”