Renan Barao’s second title defense will serve as the UFC 173 centerpiece. | Photo: Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s summer schedule is in full swing, starting with Memorial Day weekend. UFC 173 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas touches off an ambitious slate consisting of 16 events totaling roughly 170 fights through August.
How We Got Here: Middleweight champion Chris Weidman was supposed to headline UFC 173, first against Vitor Belfort and then Lyoto Machida; Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic were booked in the co-main event slots; and even rivals Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva were briefly connected to this card. Instead, we have Renan Barao in his second defense of the undisputed bantamweight crown. While Dominick Cruz sat sidelined with a body that refused to cooperate, the Brazilian officially served as the unofficial champion for three fights before shedding the interim label. He will defend the 135-pound crown against Team Alpha Male’s T.J. Dillashaw, a 28-year-old who can thank Raphael Assuncao’s injured rib for the opportunity. Assuncao defeated Dillashaw in October but could not return in time to challenge Barao ... The Octagon will host a pair of two-time Olympians in the co-headliner. Daniel Cormier seeks another win at 205 pounds, while he waits for champion Jon Jones and top contender Alexander Gustafsson to finish what they started at UFC 165. Dan Henderson, fresh off of a vintage comeback victory over Mauricio Rua, awaits the American Kickboxing Academy standout. The Cormier-Henderson matchup took mere weeks to come to fruition and gives the main event a fine lead-in between two American fan favorites ... The muddled welterweight title picture figures to become clearer after Robbie Lawler and Jake Ellenberger go at it. The bout features two of the hardest punchers in a division stacked with hard punchers. Both own top-10 wins inside the 170-pound weight class, along with a recent high-profile loss.
Blame Game: Barao is really, really good at fighting. He has lost one fight -- his first -- and that was more than nine years ago. He is a finisher and a champion. So why is there a lack of interest in him? Logic dictates, the better the fighter, the bigger the draw. The fight game laughs at such logic. Despite his talents, Barao still cannot get fans to open their wallets like they do for lesser fighters. Poor marketing by the UFC, Barao’s perceived lack of personality and the current state of the pay-per-view market have all shared the blame. Why do those elements dictate a fighter’s popularity? As long as the in-cage product is not the fight fan’s top priority, it will not be the promotion’s top priority. When looking for someone to blame for Barao’s plight, try looking in the mirror.
Say What: Promoting non-English speaking, Brazilian champions is kind of UFC President Dana White’s thing. Barao, Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva, as dominant as they are, struggle to move the PPV needle. This is where White earns his pay check. He has jumped around and called each of them the pound-for-pound best, using words like “killers” and “monsters” to describe them. Needless to say, he has gone all-in with Barao. Kenny Florian asked White about the bantamweight champion on “UFC Tonight.” Needing to sell a nearly 6-to-1 underdog in Dillashaw, he hit the brakes and did his best to sell the competitive nature of the UFC 173 main event. “Whoever has the best chin,” White said, “will win this fight.”
On Deck: Team Alpha Male is an elite gym filled with athletic, talented fighters. It also benefits from filling the ranks of the lighter weights. The 125-, 135- and 145-pound classes need talent and are often viewed as the weakest divisions, along with heavyweight. Even with so much going for it, Team Alpha Male has yet to produce a UFC champion, going 0-6 in title fights. Dillashaw will take the team’s seventh shot. Chad Mendes, who faces Aldo in a rematch at UFC 176, will get the eighth.
Useless Facts: What does one do with so many “Ultimate Fighter” graduates floating around the UFC roster? You stick them on pay-per-view prelims. Al Iaquinta, Chris Holdsworth, Tony Ferguson and Michael Chiesa were all finalists on the reality series, with Holdsworth, Ferguson and Chiesa winning their respective seasons. They all get the Fox Sports 1 treatment at UFC 173 ... In his entire UFC and Strikeforce career, Henderson has never been as big an underdog as he will be against Cormier. His credentials are nearly unmatched, but they will not protect him against the strikes and takedowns of the younger -- and perhaps hungrier -- Cormier. At his age, “Hendo” seems better suited for matchups with other seasoned veterans, like Wanderlei Silva and Rich Franklin. However, when has Henderson ever looked for the easier fight?
Awards Watch: The high-level violence quotient of UFC 173 starts and ends with Lawler-Ellenberger. The veteran welterweights may seem like brawlers to the naked eye, but they can wrestle, recover from damage and hurt their opponents in a variety of ways. Both are within sniffing distance of title contention, so the stakes are high. Expect “Fight of the Night” bonuses to come out of this one ... Ferguson squares off with former Deep champion Katsunori Kikuno on the undercard. “El Cucuy” has developed nicely, falling only to Michael Johnson inside the Octagon. The UFC continues to provide Ferguson with fights from which he can benefit. He will look good against the Japanese karateka ... Henderson may be the best American mixed martial artist of all-time, and he can still compete with the best in the world at 205 pounds. However, he was dreadful before knocking out Rua in their UFC Fight Night rematch. “Hendo” was slow, tired and looked like a 43-year-old man with a life full of haggard combat competition behind him. Cormier is bigger, younger, faster and technically savvy beyond his 14 fights of experience. Anticipate his earning $50,000 in bonus money for a strong night’s work.