Degree of difficulty is high in Chris Weidman’s second title defense. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
MMA fans with the fortitude to overcome their Fourth of July hangover have quite the Ultimate Fighting Championship card to look forward to. Not one but two American champions will defend their belts against foreign invaders at UFC 175 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Independence Day weekend also caps off International Fight Week -- a celebration of combat housed in pool parties, fighter meet and greets, fashion shows, art exhibits and even an HIV Awareness Class. It is everything our forefathers hoped we would do to celebrate America’s 238th birthday.
HOW WE GOT HERE: UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman will hopefully get to flex his title-fight muscles in a bout devoid of controversy. His scrap with former light heavyweight boss Lyoto Machida was pushed back from UFC 173 when Weidman required arthroscopic surgery on both knees. Machida got the call when fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort hit a speed bump in the form of a random drug test ... Ronda Rousey in the co-main event will defend her women’s bantamweight belt for the third time in seven months -- an unheard of rate at the championship level. Because of injuries, champions Cain Velasquez and Anthony Pettis have not even fought once in the last seven months. “Rowdy” faces Alexis Davis
while the UFC works on a contract for Gina Carano.
WHAT THE STARS AND STRIPES TELL US: Since the UFC started the July 4 weekend tradition in 2006, only two challengers have dethroned champions to ring in the fireworks. Forrest Griffin relieved Quinton “Rampage” Jackson of the light heavyweight belt in a controversial bout in 2008. Weidman captured the middleweight crown in 2013; it was fitting for the “All-American” to seize the invincible Brazilian Anderson Silva’s throne on America’s birthday. Now Weidman finds himself in the odd position of being the one to buck the successful title defense tradition, only to hope it returns to the status quo with him in the champion’s seat 12 months later.
U-S-EH: USA vs. Brazil has all the makings of the UFC’s best country-versus-country rivalry. The vast majority of UFC champions in history hailed from one of the two countries. Eight UFC main events this year pit an American against a Brazilian, and Weidman-Machida could be a catalyst for that rivalry. The champion’s nickname is the “All-American.” He walks to the cage with the American flag draped over his back and won the title from the greatest Brazilian fighter of all-time in Silva. In fairness, Brazilians, Australians, the English and others are pretty gung ho for their countrymen. Americans have their “U-S-A” chant, but the Yankees are just as likely to root for Machida as they are Weidman.
In the spirit of the World Cup, where intercontinental rivalries are all the rage, one has to wonder why that passionate nationalism does not spill over into MMA.
ERA VS. ERA: When Machida won the 205-pound belt from Rashad Evans at UFC 98 in May 2009, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: an undefeated challenger versus an undefeated champion; in a sport with so many ways to lose, such occurrences just do not happen. Machida scored a roaring second-round knockout against Evans. He then declared karate was back, emphasizing the idea that his distance control, counter blitzkrieg style was impossible to deal with. UFC commentator Joe Rogan dubbed it the “Machida Era.” Less than a year later, Mauricio Rua cut down Machida. Fast-forward three years, as Weidman toppled Silva to become the fifth man in history to win a UFC title with an undefeated record, joining Machida, Evans, Cain Velasquez and Tim Sylvia. Weidman’s 11-0 mark, his victories over Silva and now the opportunity to beat Machida have him in position to drum up an era of his own. Labels aside, Machida has lost only four times, and two of those were by controversial decision. Maybe the Machida Era never ceased. UFC 175 will reveal much, as “The Dragon” has the chance to become just the third fighter in Ultimate Fighting Championship history to win titles in two weight classes; Randy Couture and B.J. Penn are the others. Machida happens to have defeated them both.
EYE SPY URIJAH: Urijah Faber has headlined 10 events for Zuffa in his seven years with World Extreme Cagefighting and the UFC. He was the centerpiece for the WEC, where during one stretch he served as the headlining attraction in five straight appearances, all of them title fight wins. He has competed on the main card in all nine of his UFC outings. Yet, at 35, Faber finds himself on an undercard. Is it because Fox Sports 1 wanted the star power of “The California Kid” to carry its preliminary broadcast? Or is it because Faber, one of the most recognizable figures in MMA history, has wandered into no-man’s land in the UFC?
Losses in six consecutive title fights raised questions about how the UFC could promote him in a division where he was beating everyone except the reigning champion. Faber’s career trajectory has been complicated even more by the fact that his Team Alpha Male teammate, T.J. Dillashaw, now sits on the 135-pound throne. For an elite fighter who seems to have improved with age, “prelims” still feels like a dirty word.
USELESS FACT: More stringent drug testing has started to have a serious impact. Sign a bout agreement in Nevada and be prepared to meet a stranger at your door carrying a bag full of vials, syringes and paperwork. Chael Sonnen was originally booked to face Wanderlei Silva and then Vitor Belfort at UFC 175. All three were met with varying drug testing issues, ranging from multiple failed tests to avoiding a test altogether.
AWARDS WATCH: The stakes are too high, the styles too opposing for anything other than the main event to be “Fight of the Night.” Takedowns will not come easy for the champion because Machida’s 83-percent success rate in defending them screams so loudly that Weidman can hear it over the shouting of trainer Ray Longo. The New Yorker’s second title defense will require him to solve one of the most difficult styles of all-time, but if Weidman has proven anything, it is that he can do the unthinkable. Expect Weidman and Machida to deliver back-and-forth drama ... Rousey’s ability to basically call her finish ahead of time should net her another “Performance of the Night” bonus, preparing her for whatever MTV Movie Awards trophy she might walk away with for her role in “The Expendables 3” ... Faber historically feasts on anyone not at the elite championship level. Alex Caceres will not stand in the way of his taking a “Performance of the Night” check back to Sacramento, Calif.