Can Renan Barao reclaim the 135-pound championship? | Photo: Sherdog.com
After stepping over the carcass of UFC 176, the Smartest Guy at the Bar could not wait to pull up a stool to the next stacked pay-per-view. The Ultimate Fighting Championship bartender promised a double-shot of championship fights at UFC 177 on Saturday at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., but the injury vultures changed the entire order. Still, the event includes a title fight rematch and the promotional debut of an Olympic gold medalist, and it did not get cancelled. Those are all positives.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Walk with me. Talk with me. After all UFC 177 has been through, the biggest grudge match of 2014 between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier was its original main event. Then it moved atop UFC 178. The UFC made up for the move in volume by booking two title fights: T.J. Dillashaw-Renan Barao and Demetrius Johnson-Chris Cariaso. Now, thanks to a knee injury suffered by the light heavyweight champion, the Jones-Cormier showdown has been set to simmer mode and pushed back to UFC 182 in January. With UFC 178 in dire need of a main event, Zuffa brass ripped away Johnson-Cariaso and left the bantamweight rematch between Dillashaw and Barao to stand by itself. UFC 177 also inherited Danny Castillo-Tony Ferguson, Lorenz Larkin-Derek Brunson and Bethe Correia-Shayna Baszler. MMA just cannot have nice things.
UNPOPULAR OPINION: You could almost hear the collective groan. The UFC announced newly minted bantamweight champion Dillashaw would immediately rematch Barao just a few weeks after their first scrap. People were not happy. Team Alpha Male’s first UFC champion manhandled the former pound-for-pound ace before finishing with strikes in the fifth round back at UFC 173 in May. For a fan base already saddled with rematches, one more may seem like overkill -- to some. Allow me to retort with a series of questions: (1) A win is a win is a win. There is no denying it. Dillashaw defeated Barao fair and square at UFC 173 and is the rightful champion. However, word of a possible Barao illness leading up to their fight appeared to be confirmed by his performance. The usually explosive and aggressive Brazilian seemed tentative and slow. Plus, the 27-year-old is a notorious slow starter and usually finds his stride after a couple rounds. Dillashaw dropped Barao early and never let him recover. Is everyone really 100-percent confident a second matchup will look exactly the same as the first? (2) Immediate rematches for longstanding titleholders are nothing new for UFC matchmakers. Former champions like Anderson Silva and B.J Penn were all granted immediate rematches. Is it so out of place to grant a pound-for-pound standout a quick shot at redemption? (3) Does Dillashaw-Rafael Assuncao really get your blood boiling?
USELESS FACT: UFC 177 might be the closest pay-per-view in terms of fight-to-fight odds in history. Tony Ferguson (-235) is the biggest favorite on the 10-fight lineup. For perspective, six out of the next seven UFC offerings all have main events -- let alone the entire card -- with more substantial favorites. What UFC 177 may lack in name value, it makes up for in competitive bouts.
ROLLING DICE: The lighter divisions always struggle with their bigger brethren in the weight class-popularity contest. Outside of Urijah Faber, no fighter under Penn has really drawn for the UFC in any meaningful way. While the skills of Johnson, Dillashaw and Jose Aldo are unquestionable, getting the public to part with its hard-earned money to see them remains a tall task. Henry Cejudo could be the flyweight savior. A 2008 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, he intrigued the American masses after his showing in Beijing. As the son of poverty-stricken Mexican immigrants with no college wrestling background, Cejudo made for a gripping story. Once he traded in the singlet for five-ounce gloves, MMA fans drooled at the possibilities. Now 6-0 as a professional, he surely must be the crossover star the flyweight division needs. Cejudo signed with the UFC in July, joining fellow Olympic medalists Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann and Yoel Romero on the roster. Cejudo comes with some stipulations, however. The 27-year-old struggles to make the 125-pound limit, as he missed weight for his most recent contest. He has also pulled out of fights for no apparent reason. Some point to inexperienced management, others to a possible lack of motivation. We have seen little in the way of marketing from the UFC for its newly acquired talent. Perhaps the UFC is not quite ready to commit to a fighter who might blow up in its face. After all, he is fighting Scott Jorgensen, who is 2-5 in his last seven appearances, and finds himself buried on the undercard. Let us hope the big show is enough to motivate the potential star.
SAY WHAT: I made the case earlier as to why a Dillashaw-Barao rematch is not as outrageous as many think. The new bantamweight champion appeared on AXS TV’s “Inside MMA” and shot down a chunk of my argument in one fell swoop: “Obviously he has to create some sort of excuse why he lost. It ultimately comes down to his hand wasn’t up. He got hit by a right hand. The point of the game is to hit your opponent and not get hit. His hand should’ve been up, and if his hand would’ve been up, my hand wouldn’t have been on his face, so it’s an excuse, but I wouldn’t call it a good one.”
AWARDS WATCH: Correia stumbled upon the most profitable gimmick in the women’s 135-pound weight class: fighting Rousey’s teammates. After defeating Jessamyn Duke at UFC 172, “Pitbull” held up four fingers and pulled down one. It was her way of saying she was coming for the “Four Horsewomen,” which I am told is a thing involving Rousey, Duke, Shayna Baszler and Marina Shafir. Number two on Correia’s list is Bazler. Correia’s brawling standup game is pleasing to the eye. If she stays out of submission trouble, she is looking at a bonus check … Ferguson has impressively and quietly gone 5-1 in the UFC. He has won in a variety of ways, mixing his boxing with counter wrestling and sneaky submissions. Castillo is a wonderfully violent counterpart to “El Cucuy.” It will be fun -- and one-sided enough to earn Ferguson an extra $50,000 … The Dillashaw-Barao headliner cannot possibly be as one-sided as their first meeting, can it? Dillashaw’s mobile and effective striking makes him one of the more enjoyable champions to watch these days. Barao is still Barao: a powerful bantamweight with great takedown defense who is willing to exchange. Hopefully, we see some grappling exchanges between the two. Scrambles would add an excellent second dimension to their first scrap. With or without some canvas action, sign up the sport’s top two bantamweights for a “Fight of the Night” bonus.