Mark Hunt seems the unlikeliest of title contenders. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
After conquering the United States and Canada, the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday finally masters the rest of North America with its first visit to Mexico. UFC 180 marks a significant moment for the company. Mexico has long been a target for MMA’s largest promoter, but various barriers have kept the eight-sided cage from traveling south of the border. Coming from a guy who has been to multiple cage fights in Tijuana, the country could use some high-level MMA.
HOW WE GOT HERE: International politics alone did not keep the UFC from heading to Mexico. UFC President Dana White made it clear his company was not debuting in the new locale without heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. However, injuries will keep the Arizona State University wrestling All-American from fighting in his ancestral homeland. Fabricio Werdum was supposed to earn a title shot after coaching against Velasquez on “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” -- the perfect debut main event for the UFC in the new country. Unfortunately, a knee injury will keep Velasquez from fighting at the Mexico City Arena.
Former Pride Fighting Championships fighter Mark Hunt was asked to fill in for the champion on short notice, with an interim belt at stake ... Jake Ellenberger looks to put an end to his two-fight skid against “Ultimate Fighter” winner and Mexican-American Kelvin Gastelum in the co-main event. It is a strange matchup when you consider Gastelum is 9-0 and Ellenberger has lost his last two. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva rarely pairs a fighter coming off a loss with a fighter coming off a win. Still, the Reign MMA product represents the most substantial hurdle of Gastelum’s still-blossoming career ... Former title challenger Ricardo Lamas takes on the surging Dennis Bermudez in an important featherweight contest. Bermudez puts his seven-fight win streak on the line in the toughest test of his career ... The finals for “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” will also be contested. The featherweight final matches Team Velasquez fighter Yair Rodriguez with Team Werdum’s Leonardo Morales. Team Velasquez swept the bantamweight tournament, as Alejandro Perez faces Jose Alberto Quinonez in the final.
LULLING LEGACY: The main event exists under the shadow of Velasquez. The celebrated return of the heavyweight champion was much needed considering the string of injuries to other UFC titleholders. Of all the champions, Velasquez’s string of injuries is the most frustrating. Aside from a single punch landed by Junior dos Santos in their first fight, Velasquez has been in complete control of every round of every bout in his 14-fight career. He is the quintessential “Baddest Man on the Planet,” the best guy in combat sports’ most storied weight class. However, his body simply has not been able to keep up with the responsibilities of being the heavyweight king. Since demolishing Brock Lesnar for the belt in 2010, the 32-year-old has only competed five times. The best way for a combat star to rise is for as many fans as possible to watch him beat other great fighters as often as possible. At this rate, Velasquez will near retirement by the time he has had enough performances to make him a premiere sports athlete. Let us hope Javier Mendez and the rest of the trainers at the American Kickboxing Academy can formulate some way for their top student to train enough to win but not so much that he cannot make it to the cage on fight night.
SAY WHAT: Every fighter who faces two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Werdum gets the question: “How do you deal with such a formidable submission game?” After all, the Brazilian has submitted a who’s who of premium heavyweights, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem. Answers range from technical discussions to outright dismissals of Werdum’s skills. Every now and then, you get an answer like the one Hunt gave Submission Radio: “Well, everyone’s a world-class ground fighter until they get a punch to the face, so that’s how I deal with all these ground fighters -- like everyone else. I hit ’em in the head, and there goes your [expletive] black belt.”
UPS AND DOWNS: Speaking of Hunt, the fact that he is fighting for -- and rightfully earned -- a shot at an interim UFC belt is either the most improbable statement you have ever heard or the most righteous. The 40-year-old became one of the most beloved heavyweights during his time in Pride, as his combination of one-punch knockout power and a demeanor similar to that of the nice bouncer at your favorite bar made him a fan favorite. A string of losses at the end of the Pride era brought down his stock as a commodity, so his entrance into the UFC came more as a technicality than anything else. A loss to Sean McCorkle in his Octagon debut brought his losing streak to six fights and made him all but an afterthought. Since then, he has gone 5-1-1 -- only dos Santos has beaten him -- and revitalized a career most had dismissed. Whether this has to do to with the strength of his resolve or the state of the UFC heavyweight division is up to you to decide.
AWARDS WATCH: The Lamas-Bermudez showdown features two top 10 featherweights with deep gas tanks and more-is-more attitudes. Can you say “Fight of the Night?” ... Team Werdum did not have a great showing on “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America.” Morales was the only member of Werdum’s squad to advance past the quarterfinals. The undefeated Nicaraguan will be motivated to perform and should be in line for a “Performance of the Night” bonus ... Ellenberger has some holes in his game, and when he faces a savvy or extremely dangerous foe, his shortcomings become glaring. Against Rory MacDonald, he froze when he could not get past the Canadian’s jab.
Against Robbie Lawler, he was shaken by the “Ruthless” one’s power. Gastelum possesses no such quandaries. This represents a decent step up in competition for Gastelum, as he faces a fighter on a two-fight losing streak who undoubtedly has the mentality of a wounded and cornered animal. Look for Ellenberger to put a hurting on Gastelum, earning a “Performance of the Night” check for his efforts.