Las Vegas was built on longshot bets. Think about that the next time you're squinting up at the neon-and-steel procession of casino hotels marching down The Strip. This ostentatious cityscape is no desert mirage. The dollars of the dreamy-eyed made it appear where once there was nothingness.
How fitting, then, that the UFC will be digging its heels into the Nevada sandbox this weekend. The behemoth promotion's annual Memorial Day fight card is headlined by a couple of clashes for which bookmakers have set odds as tall as the restless high rises in this grownup playground where, as the slogan goes, impish indiscretions stay behind. So does the money brought to town by buoyant visitors blinded to stacked odds.
In the fight game, the term "mismatch" is not good for business. So in the leadup to UFC 173, which takes place at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, PPV), we've been sold on possibilities. In the main event, T.J. Dillashaw will be a 6-1 underdog when he tries to hand bantamweight champion Renan Barão his first loss in 34 fights over a span of nine years. But the promotional hype machine turns away from this steep uphill battle angle and casts the 28-year-old Californian as a supreme athlete with a competitive drive in keeping with the name of his training team, Alpha Male.
Nice try, but it's near impossible to view this bout as anything other than a spotlit showcase for Barão, whom Dana White likes to proclaim the No. 1 fighter in the world, pound for pound. (Except, of course, when the UFC president is hyping a Jon Jones fight or José Aldo title defense, in which case one of them gets to be his pinnacle performer.) Dillashaw, unless and until he shows us otherwise, is at best a green accessory -- he has but 11 pro fights -- who's taking on too much too soon. If you're among those planning to plunk down $54.99 for the high-def telecast, you're likely just hoping T.J. can put up enough of a fight to draw some of the greatness out of Barão. When pushed, the slayer from Brazil, 27, can be a marvel to watch.
Then again, unlike on most fight cards, this main event in the desert might simply be dessert. The co-main has odds stacked even loftier, yet it's a spectacle not to be missed. Daniel Cormier, the undefeated refugee from the heavyweight division, is one win away from a light heavyweight title shot, with the only obstacle in his way being an underdog of more than 6-1. That longshot is 43 years old and slowing down. He's lost three of his last four fights, and even in the one victory during that run, he was being beaten up until a sudden change of fortune.
Ah, yes, where better than Vegas to come to grips with the teetering instability of what we hold as a certainty? The aged fighter we're talking about here is Dan Henderson, after all, and if we've learned anything from his 15 years in this sport -- a career that at the very least puts him in the conversation for greatest ever -- it's that this is a man drawn to challenges seemingly too daunting for him to handle. Until he handles them.
It's fair to question, though, whether Henderson still can handle the rigors of a young man's game. In recent fights, he has begun to look his age. "Hendo" never was Baryshnikov in the cage, but in his last few dances he has moved a bit like Lurch, the aptly named butler in the Addams household. Dan's unyielding chin has had its brittle moments of late, too. However, even as his prime fades into the horizon, this is a fighter who will eternally reside at the sparsely populated intersection of Dana White's step-right-up barkering and a fight fan's truth-telling. The UFC poobah went on the Fox Sports 1 show UFC Tonight earlier this week and rightly pointed out that Henderson, while perhaps not the fighter he once was, "has that equalizer, that right hand."
You know a man's fist is a dangerous weapon when it has its own nickname. Henderson's concussive right hand is known as "the H-Bomb," and while diminished foot speed and the general lethargy that comes with aging have conspired to keep that power-packed punch out of firing range to a degree, it would be perilously unwise to consider this man unarmed. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua might have thought that was the case in March, when he was getting the best of Henderson for the better part of their three-rounder. He'd knocked him down and almost finished him in the first, floored him again in the second. Henderson, sluggish and desperate, appeared well on his way to a fourth straight loss.
But then, a little over a minute into the final round, Henderson went for a takedown, and as Rua fended him off, the fighters clinched briefly. Henderson deftly pulled away from the clinch and, in one cagey motion, threw a short right hand -- not an "H-Bomb," exactly, more a "Dan Grenade" -- that connected on the chin and sent "Shogun" tumbling backward onto the canvas. That's where the Brazilian stayed, as Henderson pounced with punches until being pulled off.
Daniel Cormier saw that fight. He knows something that the oddsmakers doubt. He will not be surprised by anything that comes his way on Saturday night.
Will we be surprised? It almost doesn't matter. Regardless of the result, this is a delicious meeting of two-time wrestling Olympians. Cormier competed in the 2004 Games in freestyle and also was on the 2008 U.S. team. Henderson represented the country in Greco-Roman in 1992 and '96. Hendo (30-11) has the deeper pedigree as a mixed martial artist, having competed since 1997, having won championships in the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce, and having beaten a who's who in the sport (Fedor Emelianenko, Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva, many others). Cormier (14-0), who is 35 himself yet less than five years into his MMA career, won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, along the way defeating Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and Josh Barnett. He has just one fight at 205 pounds under his tightened belt, though.
It's tricky business for the UFC to be selling us a pay card topped by two apparent mismatches. The thing is, though, what really pushes fans to fork over the dough to watch is star power. Barão doesn't have it, whether because of the language barrier or a lack of stout challenges. Maybe that'll change someday, perhaps when Dominick Cruz returns to reclaim the belt he believes is his. But for now, for UFC 173, the stars will be shining most brightly in the co-main event.