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As fight slate shows, UFC favoring style over substance

Donald Cerrone (left) and Jim Miller offer contrasting styles, but perhaps not the personalities the UFC is looking for. Photo:

Donald Cerrone (left) and Jim Miller offer contrasting styles, but perhaps not the personalities the UFC is looking for.

 

Jim Miller brews his own beer. He hunts in the woods to put meat on his family’s dinner table. He doesn’t farm potatoes, though, and who knows if he even likes to dig his fork into a nice, hearty baked one? But as a mixed martial artist, he’s all meat-and-potatoes supper washed down with no-nonsense lager.

Donald Cerrone is as real as it gets, too. He’s a rarity in his sport in that he embodies the image he projects. In a self-promotional sphere peopled by zombies and gangsters and psychos who, in reality, are simply tough guys wanting to sound even tougher, Cerrone is known as “Cowboy” because he lives the life of one. He owns a ranch in New Mexico complete with horses, pigs and, oh yeah, a training facility for fighters. This guy doesn’t mess around.

Neither does Conor McGregor, really, but he’s not much like Miller or Cerrone. What the three men do have in common is that all are in UFC main events this week. “Cowboy” and Miller (no nickname) go head-to-head Wednesday night in Atlantic City, N.J. (9 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), while McGregor takes on Diego Brandao in the Irishman’s hometown, Dublin, on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, UFC Fight Pass).

Do you even have to ask what sets “The Notorious” McGregor apart from regular guys like Miller and Cerrone? If you do, you probably haven’t heard McGregor speak. So go ahead and ask him about himself, and he’ll bend your ear and bend it and then bend it some more until he’s satisfied that you’re convinced he’s the greatest thing MMA has ever seen. Pose that same question to Miller or Cerrone, and either one will probably just shrug.

This week is a study in stylistic contrast. Not the striker-vs.-grappler kind we regularly see inside the octagon, though. Over the next several days, the UFC menu features different flavors of personal style.

Why bring this up? Why not focus on how Cerrone’s kickboxing will fare at keeping Miller at distance to neutralize his ravenous jiu-jitsu game? Why not dwell on how McGregor might have to adjust his flashy standup now that he’s dealing with an in-your-face power puncher rather than his original opponent, Cole Miller, a lanky submission threat? Those are substantive fight preview questions, right? So why talk style rather than substance?

Why? Because style has become the substance of UFC matchmaking, or at least a disturbingly significant part of it. There’s always been an element of that in this sport, to be sure, but as MMA has crept closer to the mainstream, the departures from a meritocracy-driven model has become increasingly high-profile.

To hear Dana White talk, for instance, it sounds like his company is jumping through hoops to sign Gina Carano so it can match her up with women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Huge fight, eh? Maybe if you’re a bean counter, it is. Carano used to be a fighter but now is a full-fledged movie star, and “Rowdy Ronda” has gone Hollywood, too. A meeting between the two would draw starry interest from many corners of the media, from the sports section to the entertainment page. But would it be a fight worth seeing? Not really. Rather than going after a woman who hasn’t set foot in a cage in over five years, why not set the matchmaking machinery in motion to set up Rousey with the destroyer who drove Carano from the sport, Cris “Cyborg” Justino?

That’s a state of the sport address for a different day, though. Now is the time to take a look at the express lane McGregor traveled to position himself under the UFC’s bright lights. The 26-year-old is a mere 15 months removed from his debut with the behemoth fight promotion. After a quick dispatching of Marcus Brimage that earned him a Knockout of the Night bonus, McGregor was booked for a Boston event last summer and, amid much fanfare in the Irish-loving city, was given his own open workout during fight week. He won again, although a first-round ACL tear combined with a step up in competition made his decision victory over Max Holloway far less flashy than expected.    

Now he’s had a fight card built around him in his hometown. It would be disingenuous to declare unequivocally that McGregor is unworthy; he is, after all, 14-2 and on a 10-fight winning streak. Yet even with the UFC’s promotional muscle pushing the guy forward with all of its might, McGregor ranks just No. 13 in the company’s media-voted featherweight rankings (he’s not in SI.com’s Top 10 for the weight class). He has a slick standup style that suggests there’s a lot of upside to his game, but his incessant boastfulness calls forth an important reminder that being the second coming of Chael Sonnen also involves walking the walk. And “The Notorious” has a long, treacherous road ahead.

Miller and “Cowboy” Cerrone know all about the speed bumps that lie between Prospectville and Title Town. Both have had moments in the sun. Both have seen skies darken.

Miller (24-4, 1 NC) won nine of his first 10 UFC bouts before being derailed in 2011 by Benson Henderson, who two fights later was lightweight champion. Less than a year afterward, the 30-year-old New Jersey native was right back in the picture, but lost a title eliminator to Nate Diaz. He’s won three of his four bouts since then -- including a Fight of the Year dance with Joe Lauzon in December 2012 -- and is rising once again. Miller stands at No. 9 among 155-pounders in the SI.com rankings.

Cerrone (23-6, NC), likewise, is working his way back. The 31-year-old was among the top lightweights in the WEC prior to the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, absorbing the promotion. Three times he fought for the belt. Three times he fell short. On two of those occasions, Henderson was his stumbling block, too. After then reeling off six wins in a row, “Cowboy” came up against the other nemesis he shares with Miller, and Diaz did him in as well. Cerrone now is on a three-fight win streak, and each time he’s cashed an extra check: Submission of the Night, Knockout of the Night, Performance of the Night.

It’s not an either-or proposition, but Jim Miller vs. Donald Cerrone is the fight not to miss this week. And once the dust settles from that one, rest your eyes and open your ears, because McGregor is sure to have a few things to say. Then, finally, the Dublin dust-up will get under way and we’ll find out if “The Notorious” is all talk.

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