Friday September 26th, 2014

I’m thinking of Demetrious Johnson. I’m thinking of Sonny Liston.

The first one might make sense to you, given that Saturday night in Las Vegas is UFC 178 (10 p.m. ET, PPV) and “Mighty Mouse” is in the main event, defending his flyweight championship. But that bout against 10-1 longshot Chris Cariaso is not the fight I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the one Johnson fought way back on Oct. 1, 2011, back when he was lugging around 10 extra pounds on his slight 5-foot-3-inch frame and competing as a bantamweight. He was doing that because the flyweight division was not yet even a gleam in Dana White’s eye, and he was doing it well enough that that fight almost three years ago to the day was for the 135-pound championship.

Johnson lost a unanimous decision that night in his challenge of Dominick Cruz. Mere months afterward, though, his pursuit of a title strap was given a do-over of sorts when the UFC introduced a 125-pound division and a tournament to determine its first champion. Demetrious fought three times to earn the belt, and since then has defended it four times. Busy man.

Not so for Cruz. He has not fought even once since that tussle with “Mighty Mouse.”

Seven months later, while preparing for a bout with Urijah Faber after coaching against him on The Ultimate Fighter, “The Dominator” tore the ACL in his left knee and had to pull out. Before 2012 was done, while still rehabbing the knee, he tore the ligament again and had to start the whole process anew. Then, over a full year later, just weeks before he was to return last February to face Renan Barão, the interim champion who’d been in his absence, Cruz suffered a torn groin. No fight. Championship belt vacated. A bummer for the fighter, for the division, for the promotion, for the fans.

Here’s the feel-good part of the story. Dominick Cruz (19-1) is finally ready to step back into the octagon. After an absence of 1,093 days, he will take on Takeya Mizugaki in the headliner of UFC 178’s four-fight prelims (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).

Cruz was always a fighter to watch, and that will not change. He was never known as a finisher, with but one TKO in his nine WEC/UFC bouts, but he sure could take an opponent out of a fight without cleaning his clock. His purposeful movement was ceaseless and guided by a sense of rhythm and timing that only he grasped. He was better than Nolan Ryan at causing a swing-and-miss.

Will a rebuilt knee and three years of rust take a toll on that mobility? Probably. But one aspect of Cruz’s game that remains as sharp as ever is his mind. I don’t know for sure that he’s the smartest fighter on the UFC’s roster of 400-plus, but I can say with all confidence that he’s the smartest fighter I’ve ever heard talk about fighting. During his extended layoff, Cruz has been a semi-regular panelist on the various UFC-related programs on Fox Sports 1, and he’s shown himself to be a master of breaking down fighters -- what they throw, how they move, where they’re susceptible. Come Saturday night, Cruz will know what Mazugaki is going to do before Takeya does.

Crash Course to UFC 178: Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso

That’s going to be something to see. Something that mixed martial arts fans have missed seeing for too long a time, ever since that fight with an overgrown “Mighty Mouse.” So that’s what got me thinking of Demetrious Johnson.

But Sonny Liston?

Well, thoughts of “The Big Bear” are just in keeping with today’s upside-down look at UFC 178. On a fight card where the main event looks like a mismatch, the undercard is the true attraction, with several tossup tussles on the bill. One of them evoke a remembrance of a heavyweight boxer from a long-gone era, because I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Sonny Liston had successfully defended his belt back on Feb. 25, 1964. The champ was a 7-1 favorite that night over Cassius Clay, whose 210 pounds were 80 percent mouth. And that mouth roared and roared, at one point showing up at Liston’s house in the middle of the night to taunt him. At the weigh-ins, the man who a month later would be forever known as Muhammad Ali proclaimed, “I am the champ!” Then, when Liston appeared: “You’re scared, chump!”

What if Liston, 35-1 at the time and coming off two straight knockouts of the great Floyd Patterson, had hit Clay in the mouth and made him his 25th KO victim? Would he have shut him up? Would Ali have become the Ali the sports world so reveres?

This is what I’m thinking about because MMA has a fast-talker in its midst, and we’re about to find out if he can live up to the commotion he’s created in tandem with the UFC’s high-test hype machine. Saturday night is the moment of truth for Conor McGregor.

The brash Irishman has taken the express lane to where he now stands. After just one UFC fight, McGregor was put on last year’s Boston card and, with the promotion knowing the local populace’s affinity for all things Irish, was given his own public workout in a Southie gym. On fight night, the lights dimmed, main event style, as Conor emerged for his prelim.

Then, in July, the UFC did McGregor even better, building a card around him in Dublin. A main event in your hometown in just your third fight with the promotion? Too much, too soon? As a business move, it was brilliant, producing one of the most electrifying arena ambiences the UFC has seen. As a matchmaking move, though, it appeared that the promotion was coddling Conor.

He’s being coddled no more. On Saturday night, McGregor faces his first true Top 10 test. Dustin Poirier is No. 7 in the featherweight rankings, and the UFC’s media-voted tally lists him as the fifth contender below champion José Aldo. If the 26-year-old Irishman can handle the well-rounded Cajun, he will have proved himself to the satisfaction of all but the unreasonable haters. The UFC will have a star. Conor McGregor will have shown his fists to be the equal of his mouth.

Well, not so fast. McGregor can become a true star this weekend, but for his fighting to reach the level of his talking, he’ll have to be the next Jon Jones. He’s the pound-for-pound best in the game at talking a good game. That’s because his word have a purpose. With his every utterance, McGregor fills himself with confidence and his opponents with unease. For past conquests Marcus Brimage, Max Holloway, and Diego Brandao, that unease took the form of doubt. Not one of them fought Conor with confidence. Of course, none has what it takes, physically or mentally, to be a Top 10 fighter.

Poirier does have what it takes. He is a Top 10 guy already and he’s been in with others. He’s fought at a higher level than McGregor has. Dustin’s only losses since 2010 have been against top contenders Cub Swanson and Chan Sung Jung. He’s the more accomplished competitor in Saturday’s bout, yet McGregor refers to him as a “club fighter.” This and other slights clearly have gotten under Poirier’s skin. He must transcend that. If he fights an angry fight, he will lose the fight. His best weapon against McGregor is poise.

You know, the kind Sonny Liston didn’t show that night he tried to shut up Cassius Clay. Of course, most would now say that the future Ali was simply a better fighter than Liston. That also might be the case in this weekend’s bout. Maybe Conor McGregor really is as good as he says he is. Wouldn’t that be exciting?

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