It wasn't so long ago, you'll remember, that everyone outside of a certain Russian heavyweight grasped championship belts like they'd just been plucked out of the Pacific.
Anderson Silva is on the verge of breaking a UFC record for title defenses with six -- which should tell you all you need to know about how difficult these things are to hold onto. B.J. Penn committed himself and emerged as a monster lightweight. Two weeks ago, welterweight great Georges St. Pierre did his thing. Again. And again. And again.
Yes, there's always the option of complaining about lopsided beatings; these men aren't above criticism, and neither are their challengers. But it's certainly worth marveling at just how far elite mixed martial artists have evolved in the application of their skills. Not only is it less cynical, but it pays proper respect to champions who finally have the gumption to dominate.
Apropos to the abilities of Silva and Penn, who defend their respective belts Saturday in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., UFC 112 was dubbed "Invincible" by its promoters. There's always the suggestion that after selling a 10 percent stake to Flash Entertainment, a U.A.E. subsidiary, executives in UFC's parent company are swimming in cash and feeling good about themselves. But for our purposes, let's pretend Silva (25-4) and Penn (15-5-1) inspired the title on the poster.
That's probably how Demian Maia or Frankie Edgar feel about it, anyhow.
"For me, it's an honor," said Edgar, a very good lightweight saddled with very long odds. "It's really forced me to bring out the best in my training. It's helped me a lot because I had to prepare for someone of B.J.'s stature."
If he intends to be more than a name on a growing list, Edgar, 28, will be required to do something special. Even then, who's to say it will be enough? Yes, the gritty wrestler from Toms River, N.J., has displayed the attitude, work ethic and resolve to deserve an opportunity at Penn's belt. He resides in a class of similar lightweights -- Gray Maynard, Tyson Griffin, Evan Dunham, Kenny Florian -- who are skilled but pale in comparison to Penn.
"They all have a good shot of fighting for the title one day," Penn said. "I don't want to look past those guys. I don't want to make believe they don't exist."
Leave that to fans, media and bookies.
Edgar's shot is now, and, not that this is some revelation, great upsets can't happen without plucky challengers. He's an excellent wrestler. Penn, 31, may be better. With speed and accuracy, Edgar (11-1) can box. Over the past three years, the sweet science has emerged as one of Penn's great strengths. On the floor, it's not much of a contest -- Penn is one of the finest Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylists in the sport.
The same could be said for Maia, though some believe he has better prospects of uprooting Silva than Edgar does Penn. Maia, in point of fact, was not too long ago the best in the world at grappling with submissions. Silva's no slouch there either -- how many times have Travis Lutter or Dan Handerson tapped to chokes?
"Grappling is my style," said Maia, who scored the fight after Vitor Belfort was injured in February. "I hope that I will do that there."
Pray is more like it, because the 32-year-old Brazilian challenger can forget about it on the feet.
During an unprecedented run of 10 consecutive wins inside the UFC, the lanky champion has Picasso'd opponents, and Maia (12-1) is two fights removed from being swatted out of mid-air by Nathan Marquardt.
So few people consider Edgar or Maia legitimate threats to the belt that the predominant story heading into UFC 112, which airs live in the U.S. at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT and replays at 10 p.m. ET, centers on Zuffa's first outdoor promotion on exotic Yas Island in an arena that was erected over the past three weeks.
A testament to Silva and Penn? An insult to Edgar or Maia?
We don't know, but we think we do.
Saturday's event, and it most certainly is that, may be the closest Zuffa comes to emulating the Pride-style production that prompted so many fans to fall in love with the Japanese promotion. If so, Renzo Gracie will feel at home, which the Brazilian legend probably does regardless considering his ties to the U.A.E.
Making his UFC debut more than 18 years after fighting for the first time as a professional, Gracie's presence in the Octagon against former welterweight No. 1 Matt Hughes (43-7) is improbable. It's hard to imagine the gregarious 43-year-old with the most famous last name in MMA being offered a multifight deal with the UFC if his Sheikh friends weren't now partners with rich guys from another cultivated desert. He hasn't fought since 2007. He won just four of 10 bouts in the 2000s. And, for as wonderful as he is as a jiu-jitsu ambassador, Gracie (13-6-1) has managed just one submission win in the last 10 years. Still, it's impossible not to like the guy, and he has done wonderfully in helping sell the card.
If this were a popularity contest, Gracie's chances of winning would hover near Saturday's champions'. But it's not. Hughes, no stranger to finding the downside of his career, has plodded along since 2006, losing twice to St. Pierre and once to a young, hungry Thiago Alves. There won't be another title run in Hughes' future, that much seems certain, but the 36-year-old former UFC champion can and will control Gracie, fighting near 170 pounds for the first time since he competed at Pride 1, to take a unanimous decision.
Anderson Silva TKO Demian Maia R2 B.J. Penn submission Frankie Edgar R4 Matt Hughes unanimous decision Renzo Gracie Terry Etim unanimous decision Rafael dos Anjos Mark Munoz TKO Kendall Grove R3 Phil Davis unanimous decision Alexander Gustafsson Paul Taylor split decision John Gunderson Ricky Story submission Nick Osipczak R3 Brad Blackburn unanimous decision DaMarques Johnson Matt Veach submission Paul Kelly R2 Mostapha Al-turk TKO Jon Madsen R2