Two fight cards this week speak to the reasons Zuffa decided it was time to fold WEC into the UFC.
Though the conversion won't feel official until 2011, it commences Thursday when the first of two final WEC events takes place in Las Vegas. Then on Saturday in Oberhausen, Germany, a small town north of Dusseldorf, the UFC returns to continental Europe for the first time in more than a year with what appears to be the promotion's weakest card of 2010.
Once the crossover is complete, it's unlikely the UFC will put its stamp on a night of fights as unattractive as its Saturday offering, which airs in the United States on Spike TV via tape delay at 9 p.m. ET. Headlined by a compelling middleweight title eliminator between Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami, the 11-bout card is strewn together with half its fighters coming off at least one loss. Presumably, as featherweights and bantamweights matriculate their way onto UFC cards, and as the cream of WEC's lightweights stake out a place for themselves, fewer mid-tier competitors will take up space in increasingly costly real estate.
Even among veteran mixed martial artists like Jorge Rivera (18-7) and Alessio Sakara (15-7, 1 NC), each riding a three-fight winning streak, their middleweight tussle registers a big "so what." Neither finds himself near a top-10 ranking, and though their match could turn out to be the best scrap of the night, a victory in Germany, where the UFC has run up against unreceptive politicians and television executives, doesn't portend bigger things.
For Marquardt (30-9-2) and Okami (25-5), that, thankfully, is not the case. The winner is said to be guaranteed a shot at the UFC middleweight title, currently held by the great Anderson Silva. Whether Saturday's winner gets Silva or Vitor Belfort, whose championship opportunity plays out in February, is, at this time, of little concern to the top-10 ranked fighters.
It's not like they haven't had their chances. Marquardt was knocked out in the opening round during a challenge of Silva in 2007 and he squandered a title eliminator earlier this year when Chael Sonnen ran roughshod over him. After failing to show up against Rich Franklin three years ago, Okami reworked his way into the title picture before losing on points to Sonnen.
Yet here they are, once again on the cusp of a championship opportunity. Both are big middleweights. Neither is a wrestler first, though both can grapple. This looks to be a bout that will be determined on the feet. Marquardt has been drilled in camp to dial up his power. Okami, training with Sonnen at Team Quest in Gresham, Ore., will stress an all-around game.
Marquardt's athleticism has served him well, and against Okami it should again give him an edge. It seems likely that this bout goes the distance as Marquardt finds a way to put himself in title contention.
Thursday's WEC event, as has been the case since Zuffa purchased the company in 2006, offers little resemblance to UFC 122. Each of the night's five televised bouts (6 p.m. ET, Versus) exhibits the strength of the promotion: its 145- and 135-pound divisions.
Urijah Faber, the best-known fighter produced by the WEC, faces a must-win proposition in the main event, his bantamweight debut against Takeya Mizugaki, who pushed Miguel Torres further than anyone had before him until the then champion succumbed to Brian Bowles and Joseph Benavidez.
Though it hasn't been promised, Faber-Mizugaki could go a long way in determining who gets the next crack at a title at 135. With Scott Jorgensen first in line for Dominick Cruz's belt -- the newly minted UFC belt -- in December, there's no doubt that a win would put Faber squarely in the mix, especially since most of the top-tier bantamweights have already held or had a chance to hold the title. Should Cruz retain the strap in December, it makes sense, considering Faber's marketability and the fact that he's the last fighter to defeat Cruz when the pair met for Faber's featherweight title, he'd receive the next shot on a UFC pay-per-view in the first or second quarter of 2011.
It will be telling to see how Faber, 31, a nutrition junkie, handles the cut to 135 pounds. If he can make weight on Wednesday without dropping too much water, his speed should be off the charts. Thought it may cost him in the power department, that shouldn't matter much against the 26-year-old Mizugaki (13-4-2). Expect Faber (23-4) to do to Mizugaki what Jorgensen did and win a unanimous decision.
WEC 52's co-main event at The Pearl at The Palms also offers a stiff test for featherweights Javier Vazquez (15-4) and Chad Mendes (8-0). Vazquez, an MMA veteran since the late 1990s, is a talented grappler with plenty of experience. Mendes, a Faber protege, is one of the reasons "The California Kid" decided it was worthwhile dropping 10 pounds. The 25-year-old Californian is the epitome of a power wrestler and comes into fights in terrific condition, yet Vazquez believes Mendes isn't ready for a higher class of opposition. That notion, according to the 33-year-old Cuban-American, is the reason he'll win on Thursday. Well, that and his ability to survive underneath powerhouses like Mendes. Vazquez made it a point of his training camp, as he worked extensively with lightweight Antonio McKee. The winner wouldn't be far off from an opportunity to fight for the UFC featherweight belt currently held by top-three pound-for-pounder Jose Aldo.
And that's the theme of WEC 52. It's all about the future.
Outside of Marquardt-Okami, which by its very nature is a forward-looking fight, the remainder of UFC 122 doesn't hold nearly the intrigue as Thursday's card except on one point: prospects.
As mentioned on a list of up-and-comers under the age of 23