On the eve of the WEC's first and only foray into pay-per-view at WEC 48, I asked Urijah Faber what was at stake on a potentially bigger platform with the full weight of the UFC's promotional muscle at work behind him.
Points on the back end wasn't an answer, sadly. But Faber, who'd fought his way through the small-show California circuit to become one of the most popular fighters in the lighter-weighted promotion, did say it was a chance to prove the little guys could be trusted to make a buck as the marquee attraction of the Zuffa's primary product.
"I think the model of pay-per-view is what has allowed the sport of mixed martial arts to grow, and I'm thinking I want to prove I can make some money, and hopefully get some return," he said.
Fifteen months later, it was only fitting that the former featherweight champion got the first chance to do that, and do it opposite his first true rival in Dominick Cruz, the last bantamweight champion of the now-defunct WEC and first UFC champ of the same class.
Faber would ultimately come up short against Cruz, a phenomenally talented, and perhaps a misunderstood fighter with just one career loss -- at the hands of "The California Kid" four years ago. The two would nonetheless put on a performance worthy of headliner status, a whirling dervish of a fight that entertained and perplexed for 25 minutes. Cruz proved himself the better man with a style unique to all in MMA, and three judges would side with him. He would scarcely get the same reward from the crowd.
Here's hoping, though, that the UFC picked up the slack for the two as they do for many of UFC's top attractions. A "Fight of the Night" bonus was good. A discretionary bonus would be better. And points on the back end would be best, because the little guys put on a great show.
We'll find out whether they can deliver the bucks when the final numbers are tallied. But if Saturday's UFC 132 was a preview of coming attractions, things are looking good.
Dominick Cruz (18-1): The half-breakdancing, half-Capoeira, half-monkey kung fu stylings of Cruz proved to be too much for Urijah Faber, who was perhaps most qualified to stop his impressive march through the bantamweight division. But as beautifully baffling as it was to watch the unpredictable champ put together combinations and survive Faber's power punches, it was exasperating to hear the crowd give him no love when he clearly put on a superior performance.
It's understandable that Faber has had more time in front of the spotlight and is more familiar to the audience. He's got the chiseled looks, he's presentable, and boy, his walkout music is just so darn likeable. But Cruz, too, has the goods, with maybe the exception of the music. And he's never presented himself as anything less than a respectable, hard-working guy who's sacrificed everything to be a champion. His trappings of success? Last I checked, a bed with a proper frame and a nice TV -- for his one-bedroom apartment. So, so big baller.
Cruz outlanded and outworked Faber, who seemed alternately paralyzed and frustrated in trying to chase down his fight. It was a frontal assault versus guerilla warfare, and maybe that's the nerve Cruz touches with fans. He won't stand and trade for any longer than he needs to. He won't go out on his sword. He's aggressive, but he's not stupid. Faber could hardly catch the guy, and the same goes for everyone else in his way.
It looks like Demetrious Johnson or Brian Bowles is next in line for Cruz, depending on who is healthy to fight (Johnson is on crutches with a fractured fibula and Bowles may have broken his hand Saturday against Takeya Mizugaki). Neither present a compelling case to take the title from "The Dominator." Bowles is a big puncher and solid grappler, but not any more so than Cruz. Johnson is an excellent takedown artist, but we saw how well Faber held the champ down when he shot for the takedown.
In other words, it could be a while before we see a changing of the guard. So fans, spend some time with Cruz. You might learn to love him.
Chris Leben (26-7): With more ups and downs than a Coney Island coaster, Leben is a guy trying hard to rise above the vices and inconsistencies that have so often hamstrung his career. He told MMAFighting.com that a candy-induced coma spoiled his fight with Brian Stann at UFC 125, and as a result, broke the most significant win streak of his recent career. Now, he's up again as the jerk who probably put Wanderlei Silva to pasture with a 27-second KO.
We won't, however, get a sense of whether his current fortune has more life than a teeter-totter swing until he gets another top-tier notch on his belt. I'm thinking a guy such as Mark Munoz could be the ticket (and everybody else is booked, coming off a loss, or somebody he's already fought). Silva wasn't the gatekeeper to a title shot against another Silva, champ Anderson, who handed him a vicious beating five years ago. But the star power of "The Axe Murderer" was the perfect lilypad for a booking that could put him in the picture by next year, provided he can stay on track.
Let's see how long this sugar high lasts.
Tito Ortiz (17-8-1): Oh, we were just so ready to say bon voyage to the Huntington Beach Bad Boy, weren't we? Oddsmakers, media, fans -- everybody piled on Ortiz's doubt bus. We'd heard five years' worth of excuses from the once-dominant champ, and it looked pretty clear that he was the only one not willing to look at the truth: Time had passed him by, and it was time to hang it up. Dana White probably had his release typed up, notarized and headed toward FedEx when the unthinkable happened and Tito Frickin' Ortiz knocked Ryan Bader out (unofficially) and choked him out (officially) in the first round.
What was that talk you wanted to have, boss? Ah, never mind.
After a worldwide Twitter seizure subsided, the always-blunt welterweight Mike Pyle put it best: "We'll see what he's got left when he steps up against (better) competition," he told ESPN.com. Ortiz is already asking for a teammate of Pyle's by way of the winner of Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 134. Ortiz and Griffin split a pair of bouts at UFC 59 and UFC 106 and started a 140-character war that drove Ortiz's request. Not a bad idea, but he could just as well fight the winner of Rich Franklin vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 133. Either one presents a stiff test, and more Ortiz to love and hate.
Carlos Condit (27-5): A spectacular flying-knee knockout of Dong Hyun Kim put Condit's current win streak at four, and were it not for a logjam created by a delay to the sequel of the Jon Fitch vs. B.J. Penn debacle this past February, he would have a strong argument for the No. 1 contender position. As it stands, though, he's behind the two, though that could change depending on how long it takes the injured pair to recover and fight.
To complicate things, Condit said after his win that wants to fight before the end of the year. He could fight the winner of Diego Sanchez vs. Matt Hughes on the UFC's year-end show -- he's repeatedly stated his willingness to fight teammate Sanchez -- if that winner is healthy. Anthony Johnson could be a fun fight. But given the current options and the open cards, I'm thinking he's more likely to get a lower-tier guy willing to gamble on the spoiler role.
Melvin Guillard (29-9-2): Another talented and devastating fighter, and another tough spot on the lightweight ladder. Clearly, Guillard is in the immediate conversation for a title shot. But there's still no word on when Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar are going to settle their draw after injuries to both scrapped rematch plans at UFC 130. Jim Miller is at the top of the 155-pound food chain, per UFC boss Dana White, but he's got to get past Ben Henderson, and it could be well into 2012 if he gets his shot. Guillard probably won't fight teammate Clay Guida unless it's for a title.
Where's Sean Sherk when you need him?
But wait: a German could fix this problem. Dennis Siver is 8-1 since his loss to Guillard and rising fast on the lightweight ladder. Guillard is 6-1 since that win. Could a fall battle break the stalemate for the Young Assassin? Or would a fight against the surging Joe Lauzon give him that extra kick?
Rafael Dos Anjos (15-5): I don't know the Portuguese term for "thunder-stealer," but Dos Anjos may have mortally wounded the title drive of Sotiropoulos, who went on a seven-fight tear before Siver outpointed him at UFC 127. There's not much evidence for a title run for Dos Anjos, but matchups with Sam Stout and Gleison Tibau sound good.
Urijah Faber (25-5): Although he's been pushed back in the bantamweight line, there are tons of match-ups to keep "The California Kid" in the mix for a rematch with Cruz that appears welcome. A healthy Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, or a long-awaited fight with Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto (if he gets past Damacio Page) are all good options. Faber's star lost little of its luster with the loss; the UFC can, and will, push him as a headliner moving forward. When the promotion returns to Sacramento, he's a lock.
Dennis Siver (19-7): The former auto mechanic defeated Matt Wiman on the scorecards, but it felt more like an escape than a victory. Wiman's persistent takedown attempts left him little time to showcase his best skills, though his ability to (mostly) stay on his feet was impressive. The rematch with Guillard might make sense, though it's hard not to see the same result when weighing their respective performances on Saturday. Lauzon might make sense for Siver's next task, as well.
Aaron Simpson (9-2): A hollower victory could not be found on UFC 132's card. Simpson from the get-go made it clear that he wasn't interested in doing much other than smothering Brad Tavares against the cage. Such a strategy would be understandable if Tavares had been his first opponent after a two-fight skid that handed him the first professional losses of his nine-fight career. But it wasn't. He had plenty of time to ready himself for Tavares, and while the blanket approach was certainly the sensible one, it proved deadly to winning fans. The boos that accompanied the fight told that tale. Thus, don't expect Simpson, a 36-year-old with a limited amount of time to rise, to the first-call list unless someone gets hurt.
Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1): A menacing killer of a fighter in his PRIDE heydey, American fans met a big teddy bear when he set up shop in Las Vegas and embarked on a quest to add a UFC title to his considerable mantle. You could not meet a nicer guy, and his effervescence combined with his accent often created comedy gold.
Problem was, he was damaged goods. There were the gym wars back in Brazil, the back-to-back knockout losses, the grind of a decade-plus career. You could see all of it when he walked into the Octagon. The Wanderlei we all knew and loved was present, but he wasn't the same guy; the reaction time just wasn't there. Unfortunately, the reckless aggression was, and that led to a brutal knockout loss to Quinton Jackson, and Saturday, another at the hands of Chris Leben.
Silva will probably push for one last go-around in the Octagon, much like Ortiz did. But as White said at the post-event press conference, a veto may be in order. There's just no joy in seeing old heroes crumble.
George Sotiropoulos (14-4): The Aussie's grappling talents are evident, but it's twice in a row now that he's shown some serious holes in his striking game, and with first-round KO loss to Dos Anjos, it's the second time in his career that he's gone lights out. He faces a long road back to relevance in the lightweight division.
Takeya Mizugaki (14-6-2): He'll beat lower-tier guys all day, but it appears Mizugaki can't break through when it comes to the best of the best at 135 pounds. After a unanimous decision loss to former WEC champ Brian Bowles, he's settled, to put it charitably, into a gatekeeper role.
Andre Winner (11-6-1): A fighter in one of the UFC's Brit-packs, Winner is teammates with Ross Pearson, Nick Osipczak and Dan Hardy. The squad is renowned for its striking, yet against Anthony Njokuani, Winner was completely outgunned and outclassed and probably should have been saved in the first round. With three consecutive losses, his pink slip is on its way.