As the days wind toward UFC 152 on Saturday night at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, all parties involved in the main event between light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and challenger Vitor Belfort are saying the right things.
Belfort's a former champion. Jones needs to respect his knockout power. Anything can happen in mixed martial arts.
"Its ridiculous," said UFC president Dana White. "[Belfort] has power in both hands. If the Vitor Belfort shows up that we've seen a million times, that explosive knockout power, if Vitor just stands out there and hangs out there the way he fights, this is a very dangerous fight for Jon Jones."
Sure, Belfort, a former 205-pound champion, is returning to his former weight class after three years at 185. Sure, he was neither Plans A, B, nor C for Jones' fourth defense of his title. And sure, Belfort opened as an eye-popping 13-to-1 underdog.
No matter, says Jones. "I learned really not to put anything towards the odds," the champion said. You know, people who look at the odds, they're the people who don't fight. You know, I fight. And I realize the dangers in this sport and it's, it's a sport. It's a game where anyone can win at any time, so I don't focus on the odds."
Jones (16-1) is on an epic tear and is looking to make Belfort the fifth consecutive former UFC champion on his resume. Belfort (21-9) is 35 and only got the title shot after a well-documented chain of events that included the first-ever event cancellation in UFC history, the UFC 151 card that was scheduled for Sept. 1.
But the funny thing is, in a sport as volatile as MMA, you don't have to search far to find fight postponements or injury fallouts that led to challengers who were derided as being unworthy of their shot at the throne and then rocked the sport's foundation with a memorable title victory.
The most famous example is Matt Serra. UFC 151 was far from the first problem-riddled fight card; Serra was the ultimate beneficiary of a jinxed event less than six years ago.
UFC 67 on Feb. 3, 2007 in Las Vegas was supposed to mark the culmination of The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback. In that season of the reality series, welterweights and middleweights who had been cut from the UFC were given a second chance in the company. The winner in each weight class was slated for a title shot against newly crowned champions, respectively, in Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, both of whom were scheduled to make their first defense.
The initial jolt to UFC 67 came when St-Pierre injured a knee in training, causing the postponement of his fight with Serra until UFC 69. Then, on the day before the card, Silva's would-be challenger, Travis Lutter, missed weight, causing the bout to be changed into a non-title affair, making Lutter to date the last UFC title challenger to miss weight for a championship bout. Silva won via second-round submission in a match in front of a Mandalay Bay Events Center crowd that bought tickets expecting two title fights, but instead got none.
Two months later, the other shoe from the cursed UFC 67 dropped: Serra, an 8-to-1 underdog, tagged St-Pierre in the early going with a big right hand and the champion was never able to recover. Serra opened with a flurry of punches and won at 3:25 of the first round, making the charismatic Long Islander the most unlikely champion in modern UFC history.
While Serra's win over St-Pierre is regarded as the most stunning underdog story in UFC history, truth is, it came just one month after a fighter whom many felt had no business even stepping into the octagon strapped UFC gold around his waist after a major upset.
Former two-weight-class champion Randy Couture had been retired more than a year and was working as a color commentator when the opportunity to fight Tim Sylvia for the UFC heavyweight title came along.
Sylvia was originally slated to meet Brandon Vera, who at the time was considered a champion in the making, with a 9-0 record after his fast knockout of Frank Mir at UFC 65. But Vera got entangled in a legal dispute with his management team, which made him ineligible to fight. With no other suitable challengers available, Couture got the nod.
When the Couture-Sylvia fight was announced, consensus was that the former champion would get slaughtered. He was 43 and facing an opponent who was 11 years younger, six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. While Sylvia today is a parody of his former self, at the time, the Maine native was at his career peak, with a 23-2 record and six straight victories.
Instead, Couture dominated Sylvia on March 3, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio. He dropped Sylvia with a gigantic overhand right in the bout's opening seconds and nearly finished him. Couture couldn't close out the fight, so he instead embarrassed his bigger foe by using his wrestling to control the bout for the remainder of the 25-minute fight, earning across-the-board scores of 50-45 to claim the title.
Jones, of course, is a far cry from Sylvia. For every example of a fighter pulling a title upset, there were plenty of evenings where bouts that looked one-sided in the champion's favor played out in practice as it did in theory.
But Couture and Serra's victories prove that what is considered impossible can, in fact, happen.
Serra was known as a jiu-jitsu guy going into his upset of St-Pierre. His win can be attributed to landing the lucky punch and then having the wherewithal to back it up.
Belfort, though, is known for his heavy hands. So even if he's also in need of a lucky punch against Jones, he goes in with a history of laying down the leather. The list of luminaries who woke up staring at the lights after being on the wrong end of a Belfort flurry over the years include Wanderlei Silva, Rich Franklin and Matt Lindland.
Maybe that's why Belfort has taken a zen-like approach to the notion he doesn't stand a chance come Saturday night.
"It's the journey, man," Belfort said. "I'm 35 years old. I've been fighting for 17 years, and I've had great fights. I'm just focusing on the process. I'm not worrying about what people say or what people think. I don't even care, you know?"