The other day, seeking a tidbit of information about UFC 138, I ventured to the fight organization's web site and had a brief moment of confusion. Had I got the date wrong? Is the event in Birmingham, England, not this weekend?
It turned out that I had the date right and Mark Muñoz and Chris Leben will indeed be headlining a Saturday evening of fights in the West Midlands of Britain. But you wouldn't have known it from the UFC's home on the web, which was splashed with all things UFC on Fox, the MMA promotion's network television debut. That fight card, topped by a heavyweight championship bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, takes place in a week, and in case you didn't already know how historic an event it will be for the company and the sport, the UFC's web site was there to tell you. And tell you some more.
UFC 138, meanwhile, was flying under the radar. Still. Until last weekend, all anyone in MMA wanted to talk about for weeks was the UFC 137 main event between Nick Diaz and B.J. Penn. In the lead up, there was much anticipation surrounding an intriguing match up of two guys equally skilled and comfortable both in the standup game and on the mat. And then, after Diaz decisively pounded Penn into retirement (or at least into a retirement announcement, always subject to reconsideration), the hype was ramped up that very night. At the post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White announced that Diaz would leapfrog Carlos Condit back into a welterweight title bout against Georges St-Pierre, where he once was scheduled to be until -- ah, let's not go into that sordid tale now. This is the time to talk about UFC 138.
Or not. The UFC hype machine was churning on the company's network TV debut even before the Nick-B.J. bout, and now that that's over, it's all Fox, all the time. Unless you want to start getting into UFC 139, which takes place in two weeks, headlined by a big-time light heavyweight showdown between former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and ex-Strikeforce and Pride titlist Dan Henderson. With Wanderlei Silva vs. Cung Le and Urijah Faber vs. Brian Bowles on the undercard, it's a pay-per-view that'll draw some business.
The next two weekends' fight cards, on the other hand, are not PPVs. The difference between them is that UFC on Fox has been the subject of a Primetime preview show, has been trumpeted during seemingly every break in the action during the network's NFL telecasts and has been dissected in a media conference call that attracted representatives from not just the usual MMA outlets. This fight card is being marketed as A Big Event worthy of an hour of prime-time network air time.
Contrast that to UFC 138, which isn't even being shown live. Saturday's same-day taped telecast will be on Spike beginning at 8 ET. At that same time, the biggest non-bowl college football game in years will be kicking off on CBS, featuring No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. Combat sports fans who resist that or the evening's other 10,000 college gridiron offerings soon will have a couple more viewing options. At 9 p.m. ET, Showtime has a super middleweight boxing match between unbeaten champion Lucien Bute and rugged Glen Johnson. At 10:15, HBO jumps into the ring with a battle of junior middleweight knockout artists James Kirkland and Alfredo Angulo. All of the above, with the exception of UFC 138, is live.
Still, Muñoz vs. Leben is hard to ignore. Sequester yourself away from Twitter or any MMA web sites where you might learn the result of the fight, which takes place while it's afternoon here in the U.S. That way it'll play out freshly for you as the two forward-moving fighters engage for up to 25 minutes. That's right, it's a five-round fight, the first non-title UFC bout to be so designated.
What makes this bout worth paying attention to, however, is not the milestone but the middleweights. Muñoz is a former NCAA Division 1 national champion wrestler and a two-time All-American who has honed his striking game as his MMA career has progressed. He's 11-2, winner of six of his last seven, the only loss during that stretch coming against the most recent challenger for Anderson Silva's belt, Yushin Okami. Leben (22-7) has no such collegiate credentials, but his upbringing in the school of hard knocks has included training with Randy Couture and Matt Lindland. His career has had ups and it's had downs -- most publicly his out-of-control behavior during the first season The Ultimate Fighter -- but Leben has been a UFC mainstay because, win or lose, he's always exciting to watch. Dana White values that. A lot.
Yet Leben is no mere gatekeeper for the rising Muñoz, who seems to be just a couple of wins from a title shot. In recent times, Chris has developed a credible jiu-jitsu game, which came into play when he upset Yoshihiro Akiyama last year via triangle choke. Leben has won four of his last five fights, the most recent win -- over Wanderlei Silva in July -- coming the old-fashioned way: knockout. In 27 seconds.
3: Consecutive wins.
197: Weight at which he won the 2001 NCAA Division 1 championship. In the UFC, he competes in the middleweight (185-pound) division.
6: Number of victories, along with one loss, since dropping down from light heavyweight two summers ago.
5: Number of fights, among his last 10, in which he has won a bonus for Fight (2) or Knockout (3) of the Night.
12: Knockouts among his 22 victories.
1,489: Total strikes landed over his 29-fight career, according to Fight Metric, fifth most in UFC history (behind GSP, Jon Fitch, Chris Lytle and B.J.).
What we should expect: One surprising career stat on Muñoz, via Fight Metric: He has succeeded on only 18 percent of his takedown attempts. In his loss to Okami, he was 1 of 15. So the thinking that he will be able to take down Leben (who has successfully defended 56 percent of takedown attempts against him) at will seems faulty. Mark is going to have to engage on his feet, where "The Crippler" is most dangerous. Dangerous but not disciplined, however. So if "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" follows a game plan of movement, distance and busy punching, he eventually should find an opening to get the fight where he wants it to be. And if that happens, despite Leben's improved ground game, it will be Muñoz's fight.
Why we should care: Muñoz is a fighter on the climb, a guy you might see in a title bout in the not-too-distant future. If. He must win this fight for that to happen. As for Leben, he had his shot at Anderson Silva long ago, before "The Spider" was champ, and lasted only 49 seconds. He's got more work to do to drum up interest in a rematch.
"His jiu-jitsu game really stands out to me. He's always been a brawler. He's always been a guy that just has dynamite in his hands. It shows in every fight. But he's shown a lot of improvement on the ground."-- Muñoz, speaking about Leben in an interview with the CSN Washington show The Fight Fix
"If I wanted to tell you Mark Muñoz's best attribute, I would say it's sheer will and his toughness. The guy is a fighter. He's a fighter at heart, so I know that it's not gonna be easy. He's a tough guy to put away."-- Leben, speaking about Muñoz in an interview with the MMA site CagePotato.com
No stopping him: The two numbers you need to know about Renan Barão: 26 and 1. That's not merely a reference to his record (if you also throw in another "1" for a no-contest). It's also to spotlight the fact that while the Brazilian is on a 26-fight unbeaten streak (after losing his pro debut back in 2005), he's competed only one time in the UFC. His opponent, Brad Pickett, is making his UFC debut, but only because the organization did not have bantamweights until recently. Pickett owns some impressive WEC wins, including one last year over Demetrious Johnson. Because of injury, however, he's not fought since December.
Going up? Going down? Back in July 2009, Thiago Alves was at the top of his game. In his two most recent bouts, he'd beaten former welterweight champ Matt Hughes and contender Josh Koscheck. And now he was challenging Georges St-Pierre for the belt. He lost a unanimous decision that night, and all four of his bouts since then have ended the same way -- and with him on the short end of three of those decisions. He needs a win, an impressive one at that. And along comes Papy Abedi, an unbeaten Swede of limited experience who surely hasn't been in with anyone like Alves. What happens when "The Pitbull" meets a sacrificial lamb?
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