Combat sports fans figure to have a busy weekend ahead of them. Indeed some of the most hardcore fans may not have enough time to see the sun prior to catching up on all the action that’s primed for Saturday night.
Of course, most eyes will be glued to the UFC pay-per-view, UFC 180, which features a number of interesting storylines. The first of which is the shakeup in the main event. UFC 180 was originally scheduled to host a showdown of the best heavyweights in the world, Fabricio Werdum and UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. However, Velasquez injured his knee and was forced off the card. Stepping in on extremely short notice for the headlining bout is the “Super Samoan” Mark Hunt. There are very few occasions where a replacement fight replaces the luster that an original match-up presented, but this is one of those rare cases where it has happened. For many MMA fans, this is a better fight.
For all the success Velasquez has had inside the cage, he’s had very little outside of it. There’s nothing wrong with a guy wanting to go in, destroy the competition and head back home while saying as little as possible while the cameras are on. It’s a nice switch from the brash personalities of guys like Conor McGregor and Chael Sonnen. After all, if everyone had that kind of promo ability, those guys wouldn’t be as special as they are. But, with that said, Velasquez doesn’t draw in fans with anything besides his ability to fight in the cage. Hunt, on the other hand, not only brings the ability to inflict beautiful violence upon his opponents, but also brings a personality and story that has endeared him to many.
By now everyone knows the story of Hunt being about as irrelevant in MMA as one can get without being named Bob Sapp, only to go on an impressive streak that saw him rise to the level of a full-fledged heavyweight contender. It’s a rags-to-riches story that every sports fan can relate to and, honestly, who doesn’t like rooting for the underdog? Hunt may not be on the same skill level as Velasquez in terms of overall game, but there’s no doubting that Hunt is incapable of putting on a boring fight. Simply put, when he fights, fans tune in.
UFC 180 did lose a little shine with Velasquez going down at the inopportune time when he was supposed to help the UFC hold its first event in Mexico. But it does seem as though the Hispanic fans have found another fighter to cheer for in Werdum. Diego Sanchez’s fight with Joe Lauzon falling apart also hurt the card, but the main event alone is enough to sell both casual and hardcore fans alike. Werdum is one of the most skilled fighters on the planet, possessing one of the best ground games in the sport, and he has drastically improved his striking game. Hunt is one of the more popular fighters on the roster and has a knack for knocking people out in devastating fashion, but he has always had holes in his ground game and submission defense. That makes for an interesting set of possibilities in their affair.
Aiming to match the star power of the UFC brand will be Bellator MMA. The de facto No. 2 MMA promotion is looking to blend stars of yesteryear with some of the best young talent of today to create its Bellator 131 lineup. Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar, two of the biggest stars in the early Zuffa years, will headline the card. The two men have done their best to make this into a rivalry, even going so far as a “staged but not staged, but really staged” brawl in the Bellator cage when the fight was announced. Ortiz and Bonnar are both well past their prime years, but they are also two names that ring a bell with the casual fan. Ortiz is a guy who has played the role of villain for virtually all of his MMA career, and Bonnar was a part of perhaps the most important fight in UFC history. Both men have had their issues outside the cage, with Ortiz engaging in a heated rivalry with UFC President Dana White and Bonnar failing numerous drug tests, but Bellator is hoping to use them to draw in viewers despite their age and tainted histories.
While Ortiz and Bonnar are headlining the event based on their past accomplishments, the evening’s co-main event is actually the more important fight within the lineup. It involves a Bellator title, as Will Brooks looks to defeat Michael Chandler once more and claim the undisputed lightweight crown. The two met at Bellator 120, where Brooks edged out Chandler on the scorecards to become the interim champion. Brooks validated his status as one of the best in the division by defeating Chandler when virtually everyone was looking beyond their clash toward a rubber match between Chandler and Eddie Alvarez. It will be interesting to see if Brooks can repeat his performance against Chandler or if the former Bellator champion and his team have developed a better strategy for the rematch.
Bellator 131 also features Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, who is one of the biggest personalities in MMA. One would assume Bellator and Spike would clear enough time for Lawal to jump on the mic should he win, which is likely to lead to some interesting headlines the next morning. Another fight that should prove to be extremely interesting is a battle between Melvin Manhoef and Joe Schilling. Both men are known for their accomplishments in kickboxing, and the fact that they will be throwing heavy leather with only four ounces of protection should lead to a highlight-reel finish.
Looking to steal some of the spotlight from the big-boy leagues is the World Series of Fighting promotion. The company will be hosting an event on Saturday night as well. Although the WSOF can’t quite match the UFC and Bellator in terms of star power, the promotion is looking to garner viewers with the promise of championship bouts. WSOF 15 is currently slated to feature three title bouts, taking place at middleweight, lightweight and the women’s strawweight division.
Dave Branch will face Yushin Okami in the evening’s main event. Since being cut from the UFC, Branch has only lost once and that was to top light heavyweight contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. Branch won a four-man tournament to crown the inaugural WSOF middleweight champion by tapping out Jesse Taylor in the first round at WSOF 10. Okami has only competed once since his UFC contract was terminated, but he did pick up a submission victory at WSOF 9. He is without a doubt one of the best fighters outside the Zuffa umbrella, and an impressive win by either man could catapult them back into the UFC.
Justin Gaethje will take on former UFC contender Melvin Guillard in a lightweight title bout that is sure to provide fireworks. Guillard is one of the division’s hardest-hitting strikers. If there’s anything guaranteed with a Gaethje fight, it’s violence. Virtually the only homegrown star for the WSOF, Gaethje is one of the fastest rising fighters in the lightweight division. He sports an undefeated 12-0 record, with 10 of those wins coming via knockout. While Guillard won’t be confused as a top-tier talent in the 155-pound division, how Gaethje fares against him will provide a good barometer of where the prospect stands in the rankings. The WSOF would be wise to keep Gaethje under contract, but it will be hard to keep Gaethje out of the UFC should he continue putting opponents to sleep.
Although Okami and Gaethje are stars in their own right, Jessica Aguilar is the one fighter in this lineup who is widely considered to be the best in her respective division. Aguilar hasn’t tasted defeat since a split decision loss to former top fighter Zoila Frausto. Since the loss, Aguilar has rattled off nine consecutive victories, including two wins over the highly respected Megumi Fujii and a victory over former Invicta FC strawweight champion Carla Esparza. The American Top Team talent looks to push her winning streak to double digits at the expense of Kalindra Faria, who is on a roll of her own at the moment. After a modest start to her career—she went 4-3-1 through her first eight fight—Faria has won 11 fights in a row to push her overall record to 15-3-1. If Aguilar can continue her winning ways, one would believe the UFC would be looking to bring her into its new strawweight division.
So, with three viable options on Saturday night, what show should you, the MMA fan, choose? Well, that’s a matter of personal interest. The UFC, as always, represents the highest level of competition for MMA, but Bellator makes a heck of a case for viewers to tune in. Bellator has established names, a competitive title contest and a fight that could provide us with the 2014 “Knockout of the Year” award winner. WSOF 15 doesn’t have the star power of the other two events, but it does have three title fights on the main card and features top talents Gaethje and Aguilar. There’s also the financial aspect to consider—Bellator 131 and WSOF 15 won’t be on pay-per-view, which could help sway the vote if you’re light in the wallet. If you’re looking to keep it cheap and stay in for the night, Bellator 131 is probably the best choice. If money isn’t a problem, then you may want to sit through a lackluster lineup (on paper) in hopes of seeing a fun clash of heavyweights in the UFC 180 main event.