At the end of April, prospects Rory MacDonald and Michael McDonald did work at UFC 145 in Atlanta. MacDonald's work was a showcase fight with an outmatched Che Mills, while bantamweight McDonald's was an eye-opening win over Miguel Torres.
Today, both are being speculated in title talks. That was April.
May has not been so kind for prospects and buzz names in the UFC. First it was featherweight Dustin Poirier, who was made a centerpiece for his UFC on Fuel fight with Chan Sung Jung. He was being groomed as the next in line for the Erik Koch/Jose Aldo winner, and was riding the wave of intrigue when the “Korean Zombie” happened. Who was this Jung, and where did he spring from? This version was light years removed from the stumblebum who traded with Leonard Garcia for three rounds back in the WEC.
The fight game is full of surprises. Suddenly, it’s Jung closing in on a title crack instead of Poirier, who is forced to treat the whole thing as a set back.
And he wasn’t the only fresh batch to be thrown out. At UFC 146 in Las Vegas, two more prospects went down.
There was 24-year old Diego Brandao, whom many people were talking about the first big talent to come off the “Ultimate Fighter” series in years, who lost to a resilient Darren Elkins. Extract the Brandao of the first round and spread it over three, and there’s the star in wonder. But, as everybody knows, fights have moods. Elkins came roaring back. Brandao succumbed.
And then there was Edson Barboza, who scored what might be the knockout of the year against Terry Etim at UFC 142 with that spinning wheel kick. He lost to an opportunistic replacement in Jamie Varner in his follow-up.
Of all of the upsets to occur in May, this one stands out as the true thud. With Poirier, you knew Jung would be tough, and Brandao is still green enough to trip. But Barboza? He was undefeated and fierce and fighting a guy who was largely thought to be washed up and recycled out of necessity. He was fighting the replacement. Nobody saw Varner coming. Not many believed in Varner’s second coming the first time through.
But Varner became to Barboza what Charlie Brenneman was to Rick Story a year ago, back when Brenneman took the fight on late notice when Nate Marquardt was plucked for high testosterone levels. He became a monkey wrench. Story was on pace for a title shot in the welterweight division and was calling out guys like Jon Fitch after dominating Thiago Alves. When Brenneman was dealt in just 24 hours before the fight, it felt like he was nothing more than a warm body being stuck in there to salvage the card.
On Saturday, Varner was thrown in there for the injured Evan Dunham -- and Varner made the most of it. Dunham has seen this stuff before. Remember when Kenny Florian got hurt, and Melvin Guillard stepped in to face Dunham? Same thing. Guillard heard the buzz coming off of Dunham’s name, and muted it. It happened to Guillard later against Joe Lauzon. Lauzon did it to Jens Pulver back in the day.
Fighters have been linked by travesty forever.
If these outcomes tell us anything it’s that A.) there’s no such thing as a warm body in the UFC, and B.) the greatest motivation heading into a fight is to be counted out of it. It’s what makes MMA fun. You can’t pencil people into the title picture without using your eraser.
Now Varner is back. Elkins is mean. Jung is a contender. And those other guys, the ones they beat? It’s back to their relative obscurities and rededications.
This is a sport where gimmies are hard to come by.