Three-way (OK, maybe four) race to Jones

August, 3, 2012
8/03/12
7:06
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Maruricio Rua/Brandon VeraJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesMauricio Rua, left, and Brandon Vera are one half of the light heavyweight title challenger puzzle.
LOS ANGELES -- Talk heading into Saturday night's UFC is understandably focused on the four title-shot ready light heavyweights Dana White tabbed this week as potential opponents for Jon Jones or Dan Henderson.

Mauricio Rua, Lyoto Machida, Ryan Bader and (inexplicably) Brandon Vera will enter the Octagon in the proverbial mix.

Rua is an all-time great, and coming off a war to end all wars against Dan Henderson, who could find much to complain about if he’s next to be slotted in?

Machida, also a former UFC champion, gave Jones the hardest time so far, making good on the audacity to throw punches -- until he was choked unconscious in Round 2 of their December bout.

Bader was totally outclassed when he tangled with Jones a year and a half ago, but he's since improved.

As for Vera, well, no one expects him to be the fighter who emerges from the rubble. If he does, it will truly be an incredible story -- a real-life "Rocky" story. (There’s a reason these sorts of things are brought to life on the big screen.)

So, these are the options for UFC at the moment. An “impressive” performance is all that separates one of these men from a chance at fighting for the UFC light heavyweight title.
[+] EnlargeJon Jones
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comJon Jones, right, all but cleared out the division with his win over Rashad Evans.

The last time 205-pounders were so prominently featured during a UFC on Fox event, Phil Davis and Rashad Evans competed in a hum-drum 25-minute affair. The January contest ended with Davis's first defeat in mixed martial arts while Evans earned the right to challenge Jones, who easily retained his belt. Almost suddenly, the division appeared barren.

This is a major reason why UFC has been forced to tout recycled fighters against a young champion who already handled each of them.

There are, however, two light heavyweights on the card that haven’t had the misfortune of facing Jones. (Yet.) And for all the reasons mentioned above, that makes the fight between the aforementioned Davis and UFC newcomer Wagner Prado more than mildly intriguing.

Davis didn't attend Thursday's news conference at the JW Marriott (he’s not fighting on the main card this time so he didn’t have to be
there) and he later declined to discuss his fight, which airs on Fuel TV rather than Fox. Prado, meanwhile, spent his afternoon at the elegant hotel anonymously soaking in the festivities while catching a glimpse of what it’s like to fight for the UFC.

Until he took a couple minutes to answer questions (via a translator) with a tape recorder in his face, hardly anyone recognized Prado for what he was. Maybe that’s because Prado is listed at 6-foot-4 when in fact he's closer to 6-1. Or perhaps the 25-year-old Team Nogueira product freely walked around because few people in the building had actually seen him fight before. Whatever the case may be, Prado (8-0 with seven stoppages) claimed to be both excited and calm on the eve of his Octagon debut.

"I'm from Team Nogueira and train with guys at a high level and do well against them," Prado said. "That's why I feel I'm home here."

The heavy hitter has built up his record against less than stellar opposition, which, after doing the math, hold more losses than wins. Against Davis, he faces a considerable uptick in competition.

Among the many differences Prado will come to know about fighters at the regional level in Brazil compared to those in the UFC, the ability to wrestle will probably be the most obvious. He hasn't fought a wrestler yet, let alone one of Davis’s caliber, and he’s aware of this.

“They've all tried to take me down,” Prado said of his opponents. “And in training and sparring we concentrated on guys trying to take me down as well."

With that, he cracked a smile.

Prado, a southpaw training partner of Junior dos Santos among others, is predictably sticking with the Brazilians this weekend. Like everyone else, he has Rua over Vera. He was equally confident that Machida would beat Bader. Of the two, Shogun will earn the title shot, he predicted.

As for his "in the mix" prospects, Prado claimed he won’t “look that far into the future.”

“I'm just focused on Saturday,” he said.

With that, he posed for a couple of photos.

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