If, locked away somewhere deep inside the Richmond, Va., home of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, there is a secret whiteboard bearing a rough sketch of the fight company’s future plans, it's a good bet there are two names that definitely aren’t on it: Tim Boetsch and Mark Hunt.
At least they weren’t on it before Saturday night at UFC 144, when Boetsch and Hunt pulled off two of the card’s longest long shots. Now, the promotion better hope those plans were written in dry-erase marker.
The UFC’s first trip back to Japan in more than a decade was a good night all around for underdogs, with seven of the card’s 12 bouts ending in wins for guys on the plus side of the ledger.
Two-to-one 'dogs Ryan Bader and Issei Tamura were each victorious -- Bader over Quinton Jackson, Tamura against Tiequan Zhang -- while Vaughn Lee trumped 3-to-1 odds and scored a "submission of the night" bonus for his first-round armbar of Kid Yamamoto. Chris Cariaso (+160) upset Takeya Mizugaki via unanimous decision and it bears mentioning that Yoshihiro Akiyama (+230) very nearly did the same in his welterweight debut against Jake Shields.
None, though, could quite stack up to what Boetsch and Hunt accomplished. Though both guys had already crafted some unlikely success in recent appearances, they came into this event as nothing more than afterthoughts in the UFC rat race. When it was over, Boetsch and Hunt left Japan with matching victories over top-10 opponents, matching three-fight win streaks in the Octagon and matching statements that they can no longer be ignored in their respective weight classes.
Against Yushin Okami, Boetsch’s 3-to-1 stakes matched Lee’s as the most lopsided on the card and for just over 10 minutes, it looked like the prognosticators had it exactly right. Okami, who came into the bout ranked No. 5 on the ESPN.com middleweight power rankings, bullied Boetsch around the cage, bloodied him up, took him down, mounted him and by any measure appeared on the verge of a dominating unanimous decision win.
With 4:30 on the clock in the final round, though, Boetsch stumbled Okami with an overhand right and then rushed him, using a series of uppercuts against the fence to drop him and force referee Leon Roberts to call for a TKO stoppage.
Was the stunning comeback a fluke? Not according to the social mores of MMA, where we’re taught that finishing fights is the gold standard of determining an athlete’s worthiness.
It’s true that prior to his cut to middleweight in 2011, Boetsch had been a lower-middleclass 205-pounder who’d been in and out of the UFC while posting a 3-3 record. Now at 185 pounds, though, Boetsch has put together a string of victories that -- while people continue to doubt him -- has him positioned for another high-profile fight against a top 10 opponent. He wins one more and you might not be able to keep him out of the expanded middleweight title picture.
Hunt had a slightly more cut-and-dried time with Cheick Kongo. Kongo, previously ESPN’s No.10-ranked heavyweight, had been dogged by questions about his chin in recent outings.
Unfortunately for him, Hunt answered those questions in short order, flooring him with a counter left hook and then following with a barrage of rights that ended things in just 2:11.
At 37 years old, Hunt may currently be on the UFC’s most unlikely tear after losing six consecutive MMA fights between 2006-10. The company only even elected to give him a couple of fights in the Octagon to fulfill the requirement of his previous contract with Pride.
Now, it feels like matchmakers won't quite know what to do with him. For that matter, it seemed like maybe nobody even bothered to tell Hunt (who was +230) he’d get interviewed inside the cage if he won, as the former K-1 striker looked befuddled by Joe Rogan’s attempts to elicit some kind of verbal response into his microphone.
Boetsch and Hunt certainly led the charge of the underdogs at UFC 144. They sent Kongo and Okami (and maybe UFC brass) scurrying back to the drawing board. They probably ruined a lot of betting parlays, too.
Will either of them be able to push their UFC successes any further? Conventional wisdom says no; that both guys are probably too limited athletically and skill-wise to compete with the true cream of the crop in their divisions.
Then again, conventional wisdom said they weren’t even supposed to make it this far, so perhaps the surprises will keep coming. Perhaps Boetach and Hunt can keep erasing guys from the UFC’s future plans.