|ESPN.com: MMA||[Print without images]|
For decades, boxing was criticized for devoting little time or resources to undercards. Events pushed two headlining fighters; fans -- especially celebrities, who need to devote time to important thoughts -- grew trained to not even show up for preliminary bouts.
The UFC has rarely had that problem; a major selling point of MMA has always been substantial cards. Taken as a whole, there's some irony in the fact Saturday's UFC 125 may be a stacked program in search of a main event.
Lightweight champion Frankie Edgar is undeniably talented, especially considering his slight build and successive victories over B.J. Penn. But he's struggling to make an impression on fans who consider his style aggressive reluctance -- he's a point fighter, which is crowd death in a sport that promises violence. Matching him against Gray Maynard, a more physical but equally unemotional athlete, demands some kind of structural support. (The UFC nearly had it when it placed Jose Aldo in the co-main event slot; unfortunately, Aldo was injured.)
Maynard and Edgar have worked very hard to reach rare air in MMA, and one might be only an "Ultimate Fighter" coaching job away from getting the audience emotionally caught up in his career. They're not there yet.
What: UFC 125, an 11-bout card from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
When: Saturday, Jan. 1 at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view, with a live preliminary special at 9 p.m. ET on Ion Television.
Why you should care: Because Edgar/Maynard, for whatever effect it may produce, still decides MMA's best 155-pound fighter; because Brian Stann and Chris Leben have no chance to see a third round; because Nate Diaz is slowly adopting his brother's exciting, damaging style of effective boxing; and because Brandon Vera isn't going to get too many more chances to get it right.
Fight of the night: Clay Guida versus Takanori Gomi, two aggressive fighters who realize a win over the other is a big notch in the belt.
Hype quote of the show: "You know what? It's not exciting to watch there's just no way to be exciting when you win the same way over and over." -- Debuting Antonio McKee, acting as his own worst critic, to UFC.com.
Is the clock running out on Vera?
Vera has 15 minutes Saturday to convince fans that he's got more to offer than he showed against Jon Jones in the summer -- or in the UFC overall, where he's just 7-5 since a 2005 debut.
Confidence is not a problem: Vera claims he lost the Jones fight because he underestimated one of the division's best prospects and lost to Randy Couture because he decided to clinch with him. (That loss comes with an asterisk, as he did far more damage to Couture than vice versa.) If he can't pull it together against Thiago Silva in a battle of muay Thai, he'll be on a steep 0-3 slide.
Does the Edgar/Maynard winner hold all the cards at 155 pounds?
There's still persistent grumbling over his lack of finishes -- only two in nine UFC fights -- but getting the best of B.J. Penn twice is a solid source of Edgar's status as the UFC's top lightweight. If he beats Gray Maynard, he'll be able to say he's beaten everyone ever put in front of him. (Maynard is his only official loss.) If Maynard beats him, to paraphrase Dale Cook, he'll be the man who beat the man who beat the man.
Where lightweights are concerned, however, the UFC does not have a complete strangle on top talent. Gilbert Melendez, Strikeforce's lightweight champion, has lost only twice in an eight-year career; Eddie Alvarez might be Bellator's most valuable commodity. Saturday's winner is an easy pick for the sport's top 155-pound fighter, but there are dangling threads out there.
Can McKee make waves in the UFC?
Buried in a prelim death slot is McKee, a notorious points-friendly fighter making his UFC debut after 11 years on the circuit. While a 40-year-old lightweight isn't the most threatening concept out there, McKee has parlayed an amateur wrestling background into a terrific record.
He's fortunate that wrestlers -- Edgar, Maynard -- are on top of the division. If he can play that game better than they can, he might morph into a smaller version of Randy Couture.
Beating Edgar doesn't take a lot of thinking. Because he uses his smaller stature to orbit opponents, it's necessary to take his speed away. And the most effective way of doing that is to put him on his rear.
But understanding how to beat Edgar and doing it are two different things. His wrestling credentials -- a qualifier for the collegiate Nationals -- has kept that attack a pipe dream for everyone except Gray Maynard, a former Division I wrestler who was able to repeatedly take Edgar down in their April 2008 fight. (It remains Edgar's only professional loss.)
Both men have improved their striking since, but it's not practical to believe Edgar has somehow figured out a way to supplant the wrestling of a bigger and more talented grappler. Maynard remains his biggest headache in the division, and if he hasn't figured out what to do when the bigger man locks up with him, his title run is going to be a short one.
At stake: The UFC's lightweight belt; a possible coaching job on "The Ultimate Fighter 13."
Wild card: While Maynard nailed several takedowns in the third round of their first fight, he looked weathered. Rounds four and five could see Edgar capitalizing on Maynard's fatigue in the championship minutes.
Who wins: The Edgar of 2010 is a more potent version than that of '08, and he'll probably dominate the stand-up -- but Maynard dictates where the fight takes place. And that dictates the winner. Maynard by decision.