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If you had any doubt at all that carrying a separate brand for lighter-weight fighters is a shaky premise, you should probably grab a look at the UFC's home page: As of Thursday evening, a link to information on Saturday's World Extreme Cagefighting pay-per-view is shamelessly listed as "UFC," with no mention whatsoever of Zuffa's little-brother promotion.
It's not unlike seeing "STALLONE" in big block letters on a video cover, getting it home, and realizing you've been stuck with Frank and not Sylvester.
Misleading? Maybe. But it's difficult to find a lot of fault in a company doing its level best to attract attention for notoriously undervalued weight divisions. The WEC does only modest business as a cable attraction on Versus; Urijah Faber remains the sole superstar. When he competes, ratings take off. When he does not, they gurgle. It's not a complicated pattern.
Naturally, Faber is the headliner for the WEC's first attempt to entice pay audiences. Whether there will be a second attempt depends largely on Faber's being able to stuff the attack of Jose Aldo, a fresher, younger and violently tenacious champion who mugged Mike Thomas Brown for the title. If Faber, 30, cannot solve him, it would indicate he's being phased slightly out of the equation.
This would be very bad news for a promotion counting on him and would indicate the WEC is in need of a more stable headliner to rely on. Fortunately, I hear the UFC logo takes very few vacation days.
Fans who want good fights and pay no attention to industry politics won't really care about any of this: Thanks to athletes who have to rely on technique and conditioning to thrive, these weight classes always deliver excitement. But fighters who have come as far as Aldo and Faber have probably deserved the attention -- and paycheck -- only the UFC can attract. For the WEC's talent, success might come only if Saturday is a miserable failure.
What: WEC 48, an 11-bout card from the Arco Arena in Sacramento
When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view, with a preliminary special at 9 p.m. ET on Spike
Why you should care: Because both Aldo and Faber have no idea what it means to be boring; because Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone will probably steal the show from them with another fight-of-the-year candidate; and because the WEC's overall stellar-to-stinker ratio might be the best of any fight promotion anywhere.
Fight of the night: Henderson-Cerrone, which should be every bit as wild as their first fight -- unless they've beaten the energy out of each other already.
Hype quote of the show: "I wish I could bet on myself and make some cash, but I think that is illegal." -- A confident Faber, to ABC's News10 in Sacramento. (It's actually not illegal.)
Q: How do you beat Aldo?
A: Aldo has one of the best package deals in combat sports: He's usually much better than anyone he faces standing, and he can work his torso like a hydraulic piston when it comes to stuffing takedowns. Faber will have to think of more creative ways to get this fight to the ground than Brown, who attempted to outmuscle Aldo with no result.
Q: Does Faber need to win for the WEC's continued survival?
A: As ProElite and Affliction learned the hard way, building a brand around a single fight attraction is risky business. While the WEC held hopes for Miguel Torres and others, only Faber has made substantial differences in the company's bottom line. A loss to Aldo on Saturday wouldn't completely erase his drawing power, but it would put a serious dent in a company looking to gain entry in the pay-TV model. Faber with the featherweight belt is solid ground; Faber going 0-3 against the toughest opposition out there isn't.
Q: Can Cerrone-Henderson be MMA's Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward
A: There are few trilogies in MMA that ever really lived up to their billing. (Quinton Jackson-Wanderlei Silva was a dynamic series, but less about wild action than violent finishes; Chuck Liddell-Randy Couture turned one-sided.) Much of the problem is that smaller gloves don't permit the kind of extended exchanges seen in boxing: if you connect with a few clean, rooted punches, it's time for the sponsor plugs.
The fight Henderson and Cerrone waged in 2009 could wind up being the model for what constitutes a classic mixed martial arts fight: Sharp striking that doesn't suffer from gassed victims or Hail Mary heavyweight punches; groundwork constantly in motion; and two very evenly matched athletes.
Henderson won a razor-thin decision the first time; they'll rematch Saturday, and a third fight seems inevitable.
Q: and will they pay the price for it later?
A: There is always a tax on great athletic careers, and it's usually calculated by how much stress you've put on your body. Cerrone has had four Fight of the Night honors in five fights: While that's good supplemental income, that kind of output has a shelf life. Without the benefit of history, there's no real way of knowing whether the wars we see today are the orthopedic surgeon's income of tomorrow.
It wasn't that long ago that the biggest featherweight fight possible was Faber taking on Japanese star "Kid" Yamamoto. Both were exceptional wrestlers and strikers: Yamamoto had even put on a respectable effort in a kickboxing match against K-1's Masato. Faber was undefeated at that weight. And both were, to put it bluntly, mean bastards. If you wanted to charge a premium for the smaller guys, this was it.
Today, the fight would get a lukewarm reception at best. Faber has looked mortal against Brown while Yamamoto has lost two of his last three.
That may wind up being a blessing for the WEC, which might have had some trouble packaging Yamamoto for a U.S. audience but has a highlight reel running at full speed for Aldo, the 16-1 Brazilian who has stopped all six of his opponents in the promotion. He's just as dangerous an opponent for Faber, who looked casual for much of his career until running into a bigger, stronger wrestler in Brown. Faber won't have to worry about getting muscled, but he will have to concern himself with striking that combines agility with unpredictability.
Aldo's greatest asset might be psychological: Faber has been trumped twice in recent memory while Aldo hasn't suffered a loss in nearly five years. Invincibility is an illusion, but believing it is almost as good as the real thing.
Wild card: Aldo's ignorance of the championship rounds.
Who wins: Faber isn't going to have a lot of fun standing, in the clinch, or tied up in Aldo's guard. If he can land some elbows and get the blood flowing, great. If not, Aldo is going to fracture something in his face. Aldo by TKO.