It has been three years since anyone was considered a serious threat to UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson (24-2-1).
Most expected another smooth outing for Johnson (24-2-1) at UFC 201 in Atlanta, when it was announced he would seek his ninth title defense against Wilson Reis (20-6). Vegas bookmakers agreed, as Johnson opened as a 17-to-1 favorite.
Considering fans had hardly clamored for the fight, when news of an injury suffered by Johnson during training camp came to light in the midst of a news avalanche during UFC 200 fight week, most weren't heartbroken at its cancellation.
Rather than wait for Johnson to return and get his title shot later, Reis agreed to stay on the card opposite promotional newcomer Sean Santella (15-5-1, 1 NC). Days later, medical clearance issues scrapped Santella, and Reis found himself booked against yet another debutant in Hector Sandoval (12-2), who he will face in Saturday's 125-pound bout at Philips Arena.
Risk outweighed reward in more than one regard. But Reis didn't have much of a choice.
"The first word we got was that [Johnson] was possibly injured, and we might just postpone it a couple weeks," said Eric Del Fierro, Reis' coach and manager. "Then they came back and said, 'He's definitely injured. This fight is not going to happen.' That was kind of heartbreaking then, because I had to tell Wilson, 'Look, the fight is off completely.'From being postponed to being off completely was a huge letdown."
Now it appears as if Reis has become the odd man out of the title picture.
With the plotline of Season 24 of "The Ultimate Fighter" hinging on a title shot for its winner, Johnson is scheduled to return at the Dec. 13 finale. He will be unable to compete before then while recovering from injury, as Reis says he was told by the UFC, meaning "Mighty Mouse" will still be the undisputed champion for the main event in Las Vegas.
"It was very bad news for us," said Reis, the seventh ranked flyweight by the UFC. "I was very upset and disappointed, but it wasn't in our power to do anything."
Originally set to challenge for the belt as a pay-per-view co-headliner, Reis now walks to the cage in the second fight of the cable prelims. Imagine having your plane ticket upgraded to first class, then minutes after fluffing your pillow and selecting a beverage, you get pulled back to the terminal and placed on standby.
"Obviously, in the big picture for Wilson, it's a big loss of a big, big payday," Del Fierro said. "This is what everybody is trying for; this is where they make the bigger money.
"He gave himself a couple hours to grieve and then got over it and got back to training. He never missed a beat. That guy is happy and loves the fact that he’s going to be able to fight again.”
A win -- or even a strong showing -- against Johnson, ranked the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter by ESPN.com, would have been career-altering for Reis. Now, after seven weeks of preparation, he finds himself likely two wins (of the decisive and crowd-pleasing variety) away from getting the title shot he signed for in May.
And even then, nothing is promised.
"We can't put any certain amount of pressure or expectation on ourselves," Del Fierro said. "There's no, 'Oh, if he shines he gets a title shot. If he doesn't shine, he doesn't get the title shot.' At this point, we're not even thinking about the title shot anymore.
"We have to get it out of his head because it'll weigh into this fight."
"It was very bad news for us. I was very upset and disappointed, but it wasn't in our power to do anything."Flyweight Wilson Reis, on Demetrious Johnson pulling out of UFC 201
Making matters more complicated for Reis is the fact that Johnson fields more questions about a superfight against UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz after each title defense than which flyweight challenger he wants to see next. A superfight is, after all, the next logical step when a division gets cleaned out.
Cruz (22-1) is the source of Johnson's last loss, in a 2011 bantamweight title bout. Coincidentally, he's also Reis' teammate at Alliance MMA in San Diego.
Reis knows he can't afford to look past Sandoval, who trains at Team Alpha Male alongside Cody Garbrandt, Paige VanZant and Urijah Faber, among others, and has shown pop in his hands with two wins by TKO during his current four-fight win streak.
"He has got good striking and goes for takedowns," Reis said. "He's a good Alpha Male guy, very good and very strong. They have great guys over there, so I expect him to be a tough challenge. He's up-and-coming [and] he's going to come hungry."
Despite his circuitous route to the Octagon at UFC 201, success can be defined simply for Reis.
"Finish the fight," said Reis, now a 3-to-1 favorite. "It doesn't really matter which round, whether it's the first, the second, the third. A successful night for me would be to finish him. I'm 100 percent ready to do that, and I just can't wait."