On January 28th, 2012, it will be 39 months since the Octagon last setup shop in Chicago, Illinois. But the card the UFC has put together for that evening, seriously, will have been worth the wait. To officially kickoff the organization’s deal with FOX, the UFC, for the first time in company history, will take over the home of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center with a trio of scraps that all have title implications and all will be broadcast live on network TV.
Definitely, “worth the wait.”
For the UFC’s second FOX appearance, there will be one major change to this event as opposed to November’s UFC heavyweight championship bout between Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez: more fights. Instead of one major bout with a belt on the line, the second event will feature three fights over the course of two hours and all for free. And the three fights in question are big ones: Michael Bisping vs. Demian Maia, Chael Sonnen vs. Mark Munoz, and, in the main event, Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis.
Each one of these matchups is interesting on its own and a must see for any fight fan, but UFC President Dana White has packaged them together and raised the stakes: title eliminators. The winner of Sonnen vs. Munoz will undoubtedly challenge the UFC middleweight king Anderson Silva; meanwhile the victor of Evans vs. Davis will likely face Jon Jones sometime in 2012. For Bisping and Maia, they should be in line for the first crack at the UFC middleweight strap after Sonnen/Munoz vs. Silva.
Definitely, “worth the wait”.
At a press conference held last week to announce the card, these six soon-to-be-household-names answered questions and enjoyed some good natured ribbing of each other. Maybe it was the excitement of being in The Windy City, maybe it was Christmas cheer, maybe it was Evans’ young son, Rashad Jr., in a suit sitting on his dad’s lap, but the fighters were all respectful and any trash talk was said with a wink and a smile.
The opening clash is also the most recent addition to this FOX card: Bisping vs. Maia. On December 3rd, “The Count” flawlessly bested his rival coach, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, at The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale and immediately signed up to fight Maia. The Brazilian submission magician, Maia, is on track for another title shot after going 3-1 since his first stab at Silva in April 2010. Seemingly, this is a classic “striker vs. grappler” matchup, but both fighters have grown in the opposite strength by leaps and bounds since first debuting in the Octagon.
For “The Count”, it was a quick and easy decision to say yes to his second fight in two months. “I'm proud to be part of this event,” says Bisping, who beat Jorge Rivera in February and delegated the rest of this year filming TUF, so getting back to fighting was a no-brainer. Plus, the opportunity to fight on network television doesn’t hurt. “Why wouldn't I take this fight? I'm in shape, I'm on weight, I'm in my prime, I’m 32 years old, I'm not getting any younger and Demian Maia is a great opponent.”
It has been almost two years since Maia submitted an opponent in the cage, which has not been lost on the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. His last four wins are by decision and in each one of them Maia has shown improved standup and better wrestling. Maia is a greater overall fighter nowadays and is not nervous about mixing it up on the feet like he did in his win over Jorge Santiago at UFC 136. Nevertheless, Maia has been sharpening his ground skills to get back to winning “Submission of the Night” awards (4x).
“When I started in the UFC I submitted five in a row,” remembers Maia. “When I go into fights and there is no submission, people don't like it. I have been fighting tougher opponents. I have been learning more Thai boxing and more wrestling. I cannot just train jiu-jitsu anymore. I have to be an MMA fighter. I think on FOX, me and Mike are going to put on a war. I’m trying to come back to my roots, come back to my jiu-jitsu. The fans expect that from me when I go to the floor, and I finish the fights by submission.”
The second match, sincerely, bet on this being a dogfight: Sonnen vs. Munoz. They wrestled each other in college and, now, they’re going to earn themselves a shot at gold through each other. Sonnen, famously, ground and pounded the champ Silva for four rounds before being submitted in the fifth at UFC 117. The “gangster” from West Linn, Oregon bounced back with a renewed vigor with his second round arm-triangle choke on Brian Stann in October. Munoz is on a four fight win streak, which was capped off with a second round drubbing of Chris Leben at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England.
One thing is for certain, the Sonnen quote-machine is ready for primetime network television. “Come January 28th, I assure you it will be one more in the win column, one more above the mantel, and one more for the bad guy,” delivers Sonnen with that crisp, controlled confidence UFC fans have come to know and love. Also, Sonnen took the time to expel some high praise for Munoz too. “Everyone has a list of guys they don't want to fight and Mark is on the top of that list. I've competed against him before and I've never beat him. We will fight, we will shake hands and we will live with the result.”
A win over Sonnen on FOX and a title shot would definitely help “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” establish himself as the Manny Pacquaio of MMA. “He's fought for a long time and he's a great fighter and it will be an honor to fight him,” asserts Munoz, who considers Sonnen a friend, and if Munoz beats him then he will get the opportunity to fight another friend and former training partner, Silva. “I have trained with Anderson and he has the belt. In order to get to the belt I have to fight Chael. It's a competition, it's not personal, it's business and I want to become a world champ.”
Not to be outdone, the press conference ended with some lively verbal sparring between the light heavyweight main event of Evans and Davis. Originally, this pair of NCAA Division I wrestlers turned cagefighters were supposed to square off at UFC 133 in Philadelphia before Davis had to pull out due to injury. The former champ, “Suga”, is riding a three fight win streak with the most recent being the second round TKO “Fight of the Night” over Tito Ortiz in August. As for “Mr. Wonderful”, Davis is still undefeated after his unanimous decision over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira back in March.
This main event for “Suga” means his first time fighting in his current hometown and a win would mean the long awaited grudge showdown with Jones. “To fight Jon Jones, I want to put my hands on him bad,” salivated Evans, who marked 2011 with a change in camp, from Jackson’s to the Blackzilians, and, arguably, his most impressive performance to date inside the Octagon. “It was hard to switch camps and re-establish relationships with people. After making the switch, I could see what I was missing from my old situation. It was about being a team, pushing each other to the limit, getting the most work in and it is good to be with a team with those foundations again.”
On the other hand, “Mr. Wonderful” will look to play spoiler and add a sixth UFC win to his young, but already distinguished, career. “Where I lack experience, I make up for being a champion at heart,” states Davis, who has spent the majority of this year on the shelf and stuck at the gym, Alliance MMA, training for his comeback with Dominick Cruz, Brandon Vera and Joey Beltran. “I’m not concerned about ring rust. Not at all. I was off and I was training as much as I can on a bum knee.”
It may have taken over three years, but the Octagon is coming back to Chicago with a vengeance. All the lights, media attention, and the whole circus that comes with the already fantastic pairing of the UFC and FOX Sports will hit the Second City’s streets the week of January 28th. A stacked fight card featuring a bevy of title holder hopefuls - Bisping, Maia, Sonnen, Munoz, Evans and Davis - will be prepped and ready to attack each other on broadcast television. Three fights, two hours, one network and it all means another excellent Saturday night of action inside the Octagon.
Plus, give or take, a thousand priceless quips from Sonnen like this one, “FOX, you're welcome. You've been telling people for years you have the ‘American Idol’ and now you do.”
Definitely, “worth the wait”.
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