“I really don’t get too nervous coming into a higher profile fight. I realize the situation I’m in." - Brian Bowles
It was that right hand again. Somewhere, a witch doctor was having fun with a voodoo doll at Brian Bowles’ expense. A hand fracture prematurely ended Bowles’ run as WEC bantamweight champion and kept him out of action for almost a year. Then between rounds two and three against Takeya Mizugaki, one of Bowles’ primary weapons was again writhing in agony. The last thing Bowles will every cry over or admit to is pain, but his corner knew better. His second-round stoppage loss to Dominick Cruz that cost him the title 16 months earlier remained undigested.
A win over the game Mizugaki would get Bowles a step closer to regaining a prize swiped not by an advisory but a broken bone and a tough break. Bowles’ spirit has always been able, but on this night he needed an extra boost of will power to see him through. UFC brass told Bowles going in that he could be in line for a title shot at the Cruz-Urijah Faber winner later that night, and why not? He’s won two straight as a former champion, the first a dismantling of Damacio Page with the same guillotine choke submission at the exact time and place (3:30 of Round 1) of their first meeting.
Against Mizugaki, there was too much at stake, so Bowles’ was given no choice.
“I still felt it was a fight he could win,” said Rory Singer, Bowles’ trainer. “Having come off that loss to Cruz, I wanted him to know to stop thinking about it and leave it all out there. If it’s broken it’s broken, but at least he would have persevered and worked though the pain. He would have been a better person and a better fighter, and a future and better champion having gotten through.”
Bowles wasn’t happy, neither was the crowd, but he took the decision victory and presented his case for a rematch. A couple hours after Bowles’ victory, Cruz and Faber put on a five round classic that saw the Dominator walk away with a narrow decision victory.
Cruz-Faber earned Fight of the Night honors. Bowles-Mizugaki wasn’t exciting and Bowles knew it. Three months later, Cruz made another successful title defense by besting Demetrious Johnson, so the match was made once the bantamweight division received a bit more clarity, except it wasn’t the news Bowles expected.
“The next thing I hear I’m fighting Faber [Saturday at UFC 139] for the next title shot,” Bowles said. “I took it as that and started training for him.”
It was time for Bowles to take and grind through the pain again. Faber was the WEC’s golden child and a pioneer of the rise of the featherweights during his 32-month title reign at 145 pounds, but he faces Bowles with a 4-4 record in his last eight – all four of those losses coming in title matches. Listed on Bowles’ resume are credentials that laud the virtues of a 10-1 contender who is the only fighter to knock out Miguel Angel Torres. All that stood in Bowles’ way was a bad break, that troublesome right hand, Faber’s reputation and the power of peak performance.
“A lot of times I think winning and losing isn’t always part of it,” Bowles said. “There’s some politics involved. Faber is a big name. He sells tickets and it’s a business, so I understand that part of it. All I can do is work on my end, go out there and win, and kind of force a title shot on them just by winning.”
He’ll have to do it in San Jose, California, 90 miles from Faber’s hometown of Sacramento. Faber is Sac-Town’s beloved son who sold out the Power Balance Pavilion (then known as ARCO Arena) each time he led the WEC into town. Despite his recent .500 run, Faber has earned respect on guts and guile. He lost his rematch to Mike Brown fighting four of five rounds with his own broken right hand and dislocated left thumb. Jose Aldo tenderized his leg to where a lesser man would have disintegrated. His second meeting with Cruz was five furious rounds that left fans clamoring for an immediate rematch.
“He doesn’t give up easy,” Bowles said. “He’ll fight you until the last second. It’s going to be a tough fight for me, one of the toughest of my career.”
Singer’s advice was to embrace the chance to shine on a prominent spot of a popular card in the shadow of a hot audience and grab the opportunity to regain his title by defeating Faber, one of the best ever at 145 before he dropped to bantamweight. Bowles’ reserved personality is ideal to cope with the expected pro-Faber crowd and keep his emotions in check. After all, he’s been dismissed and overlooked before. Few gave him a chance against Torres and he stopped the champion’s 17-fight winning streak cold to become WEC bantamweight king. In a published interview, Cruz gave the edge to Faber because he believes he can beat Bowles on the ground.
“I really don’t get too nervous coming into a higher profile fight,” Bowles said. “I realize the situation I’m in. There’s more on the line here. There’s a lot more people watching and there’s a bigger spotlight on me.
“I realize it’s a bigger fight. Do I feel like I’m going to lose by getting more nervous or over-thinking it? No. I’ve been in this situation before. I enjoy coming in as the underdog. Ever since I started fighting in the WEC everybody’s always counting me out as a loss. Every time they do that I come through and win. I kind of gotten used to that.”
Bowles does carry a big advantage that could make an immediate impact, his power. Faber’s title reign came to a sudden end when Brown caught him out of position and tagged him with a right to the jaw. Only three of Bowles’ wins have come via knockout or TKO, the last against Torres as a result of strategic calculation that baited Torres into his demise at 3:57 of the first round.
“It’s not that you go into it thinking I’m going to hit him with one punch and it’s going to be over, but the fact is if Brian puts his hands on anybody and he connects he’s going to knock him out. Singer said. “His footwork has gotten better with his head movement, and he still hits like a truck.
“It’s not like that’s the game plan, because I don’t think it should ever be I’m going to land this one punch and if that one punch doesn’t land then you’re left without a Plan B. The plan is just go out there and be Brian Bowles. He is a well-rounded fighter. He has beaten guys supposedly better than him in their particular forte.”
In the heat of the battle facing Mizugaki, Singer demanded five more minutes of resilience. Pain had never stopped Bowles before. His hand’s been shattered three times over his five-year MMA career. Mentally there’s no pain involved, he says. Physically, Bowles was being asked to take Mizugaki down and grapple, to slow down a fight that was his to secure.
“People don’t believe me when I say it, but it doesn’t hurt at all,” Bowles said. “I’m not trying to be a tough guy, but it really doesn’t hurt. It’s not as big of a deal for me anymore. I just try and shift gears and do something else so I don’t have to use it as much.”
It was later revealed that Bowles’ hand wasn’t broken, but swollen. That said, with his right hand left unsheathed, it was fight or flight. Bowles tapped into the deepest of reserves to cope with what was still dangerous and unexpected.
“Your adrenaline is maxed out,” Bowles said. “As soon as you start walking out, your song comes on and it’s time to roll. When it starts kicking in I don’t think you’re going to have much feeling on a broken hand from that point on.”
Despite the rash of injuries, Bowles is wrapping up a productive and healthy training camp, which he didn’t have going into the Cruz fight. Nearly a month prior, he hurt his ribs and in retrospect regretted taking the fight. “There were a lot of things that led up to having to drop out of the fight,” Bowles said. “It wasn’t just the broken hand. It was much more than that. You have a bunch of things bunched together and it’s hard to go through that.”
There were no such excuses against Mizugaki, one reason is why Singer implored him to finish the job and go the distance for the first time in his career. He had to fight through more pain and another stroke of bad luck to do it, but in the evaluation of Bowles’ case study, perseverance is his credo. At UFC 139, for the umpteenth time in Bowles’ career, it’s one more round, one more fight. Patience, yet again, must be a virtue.