“It's going to be some ‘National Geographic’ type of action out there.”
Twas poetic as the hometown hero, Urijah Faber, dropped the line of the day, one which sums up the lofty expectations for not only his fight, but the entire card of UFC on FOX: Pettis vs. Thomson. It’s four bouts, three with title shot implications, one for a belt, and all four with possible Fight of the Night bonus money written all over them.
On December 14th at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California, there will be a cavalcade of jump out of your seat-inducing fights, including the headliner with the UFC lightweight championship on the line, as the recently crowned Anthony “Showtime” Pettis takes on former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. In the co-main event, “The California Kid” Faber tangles with the bantamweight division’s young, rising phoenix Michael McDonald. Not to be outdone, former interim UFC welterweight champion Carlos Condit is set to war with his brother from another mother “The Immortal” Matt Brown. And to kick the card off, emerging featherweight threat Nik Lentz will face off with the weight class’ KO king, Chad “Money” Mendes.
To announce that tickets were going on sale for this hotly anticipated event, the eight fighters gathered with the ever inquisitive MMA media in the host city, Sacramento, to open up about their menacing matchups, favorite foods, guilty pleasure songs, and answer an inordinate amount of questions about how much an audience can influence a fight one way or another. While each of these bouts is expected to be a barn-burning battle, the fighters appeared rather chummy with one another, casually smiling and chuckling without the sometimes superfluous smack talk.
Up first, Lentz and Mendes are a pair of former NCAA Division I wrestlers who believe they are both hitting a performance stride like we’ve never seen of either before. For Lentz, a drop to featherweight, as well as a gym change to American Top Team, has spelled a three-fight win streak and a dose of bravado. A previously admitted “Starcraft” videogame fanatic, Lentz looked anything but “The Carny” who once had a five fight win streak as a lightweight in the UFC, as he held court in a black suit jacket while laying down a mission statement about himself as the future of the featherweights.
“I'm a completely different person,” states Lentz. “People don't know it yet, but I'm going to be the hardest guy that Chad's ever fought. I guarantee that and that includes [UFC featherweight champion] Jose Aldo. When it comes to this fight, I'm super excited about it. I already had a fight scheduled and they called me and said, ‘Hey, there's an opportunity, maybe you can fight Chad Mendes if you want it.’ I told them, sign it up. Whatever I got to do, sign it up. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this to get on the main card and show that I'm a brand new person since changing to American Top Team and 145 pounds. I'm telling you, I'm the man at 145 pounds. No one is going to stop me here.”
As for “Money,” nothing speaks louder than Mendes’ four knockout wins in a row. Since his January 2012 loss to champ Aldo, Mendes has clearly retooled his striking under Team Alpha Male’s new head coach, former UFC fighter and K-1 kickboxer Duane “Bang” Ludwig. Prior to this streak, “Money” had yet to win a bout via KO under the Zuffa banner in seven appearances. Most recently at UFC 164, Mendes did the unthinkable in scoring a Knockout of the Night over hard-headed Clay Guida, who had previously never been stopped in such a manner in his career.
“For me, Duane's system is unbelievable,” explains the now bearded Mendes. “The technical aspect of it, the way he breaks everything down is like something I've never seen before. In wrestling, we drill, for a warm-up, for an hour all the techniques, and then you do the live stuff and try to do all the stuff you've gone over in the drilling. We never really did that before Duane was there. He has us drilling a ton of techniques in the standup and using it and coaching us during the live sparring. I think that's what really helped my confidence as far as the standup part of it goes. For me, it's just awesome to have that head coach figure that I can trust in and believe in and he is that for me. I get in there and I know I've put in the work and I've done the right things in my camp instead of just guessing. It helps me with my confidence level.”
It should be incredibly difficult to choose a “fan favorite” fight on this card, but without a doubt “The Immortal” vs. “The Natural Born Killer” is the main event in the hearts and minds of salivating slugfest savants. For Condit, this pairing on paper is perfect to continue the former WEC welterweight champ’s routine of earning bonus checks like he has in six of his last seven fights. In the headlining bout of UFC’s Fight Night in August, the Team Jackson-Winkeljohn member was classic “him” in a rematch with Martin Kampmann, where Condit delivered a hard fought, fourth round KO and received his third Fight of the Night award in just as many melees.
“I'm super excited to fight Matt,” tells Condit. “He's got a great style. I think the matchup stylistically is going to make for a really exciting fight. After my last fight and his last fight, there was some buzz from people asking for this fight to be made, and then as soon as it was made, my twitter blew up. People were losing it, really excited. And rightfully so. Stylistically, it's going to make for a crazy competitive match.”
From a three fight losing streak to a six fight freight train victory voyage, Brown has more than earned his spot in the Octagon against a top-ranked opponent like Condit. No fighter has done more with this UFC and FOX partnership than Brown, who has won four straight on their networks and all by KO, leading some to dub “The Immortal” as “Mr. FOX.” For The Ultimate Fighter season 7 alum, Brown has searched far and wide to up his overall game, from training with striking coaches like Mark Beecher and Scott Sheeley to sparring with Cuba’s Olympic team in wrestling and boxing. After clubbing his way to Condit, it’s time for “The Immortal” to prove he’s ready to take that lead position in the division.
“I've looked up to Carlos for a long time, even back in WEC,” asserts Brown. “I've been a fan of his fighting for a long time. He's one of the guys I always liked watching. I'm glad to fight him. I think stylistically, like he said, it's a great matchup. He's not the type of guy who is going to come in and try to wrestle me and keep me on my butt for three rounds. He's going to try and take me down with his hands. The best takedown in the world is a left hook. And, that's how I'm going to try and take him down.”
In the co-main event, a locals only “Golden State” turf war will unfold as Modesto meets Sacramento when McDonald collides with Faber. What could be a passing of the torch or an old lion scuffing the shine off a young one, the 34-year-old Faber will look to keep his practice of not losing non-title fights alive when he tussles with the 22-year-old McDonald. In his first fight in his hometown since WEC 48 in April 2010, “The California Kid” is enjoying a three-fight win streak, with two rear naked choke submissions (Ivan Menjivar and Scott Jorgensen) and a dominating unanimous decision over Yuri Alcantara in August. As mentioned, Faber generously whet fans’ appetites with his descriptive expectation of this bout with McDonald.
“Fighting an opponent like this, I need someone dangerous to make me bring out my best game,” reveals Faber. “I've known Michael for a long time and it's going to be some ‘National Geographic’ type of action out there. Two Northern Californian animals meet in the cage and only one walks out. It's going to be nasty and I'm looking forward to a fight.”
It was nothing but mutual respect between the million dollar smiles of McDonald and Faber. As both bantamweights balked in their belt bids against interim champ Renan Barao, a win over the other would be a huge step to getting another title shot sooner than later, especially for McDonald, who would be the first to beat Faber in a non-title fight… ever. Scrapping with easily the most famous fighter of his home state, McDonald will be brimming with confidence entering the cage fresh off his highly impressive, double bonus-winning sub finish of Brad Pickett.
“I expect fireworks,” says McDonald. “I’ve had a lot of time to break down that barrier with a lot of people between fan and, now, competition. I was 16 years old when I was seeing all my competition start fighting. I started off watching everybody else doing it. I’m young in the sport, but I feel like I’ve had a lot of time to break that barrier between ‘I’m not just their fan anymore’ and ‘now, they’re my opponents’.”
Surprisingly, the esteemed main event title fight of arguably the most talent rich division in the UFC got only a few questions from the Sacramento-focused reporters. Obviously, Mendes vs. Lentz will be exciting as both are dying for a shot at Aldo, Brown vs. Condit will be a white-knuckle highlight reel of action, and Faber vs. McDonald will be a tornado of fists and feet. No one is arguing otherwise, but the UFC lightweight championship gold is up for grabs as MMA wunderkind Pettis defends his belt for the first time against “The Punk,” who TKOed a (Nate) Diaz with a shin to the face.
How could this fight get more exciting?
It had been almost a decade since Thomson showed off his wares inside the Octagon between losing via flying head kick at UFC 49 and, triumphantly, winning via head kick at UFC on FOX: Henderson vs. Melendez. The American Kickboxing Academy stalwart has spent most of his time away from the UFC as one of Strikeforce’s elite, including taking the division’s strap off Gilbert Melendez in their first of three meetings. As a 12-year veteran of the cage, Thomson is still the athletic animal he ever was and believes he’s grown more dynamic with experience.
“I've come full circle,” tells Thomson. “I left as the #1 lightweight. Yves Edwards and I were the last lightweight fight for two years. The fact that I'm still here and I'm still at the top means I've come full circle. I'm always improving my craft. When people start figuring out your game, you have to change it up. I've become a full mixed martial artist. It opens up your game to be whoever you want in the ring. If one door closes in the ring, I can open another one.”
As for the newest UFC champion, “Showtime” is ready to nail down his spot as the company’s unofficial “Fighter of the Year” with a Knockout of the Night, a Submission of the Night, and a big gold belt thus far. In December 2010, Pettis defeated then WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson by unanimous decision in one of the best title fights of all-time and was the final fight in that organization’s history. In August of this year, “Showtime” submitted then UFC lightweight champion Henderson by armbar in the first round in Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee. For Pettis, it was a long time in the making to have gold around his waist again, but this time, he gets a chance to defend it against all-comers.
“I'm going to do what I set out to do; I want to finish these guys in the first round,” declares Pettis. “A lot of respect for Josh. He's been around this sport for a long time. He's 35 years old, he's still fighting. I'm 26, and when I'm 35 I still want to be at the top of the lightweight division.”
On December 14th at UFC on FOX in Sacramento, these amazing fights will happen and you’ll either be ecstatic you saw them or depressed you didn’t.