Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 | 2 a.m.
For the first time in a decade, the UFC won’t stay home to celebrate Super Bowl weekend.
Ricco Rodriguez, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes were the promotion’s champions the last time it didn’t stage an event at MGM Grand Garden Arena or Mandalay Bay Events Center during the country’s biggest sports weekend. Brad Johnson, Dexter Jackson and Michael Pittman led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory over the Oakland Raiders as 4-point underdogs in the Super Bowl that year.
So, it’s been awhile. It will be an adjustment not seeing sports books on the south end of the Strip on Saturday as full of as many fighter walkout T-shirts as NFL jerseys, but the show must go on.
Just 2,500 miles away. UFC 169 is on the normal spot on the calendar — the night before the Super Bowl — but at a new location in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
For the second straight pay-per-view card, two titles are on the line as bantamweight champion Renan Barao puts his belt at risk against Urijah Faber right after Jose Aldo does the same versus Ricardo Lamas. As fight fans have come to expect for Super Bowl weekend, a stacked card precedes the headlining bouts.
Check below for the Sun’s preview of five things to watch at UFC 169.
Lamas is no lamb
Not much credence is given to whoever is facing Jose Aldo these days.
The skepticism of anyone’s chances to knock off the featherweight kingpin is a side effect from him winning eight straight title fights without much trouble. The response to the alternating fighters spouting off about how they’ll beat Aldo every few months is a collective eye roll.
The sheer confidence exuded by Ricardo Lamas, Aldo’s opponent in the UFC 169 co-main event, should alone be enough to make the cynics pay attention. The former lightweight’s tear through the featherweight division, where he’s undefeated with finishes in three of four fights, should confirm Lamas is more than another guaranteed win for the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Lamas is likely the second or third toughest challenge Aldo has faced during his five-year championship reign, but the Chicago native isn’t being treated like it. Oddsmakers have Lamas as the longest shot of any past contenders to beat Aldo, giving the champion an approximately 85 percent chance to retain his belt.
Don’t be surprised if the fight is closer than that.
Finally Faber’s time?
Not to intentionally focus on the two challengers, but it’s tough to construct an argument of anything the two champions coming into UFC 169 have to prove.
Bantamweight champion Renan Barao’s run has even far eclipsed his more-decorated Nova Uniao teammate and “brother” Jose Aldo. Barao’s been in the spotlight for less time, but his 31 straight wins make for an outrageous spell of dominance.
The heaviest onus on the card falls on bantamweight top contender Urijah Faber. No one at 135 pounds — with original opponent and champion Dominick Cruz going on three years injured — has a better chance to slow Barao.
That’s despite the results of their first fight, where Barao pasted Faber in a unanimous decision at UFC 149 in July 2012. Out of seven career fights in the UFC, it was far and away Faber’s worst performance.
Barao provided the bulk of making Faber look bad, but something looked off with “The California Kid” that night in Calgary, Alberta. Faber later revealed he cracked ribs in the first round, which certainly sounded like something that could have kept him from his best.
Nothing less than that will suffice against Barao.
Less than two years ago, a heavyweight title fight between UFC 169 opponents Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem was far from an outlandish possibility.
Overeem was scheduled to meet Junior dos Santos in a championship bout at UFC 146 in May 2012 with Mir set for a title eliminator co-main event against Cain Velasquez. Instead, Overeem pulled down a suspension after testing positive for elevated testosterone levels to lift Mir into the fight against dos Santos.
Neither Overeem nor Mir has ever been the same since. They’ve gone a combined 0-5, and the loser between them at UFC 169 might have to look for a new employer.
While UFC President Dana White hasn’t committed to releasing either fighter, he’s suggested it as a strong possibility given their recent downturns. Overeem has gotten knocked out twice, against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Travis Browne, since returning from his suspension.
Mir met the same fate against dos Santos and Josh Barnett, while he was thoroughly outclassed in a unanimous-decision loss to Daniel Cormier. Seeing two fighters of this stature face off for their careers is a rarity.
Expect the urgency to translate into a war.
Flying to the top
John Lineker and Ali Bagautinov come in at fifth and seventh in the UFC flyweight rankings, respectively.
The catch? Everyone rated ahead of Lineker has already tried and failed — multiple times in a couple cases — to beat champion Demetrious Johnson.
It wouldn’t feel right for the UFC to stage a card prominently featuring two of its three smallest weight classes while ignoring the other. Luckily, Lineker vs. Bagautinov looks like a title eliminator for the 125-pound division.
The UFC hasn’t officially given the fight that distinction, but there aren’t many other options for Johnson’s next opponent unless he entertains a super fight at a heavier weight class. Either Lineker or Bagautinov is going to have built quite the collection of momentum after Saturday.
They’re the two most promising flyweights in the UFC at the moment. Lineker is riding a four-fight win streak with three straight knockouts, but Bagautinov probably has the best victory between the two of them with a unanimous decision over Tim Elliott at UFC 167.
Johnson will watch this main-card fight intently.
UFC meets NFL
The UFC’s network television partner is the reason the promotion wound up placing this card down the street from MetLife Stadium a night before Super Bowl 48.
Fox, which will air the Super Bowl on Sunday, wanted to make the UFC part of the festivities, thinking the exposure would prove beneficial. It’s still to be determined whether that reasoning proved correct.
A Newark Star-Ledger story from Super Bowl media day that depicted the NFL trying to distance itself from the fight card spread like a staph infection through UFC circles. An NFL official attempted to get a UFC crew carrying a championship belt kicked out of the event, referring to the promotion as “wrestling stuff,” before eventually allowing them to stay but demanding restricted access.
That episode ultimately won’t hurt the UFC. The publicity might even help.
The question is whether any of the massive crowd in town for the Super Bowl cares to check out the fights on the same trip. If the card draws some extra and new fans this weekend, it’s fathomable UFC 169 is just the beginning of this arrangement.
The UFC could potentially settle into a role as a sort of opening act for the Super Bowl annually.