Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 18, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
NEWARK, N.J. — Anthony Njokuani heard and resented people who were calling him and his fellow WEC fighters “red-headed step children” two months ago.
When the 155-pound WEC division merged with the UFC lightweight class at the start of 2011, some gave the WEC fighters no chance to hold their own against UFC veterans. That was a comical suggestion to Njokuani.
“I didn’t get it when people were calling us that,” Njokuani said. “I knew everyone had the skills to compete with the 155-pounders, and now we’re showing it.”
The WEC transfers aren’t merely staying competitive through five UFC cards in 2011 — they are winning convincingly. In four lightweight bouts pitting a former WEC fighter against a UFC veteran, the WEC is 3-1.
Two more of those contests will take place Saturday night in Newark’s Prudential Center at UFC 128. On the main card, undefeated WEC product Kamal Shalorus challenges UFC mainstay Jim Miller, who is on a six-fight win streak.
Njokuani, a Las Vegas-based fighter who trains at One Kick’s Gym on South Pecos, is scheduled for a bout against UFC prospect Edson Barboza that will air on the Spike preliminary card at 6 p.m.
“I’m really happy everyone is doing well,” Njokuani said. “I’m going to go in there and do my best to keep the streak going.”
Njokuani (14-4) might face a tougher task than some of his former WEC coworkers with Barboza, who is a perfect 7-0 in his MMA career. Barboza, a kickboxer, ended five of his first six fights in the first round before scoring a third-round TKO victory over Mike Lullo in his UFC debut last November.
But Njokuani said he was prepared for everything Barboza could possibly throw at him. He’s worked too hard to let this opportunity slip away.
“I can’t wait to get in there and show the UFC fans what I’ve got,” Njokuani said. “This is something I’ve tried to do for years — get into the UFC. It’s a dream come true. I’m blessed I’m able to do battle in the octagon.”
UFC 128 features WEC veterans more prominently than any of the organization’s cards so far. In the co-Main Event, former WEC featherweight champion and the organization’s most popular star Urijah Faber faces Eddie Wineland in a bantamweight bout.
UFC’s decision to combine WEC was made so it could add its bantamweight and featherweight divisions. The lightweights came along in the process.
They have all been equally excited about their debuts.
“It’s been a long road for me; seven years in my MMA career and I’ve been pretty decorated,” Faber said. “I’ve had some great opportunities, but this is the biggest one so far.”
Wineland said he never thought fighting in the UFC would be possible because it didn’t offer small weight classes. He couldn’t get away from thinking about it, though.
Even in his small hometown of Chesterton, Ind., which has a population of 13,000, people would constantly ask when he would try to make it into UFC.
“I’d say, ‘I’m not heavy enough,’” Wineland said. “Now, it’s great they can showcase the little guys.”
Maybe the appreciation of getting a chance to fight in UFC can be credited as a reason WEC fighters are finding so much early success. Njokuani, for one, is more motivated than ever before for this fight. That comes with the territory of making a UFC debut.
“I’m ready to go in there and prove to everyone what I’ve got,” Njokuani said.