Officially the most injury-riddled card in promotional history, UFC 149 will take place Saturday with a compelling line-up from Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome, marking the UFC’s inaugural trip to the first Canadian city to host the Olympic Games.
In the main event, Urijah Faber and Renan Barao will clash for the interim UFC bantamweight title with the winner expected to take on injured champion Dominick Cruz upon his return.
Other featured matchups include a middleweight pairing pitting the last reigning Bellator champion Hector Lombard against fast-rising “Barbarian” Tim Boetsch, while heavyweights Cheick Kongo and Shawn Jordan look to prove they belong among the upper echelon of fighters in the rapidly evolving weight class.
Here’s a closer look at the pay-per-view main card:
-Urijah Faber (26-5) vs. Renan Barao (28-1)
Two of the most talented 135-pound combatants in the sport will collide over five rounds in the featured attraction as the former WEC featherweight king Faber battles the seasoned Brazilian wrecking machine Barao.
Faber, 33, has evidently benefited from the cut down from 145 pounds, turning in some dominant performances as a bantamweight.
After joining the WEC in March 2006, claiming the promotion’s featherweight title in his first appearance, Faber would record victories over the likes of current UFC 135-pound champion Cruz, former Dream champion Bibiano Fernandes, former UFC champion Jens Pulver and mixed martial arts pioneer Jeff Curran, wins that would put him in good standing on various pound-for-pound lists.
Faber’s reign as the WEC’s most impressive champion and its charismatic poster boy would come to a screeching halt when he was stopped by Mike Thomas Brown in November 2008. Faber’s willingness to take unnecessary chances became his downfall again, as it also led to the finish in his only other career setback against Tyson Griffin in September 2005.
In his rematch with Brown, Faber broke his right hand and still fought valiantly for five full rounds, but he came out on the losing end of a unanimous decision.
“The California Kid” challenged for the title once more in April 2010, dropping a gutsy unanimous decision to current featherweight torchbearer Jose Aldo in the WEC’s first and only pay-per-view. Faber showcased his heart and resiliency, eating a storm of vicious leg kicks from the technically superior striker, but he fell short after going five full rounds.
The drop to 135 pounds paid off in a hurry as Faber obliterated Takeya Mizugaki in his divisional debut at WEC 52, choking him unconscious in the very first round. He followed up that win with a hard-fought unanimous decision over Eddie Wineland, the first-ever WEC bantamweight titleholder.
Faber challenged Cruz in a rematch for the title at UFC 132, losing a razor-thin decision after five extremely close rounds. Faber appeared to do the most damage, landing heavier shots and dropping the champion on multiple occasions. However, Cruz’s output, speed and peppering shots were key components and all three judges gave him the fight.
The proud Californian put his Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt on display in his most recent fight, submitting fellow brown belt and former WEC 135-pound champion Brian Bowles with a second-round guillotine choke in a dominant performance.
A former NCAA Division I wrestler, Faber is the proud founder of Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male camp, which has become the breeding ground for many quality prospects, including Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes and Danny Castillo. At 135 pounds, Faber is a physical beast and his size gives him a critical edge.
Faber is dangerous everywhere, epitomizing what it means to be well-rounded in a constantly evolving sport. But his opponent also knows a thing or two about mixing up his game.
Barao, 25, a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Andre Pederneiras, has not suffered a defeat in his last 29 fights. His lone setback was a decision in his April 2005 professional debut.
The hungry Brazilian dominated the scene in his home country before making his North American debut at WEC 49, which, coincidentally, also took place in Alberta.
Barao’s momentum continued as he submitted Anthony Leone and Chris Cariaso under the WEC banner before outpointing Cole Escovedo in his May 2011 UFC debut. Barao has since recorded impressive wins over top contenders Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett.
Based at Nova Uniao, Barao has exhibited a dangerous striking base fuelled by sharp muay thai techniques, which accompanies a sublime ground game. Training alongside the featherweight champ Aldo, who found the most success picking Faber apart with strikes, will certainly prove valuable.
Barao is a well-oiled machine who resembles Aldo in many ways, making it especially difficult to point out any key weaknesses in his game. However, Faber’s superb wrestling experience and exceptional conditioning could be major X-factors in this fight.
Faber has gone the distance several times in title affairs, while Barao has only fought in 15-minute fights. Faber’s takedowns are some of the best in his division, far better than any of Barao’s opponents to date. In terms of striking, however, Barao should have a distinct advantage if he effectively implements kicks and doesn’t underestimate Faber’s power.
Relying on his big fight experience and seizing his dream of claiming UFC gold, Faber will need to rise to the occasion and exploit holes in Barao’s wrestling, wearing him down in close quarters to eke out a gruelling decision.
Verdict: Faber via decision
-Hector Lombard (31-2-1) vs. Tim Boetsch (15-4)
In middleweight action, the last Bellator champion Lombard puts his 25-fight unbeaten streak on the line in his first-ever fight in the UFC as he meets the underrated powerhouse Boetsch.
Lombard, 34, has been steamrolling his competition since his only two losses, both decisions that occurred in Pride in his only two fights with the now-defunct organization. Among his notable victims, Lombard has defeated James Te Huna, Brian Ebersole, Kalib Starnes, Jay Silva, Alexander Shlemenko, Joe Doerksen, Jesse Taylor and Trevor Prangley.
Born in Cuba, the Florida resident trains at American Top Team, where he develops his striking and conditioning. Lombard’s grappling credentials are quite impressive as he’s a 4th dan black belt in judo and a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
A muscular southpaw, Lombard can finish opponents anywhere, proving he has one-punch knockout power and a crafty arsenal of submissions.
Boetsch, 31, is riding a hat trick of victories since dropping from light heavyweight to 185 pounds, including a TKO stoppage of two-time title challenger Yushin Okami this past February. Boetsch struggled at 205 pounds due to a lack of size, dropping fights to Vladimir Matyushenko, Matt Hamill, Jason Brilz and Phil Davis.
Since coming into his own in his newfound division, Boetsch is already showing promise as a legitimate title contender. Boetsch is a strong wrestler with brute strength that allows him to bully most 185-pounders.
Boetsch definitely marks Lombard’s sternest test in recent memory, but the same can be said for Lombard. Technically, Lombard has many more tools and far more experience, so he should possess an edge.
However, Lombard is often hesitant to pull the trigger. Boetsch has the type of power that can change a fight in an instant, which we saw when he finished Okami at UFC 144.
Nonetheless, Lombard’s extensive experience, hot streak, superior technique and precision power should make him an obvious favorite. If he takes Boetsch lightly, he will taste defeat for the first time since November 2006. If Lombard presses the action, testing Boetsch’s granite chin and putting the American into uncomfortable positions, he will find an opening for a thunderous flurry to finish him off, establishing himself as an elite UFC middleweight contender.
Verdict: Lombard via TKO, Round 2
-Cheick Kongo (17-7-2) vs. Shawn Jordan (13-3)
Initially expected to face former Pride heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, the chiseled Frenchman Kongo will try to rebound from a stunning knockout loss at the hands of Mark Hunt when he tangles with the Greg Jackson student Jordan.
For over half a decade, the 37-year-old Kongo has competed in the UFC, where his marquee wins include Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Antoni Hardonk, Pat Barry and Matt Mitrione. Kongo has struggled against a higher level of competition, dropping fights to Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir, but his most recent setback against Hunt came as a shocker to most observers.
Based at the Wolfslair Academy in England, Kongo’s kickboxing has been the primary anchor of his offensive approach. His striking may seem robotic at times, but his power cannot be understated. Kongo has also improved significantly in the wrestling and grappling departments, though submission defense remains an obvious weakness in his game.
Kongo has a solid chin and his ability to absorb damage is impressive, evidenced by his come-from-behind knockout of Barry in June 2011. However, some defensive holes were exploited against Hunt in his most recent appearance this past February.
Fresh off a win over knockout specialist Lavar Johnson under the Strikeforce banner last September, the 27-year-old Jordan made a statement in his UFC debut in March, finishing Oli Thompson in the second round. After the fight, Jordan showcased his athleticism by executing a standing backflip.
A member of the famed New Mexico-based Jackson-Winkeljohn camp, Jordan is continually developing his skills in hopes of reaching his full potential. His willingness to brawl will surely earn him a few bonus points with the fans, but he’ll need to implement a more conservative approach when threatened by the ferocious power of Kongo.
Jordan has struggled with heavy hitters in the past as he was knocked out in bouts against Mark Holata and Kenny Garner. Kongo hits as hard, if not harder, than both of them.
Jordan will have his moments, threatening with powerful punches, but Kongo will have the last laugh as he lands a brutal counter-shot to lay the Texan out cold in the opening stanza.
Verdict: Kongo via KO, Round 1
-Brian Ebersole (50-14-1) vs. James Head (8-2)
Red-hot welterweight Ebersole will be seeking his fifth consecutive win on Saturday as he battles the Lovato Jiu Jitsu pupil Head.
A veteran of 66 fights, the 31-year-old Ebersole is one of the most experienced competitors on the UFC roster. The former NCAA Division I wrestler outpointed Chris Lytle in his promotional debut before amassing wins over Dennis Hallman, Claude Patrick and T.J. Waldburger.
The Indiana-born “Bad Boy” bases his training camp in Australia, where he refines an already well-rounded skillset. Ebersole has some tricks up his sleeve standing, but he’s most dangerous when he secures top position and threatens with his positional game and submissions.
Ebersole is a charismatic fighter, who often sports his trademark “Hairrow,” referring to an arrow shaved into his chest hair, and he often likes to start fights with an unconventional cartwheel kick.
The 28-year-old Head made a successful transition from middleweight to 170 pounds in April, submitting Swedish sensation Papy Abedi in the first round.
A university graduate in petroleum engineering, Head is coming into his comfort zone under the bright lights of the UFC, also earning his Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt under renowned grappler Rafael Lovato Jr.
Head is always evolving and he’s made muay thai a major area of focus in training, but Ebersole possesses far more experience against far bigger names.
If Ebersole can keep Head guessing by mixing up stiff strikes and swift takedowns, he will score pivotal points with the judges, earning a well-deserved unanimous decision after three competitive rounds.
Verdict: Ebersole via decision
-Chris Clements (11-4) vs. Matt Riddle (6-3)
Welterweights will kick off the main card as the Canadian “Menace” battles “The Ultimate Fighter 7” veteran Riddle.
Clements, 36, made a triumphant UFC debut this past April, defeating Keith Wisniewski in a well-deserved decision.
A longtime student of late Canadian striking coach Shawn Tompkins and a taekwondo black belt, Clements is a dynamic kickboxer who trains alongside Mark Hominick and Sam Stout.
Victories over UFC veterans Jonathan Goulet and Rich Clementi ultimately earned the Ontario native a shot in the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organization, where he hopes to make an impact late in his career.
Clements was initially preparing to take on Afghan knockout artist Siyar Bahadurzada, who was forced to withdraw from the card due to an injury. The resulting opponent is actually a more favorable matchup for Clements, who can exploit holes in his adversary’s standup game.
Riddle, 26, is still a relative novice in the sport. A product of Throwdown Training Center in Las Vegas, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt outpointed Henry Martinez in February to bounce back from successive setbacks against Lance Benoist and Sean Pierson.
A standout wrestler at Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University, Riddle has worked on rounding out his game, winning Grapplers Quest and other submission grappling tournaments, but his striking is still severely limited.
Riddle will need to push a feverish pace, hunting for takedowns and submissions. Meanwhile, Clements will look to keep the fight standing, dissecting Riddle with a multitude of kickboxing techniques.
Riddle has a solid chin, but Clements’ striking is in a whole different league. He will feed off the energy of the Canadian crowd, unloading on Riddle with a cavalcade of combinations before ultimately putting him away with a storm of violent strikes late in the fray.
Verdict: Clements via KO, Round 3