When the best in-cage fighter is scheduled to fight in a cage, it brings intrigue. What magic will we see Jon Jones conjure up in this fight? Will this night finally be the night his best self is somewhere other than inside the octagon?
Still, Jones defending his light heavyweight title as a -1,100 favorite against Anthony Smith at UFC 235 in Las Vegas this weekend may not be the most interesting storyline. Nor the results and his potential comments about the increased drug testing he has undergone for this fight.
Ok, so then it’s the welterweight title fight and whether or not challenger Kamaru Usman can be the one to slow down four-time defending champion Tyron Woodley on his quest to become the UFC’s greatest 170-pound champion ever? Not exactly.
Well, then how about finally getting to see Ben Askren, the undefeated champion of multiple promotions on multiple continents, test himself at the sport’s highest level?
These three bouts all present intrigue, interest and excitement in various ways and for various reasons. They certainly are worth whatever time and money you wish to throw at them.
But for the most interesting storyline on a more meta level, look just a little further down on the bout sheet. There, that one to kick off the pay-per-view main card: Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz.
Garbrandt once ruled the bantamweight division, famously showing off a few dance moves and showboating theatrics amid punches to the face of Dominick Cruz to win the belt at the end of 2016.
Then for the better part of a year, there was dialed-up rhetoric and public bashing in both directions as Garbrandt prepared to defend his title against TJ Dillashaw at Madison Square Garden in November 2017.
Nor did he reclaim the belt in their rematch 10 months later.
Instead, both fights ended with a referee stepping in to prevent Garbrandt from receiving further punishment at the hands of Dillashaw.
Those were the first two losses in Garbrandt’s professional MMA career after winning his first 11. How does he respond now?
A fighter’s psyche goes through its share of ups and downs. For every good training day that swells the chest and ego, there’s a humbling on the horizon.
“Honestly, in this sport everyone is so good, everyone is so talented,” Garbrandt, 27, told MMAFighting.com at UFC 235 media day on Wednesday. “You fight with four-ounce gloves on — in a perfect world, you’d be undefeated and walk away. That’s a small percentage. That’s Floyd Mayweather. Some people look at a loss and it’s devastating, it’s the end of the world, they go in a downward spiral and they let dirt get piled on them. You just got to brush yourself off. You can’t let the dirt bury you.”
To reach the pinnacle of the sport without ever facing the adversity of losing a fight on the way up, how quickly can a fighter process, adjust and overcome?
Of the 1,893 fighters to compete in the UFC's 5,015 fights heading into Saturday night, only 77 of them have won a championship (including interim titles). Of those who won undisputed titles (non-interim), only 12 were undefeated.
Most every fighter will say the key to success in this sport isn't about matching up your boxing to his, or your wrestling to his, or your jit-jitsu, judo, Muay Thai, kickboxing, karate, grappling, overhand rights, foot stomps or illegal eye pokes. It's about confidence. Without that, a fighter has a void. That void often then gets filled with self-doubt. Despite what is said and shown publicly by a fighter during fight week, only they know where their confidence level is at.
Which Garbrandt will be inside the octagon on Saturday? The brash boxer who fought his way to the gold and now says he is re-ignited after taking seven months away to be with his wife and infant son, or the one who looks across the cage at Munhoz and sees a blond-haired Californian with powerful hands instead of a bearded Brazilian with three times as many submission wins than knockout wins.
“It’s me versus me in there,” Garbrandt said at a UFC 235 news conference at the end of January. “No offense to Pedro Munhoz, he brings a lot of skills and everyone is tough in this organization. But it’s me versus me in there. I’m focused on myself and getting back to my throne.”