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Is Dan Henderson the UFC’s Most Unlikely Title Contender? Possibly Not ….

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Five months ago nobody was clamouring for this fight. Nobody was even thinking of it, least of all UFC 204’s world title challenger Dan Henderson.

Yet here we are. UFC 204 is only a few days away and sitting right there as the headline attraction is a rematch from UFC 100. Michael Bisping vs. Dan Henderson, with the UFC middleweight championship on the line. It is a booking both absurd and brilliant in equal measure.

Look at everything that had to happen for this championship bout to come together. Firstly, Michael Bisping, forever the 185 pound nearly man, had to actually win the middleweight title because, lets be clear, in 2016 Dan Henderson could only get a shot at UFC gold if Bisping were the champ.

Bisping, who had gone 6-4 in his previous ten fights, wasn’t even scheduled to fight for the title until Chris Weidman withdrew with a neck injury three weeks ahead of UFC 199. On top of that, Bisping wasn’t even the first choice substitute, with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza turning down the opportunity as he had injured his meniscus in his UFC 198 clash with Vitor Belfort.

To make the eventual outcome even more unlikely, Bisping had to defeat Luke Rockhold to win the title. The same Luke Rockhold who had cruised past Britain’s premiere mixed martial artist less than two years prior, submitting Bisping early in the second round of their bout in Sydney, Australia. Since then Rockhold had continued to improve, which contributed to Bisping opening and closing as a bigger betting underdog than he had for their first fight.

Bisping would defeat Rockhold to realise a career-long dream and become UFC middleweight champion. All that had to happen before we even consider Henderson playing his part, which he did, by defeating Hector Lombard in thrilling fashion on the very same night in Inglewood, California.

Winning any fight in the UFC was becoming an increasingly difficult proposition for Henderson by that point. Before the Lombard fight, Henderson had won only twice inside the octagon since 2011. His overall record during that time was 2-6 and he had lasted one minute and 20 seconds against Vitor Belfort in November 2015 in his last outing.

The right win at the right time, bringing together two fighters whose opposing history dated all the way back to season nine of The Ultimate Fighter in 2009, and included the most devastating defeat on Bisping’s 12 year resume in front of far and away the largest pay-per-view audience the company had ever broadcast to at UFC 100.

Even then, had it not been for nostalgic fans bombarding the UFC all over social media calling for this fight to happen, the promotion may well have opted to pit Bisping against someone higher in the middleweight rankings for his first title defense.

All things considered, the UFC 204 main event might be the most unlikely championship bout in UFC history, and as you will see from the following shortlist that is a bold claim. Here are some of the other major contenders for that honour.

Andrei Arlovski vs. Justin Eilers – UFC 53

If you think the heavyweight division in 2016 lacks depth, try to imagine what it was like back in 2005 when many of the best big men in the sport were fighting in Japan. Eilers was not only coming off a knockout loss to Paul Buentello at UFC 51, but he was the fifth choice challenger for Arlovski’s interim heavyweight title.

Injured heavyweight champion Frank Mir was still on the shelf following his motorcyle accident. A bout between Arlovski and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in Japan could not be made either. Former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez was scheduled to face Arlovski but pulled himself from the fight. Then Buentello, who had hit Eilers so hard at UFC 51 that the Miletich fighter had lost complete control of his legs, was not medically cleared to fight when the UFC 53 title fight was made. That meant Eilers was the last man standing, at least until the four-minute mark of his title shot against Arlovski, where his desperate title bid was ended by the in-form champion.

Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar – UFC 91

Former WWE champion Brock Lesnar’s star power was never in question, nor was his physical prowess and athletic ability. His mixed martial arts resume when he stepped into the cage against Randy Couture to challenge for the UFC heavyweight title in 2008 though? That was thin. Really thin. Lesnar had only made two appearances inside the UFC’s octagon, picking up a loss against Frank Mir and a win over Heath Herring. His only previous MMA outing was a one-minute mauling of Min-Soo Kim.

The bout was, at least partly, the product of Couture’s contract dispute with the UFC which had seen Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira crowned as the interim champion in his absence. With Nogueira and Frank Mir tied up coaching season eight of The Ultimate Fighter ahead of their interim title fight, Lesnar was left to face Couture for the title “the Natural” had never lost. Lesnar took little more than eight minutes to tear away Couture’s championship belt and leave the hall of famer eyeing a return to light-heavyweight.

Frank Shamrock vs. John Lober – UFC Brazil

Long before Dan Henderson was granted a title shot against Michael Bisping largely because he held a previous win over the champion, John Lober was given a similar opportunity against Frank Shamrock. The reigning UFC middleweight champion had already won three championship bouts against more notable competition when he defended the title against Lober in October 1998, but the challenger was the last fighter to beat Shamrock at that time.

It didn’t matter that the win was the result of a contentious 30-minute split decision at a time when the sport was still figuring out how to determine who won when bouts went the distance. Nor did it matter that since that fight, Lober had lost five of his next six, with only a time limit draw against Osami Shibuya sandwiched in the middle. Still, with Shamrock clearing out the division in a hurry, the UFC presumably figured that a win over the champion made him a sellable contender. Unsurprisingly, Shamrock forced Lober to submit making it six defeats and one draw from seven fights for Lober, who never fought in the UFC again.

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker Announces Birth of Third Child

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Times seem dull and dreary for the UFC’s Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. The New Zealand born fighter withdrew from the promotions event debut in the eastern region of his residence, Australia. UFC 221, which takes place this Saturday, booked Whittaker to defend his title for the first time against former division champion, Luke Rockhold. His withdrawal was due to mistreatment of a serious staph infection inside of the Australians stomach.

It couldn’t get much worse, having to disappoint fans, and missing the first UFC event in eastern Australia. As it turns out, it could not get worse for Whittaker. Life only got better, as he had the pleasure of announcing the birth of his third child.

His new child is the champions third and first girl. Information regarding his child is limited as this moment is a tender and special time for the Whittaker family.

UFC 221 takes place in Perth, Australia at Perth Arena on February 11th. The cards main event features Whittakers short notice replacement, Yoel Romero taking on Luke Rockhold. Much to the satiety of fans, an interim belt is not in the equation in this instance.

Thank God. Excuse me, thank Dana White.

UFC 221 also features the ‘Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa faces Cyril Asker, Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy and more.

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