Thursday's WEC showdown a must-win for Aldo if greatness awaits
WEC star Jose Aldo, who turned 24 in September, is fighting Manny Gamburyan
Gamburyan is Aldo’s third straight opponent who thrives on power wrestling
The Jamie Varner-Donald Cerrone rivalry hits an apex with tonight's rematch
If someday Jose Aldo is regarded as mixed martial arts' first great featherweight, it's doubtful he'll have lost the kind of fight he faces Thursday.
Less than three weeks removed from his 24th birthday, Aldo is set to defend the WEC featherweight title just outside Denver, Colo., against Manny Gamburyan, a strong, tough Armenian-American grappler who can punch. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Gamburyan as a challenger. He's unbeaten in three fights at 145 since leaving the UFC's lightweight division. He's coming off a devastating knockout victory against former WEC champion Mike Thomas Brown. Gamburyan, simply, represents a threat to any featherweight on the planet.
Yet coming into the biggest fight of his life, oddsmakers don't like Gamburyan's chances. Why? Because the Brazilian champion is gifted for fighting, and so far he's been that good.
So, you see, Aldo, whose first name is pronounced "joe-say," must win fights like this. That's what the best champions do. And judging by the tone of his answers and his demeanor in the cage, Aldo believes he's in that class. He already ranks himself second in the world behind Anderson Silva, who is similar in many ways to Aldo -- an awesome striker and grappler with legitimate black belt skills crammed into a long, athletic chassis.
Gamburyan is Aldo's third straight opponent who thrives on power wrestling and a grind 'em out game. Less than a year ago Mike Brown, still champion, couldn't make it out of the second round with him. And in April, Urijah Faber, clearly the biggest challenge of Aldo's young career on the headliner of a pay-per-view card, was outclassed over 25 minutes.
So what sets Gamburyan apart from Brown or Faber? There doesn't appear to be much other than he's the one with the chance now.
"I know what he does," said Gamburyan (11-4). "He brings to the table a big puzzle. We solved it. I passed my homework. Now it's test time. Let's see if I'm going to pass the test. That's what matters."
The 29-year-old challenger needs the champion (17-1) to be uncomfortable on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, Versus), something that hasn't happened in seven fights since Aldo's been with the WEC -- all of which, prior to his first title defense against Faber, failed to go the distance.
Gamburyan expects to be able to strike with Aldo, and will find out early if he can. That means avoiding or countering smooth and fast combinations that most often get punctuated with knees or kicks. Should Gamburyan falter in front of Aldo, and it's hard to imagine he won't, he'll have to wrestle. Here is where the fight could get out of reach considering what happened to Brown and Faber.
"Ever since the Mike Brown fight I feel like the fighters we've been fighting have had pretty similar styles," Aldo said. "So I've just been adapting and perfecting what I've been training."
Young Aldo, who spent the last 10 days in Colorado getting acclimated to the mile-high altitude, is already the best featherweight in the world. To become MMA's first great 145er -- say what you will about Faber, but losses to Brown and Aldo hurt his claim; so does Alexandre "Pequeno" Nogueira's level of opposition and overall record -- he just has to keep doing what he's doing.
Rivalry hits crescendo
Jamie Varner despises Donald Cerrone. Cerrone hates Varner. Both lightweights have been crystal clear on that after a violent fight in January 2009 while Varner held the WEC belt at 155 pounds.
Cerrone, 27, has been so verbally caustic since losing the technical split decision (Varner was fouled in the fifth round and could not continue) that his promoter publicly reprimanded him for homophobic comments bordering on hate speech. Cerrone, however, hasn't apologized for his feelings about the 25-year-old Varner.
"I plan on doing everything I said I'm going to do," Cerrone said. "I should probably not let my emotions take over and go out there, but I'm going to. And I'm going to try and do a lot of damage to him. That's my game plan."
Varner, of course, has other ideas.
"I want him to eat crow," Varner said. "I want to shut him up. That's huge. But it's so much bigger than this fight with Donald."
Title implications are at stake. So too, perhaps, a spot in the WEC. A loss would drop Varner to 0-2-1 in his last three. Failing to win might be worse for Cerrone, who'd fall to 11-4 (2-4 in his last six) after losing for the first time to Varner.
Wrestling will determine the outcome of the fight. If Cerrone, a good striker with a dangerous guard, hasn't closed the gap, Varner's ability to box with power and dictate where the fight takes place should be enough for him to win again.
But Varner (16-3-1) doesn't expect that to happen without a steep price. In their first meeting, Varner broke a hand (he's done so four times), a foot, and, after taking an illegal knee to the head while he was on the ground, suffered an injury to his right eye that affected his vision.
"I've already called the hospital, got a bed waiting for me," the former WEC champion said. "Broken hand, broken foot, whatever."
Torres looking for new life, Valencia just wants a shot
Miguel Torres' mustache is back, which could be bad news for Charlie Valencia.
"Because I'm pissed," the former WEC bantamweight champion said this week.
Hoping to avoid his third straight loss, Torres (37-3) left the gym he built in East Chicago, Ind., for Montreal and trainer Firas Zahabi.
"I know what I gotta do to get back on top, and that's to become a student again," said Torres, the sport's top bantamweight until Brian Bowles stopped him in 2009. That's what I dedicated myself to."
Torres said he departed Quebec "more cold and calculated," which may not mesh well with the 29-year-old brawler's DNA. Same, too, for Charlie Valencia, Torres' underrated and aggressive opponent at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo.
"We're fighters and we're supposed to fight," Valencia said. "We're supposed to challenge ourselves with the best in the world. He's one of the best in the world and I respect him for that."
Valencia joined Torres as MMA's brightest less-than-lightweight fighters in the early 2000s, going 7-0 until losing to Urijah Faber in 2006 -- his second fight back after a two-year layoff because of an eye injury that nearly cost him his career. The underdog comes meets Torres after three consecutive wins (all decision) and the confidence that comes with that. In many ways, Valencia fights like Joseph Benavidez, who crushed Torres in two rounds last March. If he can successful wrestle and bully Torres the way Benavidez did, Valencia (12-5) has a very real shot to win.
Rest of the card
Expect the Versus' broadcast booth to reminisce over the three-round brawl of the year between Chan Sung Jung -- better known on T-shirts everywhere as "The Korean Zombie" -- and Leonard Garcia.
Garcia (14-5-1) kicks off the card against solid striker Mark Hominick (18-8), while Sung Jung (15-6) follows in a bout matched to make him look good versus George Roop (10-6-1).
It's worth mentioning Zuffa's first attempt at promoting a Chinese national. 25-year-old featherweight Zhang Tie Quan (11-0) makes his U.S. debut with fellow WEC newcomer, 9-0 Pablo Garza of Fargo, N.D.
Jose Aldo def. Manny Gamburyan TKO R3
Donald Cerrone def. Jamie Varner submission R2
Miguel Torres def. Charlie Valencia unanimous decision R3
Chan Sung Jung def. George Roop submission R2
Mark Hominick def. Leonard Garcia submission R3
Zhang Tie Quan def. Pablo Garza unanimous decision
Mike Thomas Brown def. Cole Province TKO R1
Chris Horodecki def. Ed Ratcliff unanimous decision
Diego Nunes def. Brandon Visher split decision
Antonio Banuelos def. Chad George TKO R2
Nick Pace def. Demetrious Johnson unanimous decision
Also on Thursday night ...
Bellator (Fox Sports Net, check local listings) returns with the semifinals of its 115-pound women's tournament, featuring top-ranked Megumi Fujii. After armbarring Carla Esparza in August, Fujii (21-0) gets the much more experienced Lisa Ward (14-5). On the other side of the bracket Jessica Aguilar (9-3) meets Zoila Frausto (8-1).
I like a Fujii-Frausto final.
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