The road to title contention has been an uphill battle for Tim Boetsch.
In a division filled with high profile names like Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort, and Michael Bisping, it would be easy for the 32-year-old Maine native to get lost in the shuffle. Fortunately for "The Barbarian," his work inside of the cage has kept him above the fray and positioned in the crowded upper tier of the middleweight division.
Since making his debut at UFC 130 in May of 2011, the 185-pound Boetsch has won four out of his five showings in the middleweight division, which has included victories over the likes of Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard. The only setback during this run came in his most recent showing at UFC where he was defeated by fellow surging contender Costa Philippou via second round stoppage.
Despite an impressive four-fight winning streak coming into the tilt with Philippou in Las Vegas, the loss threatened to push Boetsch out of the title picture for the foreseeable future. In addition to the title race in the 185-pound division becoming highly competitive, the veteran's lack of name recognition in comparison to his peers in the weight class certainly played a factor in that materializing situation.
That being said, the current scenario in the 185-pound weight class has Boetsch fully aware of where he stands in the divisional picture. He knows his future as a contender is on the line this weekend in Las Vegas and will be looking to make a definitive return to the title picture when he faces Mark Munoz at UFC 162.
"We are both very game fighters," Boetsch told Bleacher Report. "I think everybody recognizes that we are both elite level guys and the winner of this fight will be very close to the top of the ladder in the division. It establishes the winner as one of the guys to beat. Munoz is coming off a loss but it was against the guy who is now challenging for a title shot. I'm not sure why Munoz's rankings or his stock has gone down as much as it has but I feel we are both right there still in the mix.
"You really can't afford to take a step back no matter who you are. If your goal is to ultimately become champion, then you need to keep moving in the right direction. For me, that is up and that is what I intend on doing.
"That is really what I thought when I got this fight," Boetsch added in regard to staying in the title hunt. "I was coming off a loss. I was bummed out and wasn't sure who I would get next. When I got the call saying it was Mark, I was really excited because this fight will send a statement if I do what I'm planning on doing. It will really send a message that I'm for real and I'm here to stay. I've got one thing in mind and that is becoming champion."
Stylistically speaking, the matchup between Boetsch and Munoz will feature two fighters with similar approaches to the fight game. Both bring heavy-handed power into the cage and have built their respective skill sets from strong wrestling pedigrees.
Munoz and Boetsch each have decorated wrestling backgrounds, and despite the 35-year-old Californian having the more accomplished resume, Boetsch believes the wrestling exchanges inside the Octagon could play out in his favor on Saturday night.
"Obviously, his wrestling pedigree is higher than mine," Boetsch said. "He was a national champion and a very decorated wrestler, but it doesn't always translate well to mixed martial arts. You have to figure out how to mix the striking in with the takedowns, and for some wrestlers it is not an easy transition. I feel confident in my ability to take him down if I need to and my stand up ability against him. I feel very comfortable wherever this fight goes.
"For me it's a very exciting fight. I know Munoz moves forward and looks to finish fights. He throws big, heavy hands and he's put them to good use in the past. At the same time, I see a lot of openings I can take advantage of and certainly plan on doing that come fight night. It's going to be an exciting fight and one the fans are definitely going to enjoy."
In addition to the race to stay in title contention, one of the larger story lines surrounding the bout is the journey Munoz has endured on his return to the cage. "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" has been on the sidelines for a year since his last bout with Chris Weidman, which was his only bout in a 19-month stretch.
While the opinion on "ring rust" differs from fighter to fighter, Boetsch certainly believes it is real and knows it is something Munoz will have to deal with at UFC 162.
"For me, ring rust is a very real thing and anyone who tells you differently is crazy," Boetsch said. "It doesn't matter what training you are doing or training as hard as you can, nothing simulates walking out to the Octagon and fighting in front of 20,000 people. You just can't copy that. If you only do that once a year, then yes there is going to be some extra added pressure on you and some added things you have to deal with. So ring rust to me is very real. That being said, I know Munoz has been around competition his entire life and I expect him to deal with it very well. But it will be there. I know it will be there."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.