The team of analysts for the UFC on Fox Sports 1 and Fox broadcasts has been providing the most in-depth coverage that mixed martial arts has seen in its 20 years of existence.
With a collection of seasoned fight veterans and a handful of well-versed hosts at the helm, the people who work the pre- and post-fight shows for the UFC have consistently raised the bar.
The UFC's hectic 2014 campaign is in full swing, and that means Jon Anik is a very busy man. The Massachusetts native has become a staple on the UFC's commentary team roster and is the lead man calling the action for UFC on Fox Sports 1 broadcasts, which have been coming at a fast and furious pace in 2014.
The packed schedule has already taken Anik, the host of UFC Insider, and his partner in the commentary booth, Kenny Florian, around the world and back several times, and the year has yet to reach the halfway mark. Nevertheless, Anik has already established himself as reliable behind the mic, and his play-by-play calls have made him a fan favorite in relatively quick fashion.
In addition to his solid presentation in the booth on fight night, he has also proved to be as durable as they come in the commentary realm. The Las Vegas transplant has pushed through events in packed Brazilian venues without air conditioning while never missing a beat at the commentator's table. When there is a job to do and fights to call, he always shows up, and no lack of modern electrical convenience is going to stop him.
Yet, despite the steady grind of the UFC schedule, he has made time to swing by this column on several occasions and don his analyst hat for Bleacher Report readers. On his most recent visit, Anik used his golden voice to break down the action that is slated to go down at UFC Fight Night 44 this Saturday night in San Antonio.
Bleacher Report: We always start at the top of the card for these breakdowns, and we'll keep that tradition rolling for Fight Night 44. The main event features a matchup between Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens in a fight that will hold heavy implications on the future of the featherweight title picture. Despite his five-fight winning streak, Swanson has kind of been the odd man out in the collection of potential contenders at 145 pounds. Stephens had been a longstanding staple of the lightweight division until a rough patch led him to try his hand in the featherweight fold.
Both fighters have found solid success as of late and have come to a position where they are within striking distance of a title shot. Do you believe this is a situation where it is the right fight at the right time for both men?
Jon Anik: I think that is absolutely the case. I'm so excited to be calling this fight. When this main event was announced, I knew we had the card in New Zealand on the same night, but I was so excited to be able to call that fight. This is a matchup between two guys who are very exciting and are both so worthy of getting a main event slot. Cub Swanson was kind of in a strange spot for a while.
He was lined up to fight Darren Elkins, but ultimately chose to have elbow surgery, and that put him on the sidelines for a bit. If you know anything about Cub Swanson, you know he's the last guy that wants to be idle or be dealing with a 13-month layoff. Over that time, the majority of the other guys in the top five were booked, and that didn't leave him with too many options because anything outside of a title shot or a fight with Chad Mendes just didn't make sense for him.
That changed when Jeremy Stephens came into the picture. He's undefeated since dropping down to featherweight, and he brings some rock-solid name recognition into this fight. He's fought some of the best lightweights in the world, and his style will make for a really interesting main event with Swanson.
I think Cub may have had some frustrations early on, but this fight being a main event is a great opportunity. It is his chance to take out a bigger name than Dennis Siver or George Roop, and I do believe the winner of this fight will compete for the featherweight title before we close the book on 2014.
B/R: With the respective styles Swanson and Stephens bring into the fight, the probability this will be an action-packed tilt is high. That said, one of the themes surrounding this fight that I'm not seeing in the lead-up is how both fighters hold a bit of underdog status in the bigger picture at 145 pounds.
Swanson is the longest-tenured featherweight on the Zuffa roster and is just now reaching the top of the ladder and getting some recognition. Stephens had been competing in the lightweight ranks for several years but never was able to make it over the hump to become a contender.
There have been scenarios where fighters have been deemed future contenders without doing half the work Swanson or Stephens have put in. Do you agree that this piece of the spotlight is a long time coming for both fighters?
J/A: Without a doubt it is. I remember calling the card in Minneapolis on the night when Jeremy Stephens was dealing with his legal issues. This is a guy who was below .500 in the UFC before he moved to featherweight and started to turn things around. Granted, he still earned some big wins, but his overall record was still below .500.
Both of these guys have dealt with adversity inside and outside of the cage and fought back to be in a top spot.
For as debilitating as that eight-second knockout loss to Jose Aldo was, here Swanson is just one fight away from getting a shot at the title and a potential rematch with Aldo if he gets past Chad Mendes at UFC 176. It's a remarkable story.
I really do think Swanson being the longest-tenured featherweight on the roster is what was eating at him before this fight came together. He wanted the title shot and believed he had done enough to earn it. If you look at the guys he has defeated on his run, you could certainly make the argument he deserved it.
This is a big opportunity for both of these guys, and I believe they both understand how important this fight is. The title shot Swanson has been chasing will materialize with a win, and a victory for Stephens would mean he went from being a middle-of-the-road lightweight to dropping down and putting himself on the fast track toward the featherweight title.
B/R: Let's move on to the co-main event between Kelvin Gastelum and Nico Musoke. This fight feels to be a showcase bout for The Ultimate Fighter winner to keep the wheels of progress rolling. Make no mistake about it, Musoke is a tough customer, but this seems to be a matchup for Gastelum to put a few more miles under his wheels before he jumps into deeper waters.
When you look at his last fight against Rick Story to where he will be in this bout against Musoke, what are your thoughts on Gastelum's progression since winning The Ultimate Fighter?
J/A: I think the Rick Story fight in a lot of ways was a step back for Gastelum. A lot of people thought it was pretty underwhelming. Kelvin Gastelum has been nothing but intense inside the Octagon, which certainly flies in the face of the way he is outside of fighting. But I think his reckless abandon was neutralized a bit by Rick Story.
That was a fight his team campaigned for with Joe Silva, and I'm sure there were thoughts of it being a case of the 22-year-old biting off more than he could chew. He was able to get the win via split decision, and I think he really learned a lot in that fight. They say you learn a lot from losses, but I think you learn a lot from split-decision victories as well, and I expect to see a different Gastelum in this next fight.
That said, I've been championing Nico Musoke's cause all week. This guy has been a machine during his time in the UFC, and all the chips have been stacked against him. He made his debut against Alessio Sakara in a short-notice fight, and it was a challenge he was able to get through with flying colors. He then came out in his next fight and backed everything up with another victory.
To me, Nico Musoke is a live underdog here. I know Gastelum is the undefeated prospect, but Musoke is a cerebral fighter who comes from a smart camp. He will also understand the pressure he is going to be dealing with in this fight. I know this looks like Gastelum's fight on paper, but I really wouldn't be surprised if Musoke gives him all he can handle for 15 minutes.
B/R: Staying with the "live dog" theme you just mentioned, Cezar Ferreira is coming off a fight where that exact situation got the best of him. The Brazilian knockout artist suffered a stunning knockout loss to C.B. Dollaway in his most recent showing. That loss seemed to really cool off the buzz that had been attached to "Mutante" since his time on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.
How much damage did Ferreira's status take in his recent setback and how crucial is it for him to get a win over Andrew Craig on Saturday night?
J/A: Mutante is a guy I've been saying should have been fighting on pay-per-view cards for a while now. He has all the tools to be a great mixed martial artist and is about as physically imposing as you are going to find at middleweight in the UFC, but he's a little bit off form right now. His aggression was used against him against C.B. Dollaway, but this is also a guy in which mounds of hype and expectation were placed upon. Being Vitor Belfort's protege is going bring that kind of attention, but I really think it was due to the work he did on that first season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.
The fight for Mutante is about as "must-win" as it gets against Andrew Craig, who is a very hard guy to put away. To me, this fight has all the makings for Fight of the Night, and I was really excited about it when the lineup for this card was announced. A lot of people are expecting Cezar "Mutante" to fight for a UFC title before it is all said and done, and the window on that opportunity becomes a lot smaller with a loss in this fight. I think he recognizes that urgency and we'll see it in his performance against Craig.
B/R: Another story that seems to be running somewhat under the radar coming into Fight Night 44 is the merry-go-round Joe Ellenberger has been on in an effort to make his UFC debut. He was supposed to be on the same card as his brother Jake at UFC 173 back in May, but his opponent was pulled to fill in on another fight, and everything just went crazy from there.
Ellenberger has been forced to endure several opponent changes over the past two months, but he will finally step foot inside the Octagon for the first time in San Antonio.
What kind of toll does that kind of emotional roller coaster take, and do you think it will affect his performance on Saturday night?
J/A: Man, that was crazy for Ellenberger, but I actually think some of the pressure may be off now. I'm not sure if anyone has ever had to endure six or seven rumored opponents before making their actual UFC debut. But a while back, Joe was forced to deal with a serious medical issue, and I don't believe he'll be fazed by any of this stuff. He's a very good fighter, and that's what it all comes down to.
The medical issue took him out of fighting for about two years, but he's really come back and picked up where he left off. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes—at least from the film I've watched. He also has a nice finishing ratio as well. I think a fighter like Joe Ellenberger worries a lot less about the opponent he's facing than what he plans to do in there.
When we talk to fighters leading up to their fights, it seems they are either focusing on what their opponents are going to do or have put the focus entirely on their own game plan. In a situation like what Ellenberger has been through, where six or seven guys have been put in and taken out, the only thing you can do is focus on the fight you want to fight and be ready when it's time.
B/R: Finally, we'll go back to the featherweight division to wrap things up. Ricardo Lamas is coming off a setback against Jose Aldo where his bid for the 145-pound strap was denied. But before that fight ever materialized, there was a really long layoff where he sat out and campaigned for a title opportunity, while the rest of the division continued to scrap it out.
This fight against Hacran Dias is his chance to begin his climb back up the featherweight ranks. But with the current state of the 145-pound division, do you believe Lamas is looking at a long road back to title contention, or could there be an express lane for him to travel?
J/A: You have to finish guys, and I really believe that. I think Ricardo Lamas can finish Hacran Dias, but I also think he could get finished in this fight as well. I personally gave Lamas a good chance of defeating Jose Aldo, whereas my colleagues at Fox Sports 1, Kenny Florian and Dominick Cruz, did not. I was really underwhelmed by his performance in that fight, and everything he said he was going to do against Aldo in that fight he didn't do. That said, Lamas is a guy who is very good at game-planning, exploiting your weaknesses and can finish you in a number of ways.
I think we are going to see a great and inspired performance from Ricardo Lamas this weekend. It's almost as if the title shot is now in his rear-view mirror and he did nothing with it. Now, it is his opportunity to prove that he was worthy of the shot he was given and being the No. 1 contender. He certainly looked worthy on paper, and big wins over Cub Swanson and Erik Koch went a long way toward him getting that title shot.
But that opportunity is in the past, and now is when you prove it. When you are fighting guys who are ranked below you and chew them up and spit them out. But Hacran Dias is a very tough fighter in his own right. He's just had a really tough time with injuries, dealt with layoffs and is in the shadow of his Nova Uniao teammates.
I think Lamas could have a fast climb back up the featherweight ladder, but he's really going to have to finish his opponents.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.