The entire cast of characters involved in UFC 199's dueling championship main events have been playing their parts admirably this week.
Anybody who watched Thursday's prefight press conference wobble between funny, silly and downright stupid can attest to that.
The harsh words are flowing like wine as freshly minted champions Luke Rockhold (middleweight) and Dominick Cruz (men’s bantamweight) prepare to make their first title defenses on Saturday.
The champs got jokes, and their opponents—Michael Bisping and Urijah Faber, respectively—are doing their level best to come off as surly and dangerous challengers, too.
There's just one problem: Rockhold and Cruz have already beaten these dudes, and the impending rematches aren’t expected to be any more competitive than the originals. Quite the opposite, actually.
If the oddsmakers are to be believed, what’s on tap for UFC 199 might be a couple of one-sided beatdowns. So, you'll have to forgive some spectators if they're having trouble getting up for these bouts, despite all the verbal acrobatics.
Rockhold just defeated Bisping via second-round submission in November 2014. Their fight was a fairly lopsided affair, as Rockhold managed to turn the tables on Bisping’s usual high-pressure attack. He steered elegantly away from most of the Brit's punches while continually moving forward, countering effectively with his powerful kicks.
Early in the second stanza, Rockhold scored with a foot to the dome that put Bispng on the mat, then forced him to tap with a one-arm guillotine choke from the mount.
In the wake of that fight, Bisping has rebounded well, going 3-0 and capping his run with a unanimous-decision victory over the declining Anderson Silva four months ago. Unfortunately, he also turned 37 years old and at his advanced age hasn’t—and likely couldn’t—make up enough ground to be viewed as particularly serious competition for Rockhold.
Especially on short notice. Point of fact, Bisping's not even supposed to be here.
This weekend’s pay-per-view was supposed to feature a rematch for Rockhold against former champ Chris Weidman.
Rockhold took Weidman’s title at UFC 194 after capitalizing on an ill-fated spin-kick from the former champion. This was meant to be his chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke, but then a neck injury prevented Weidman from showing up.
With Jacare Souza out due to upcoming knee surgery, it left Bisping as the best available choice.
Essentially, he didn’t nab this booking because anybody thought he would win. He got it because he was the only well-known fighter out of the top-five middleweights who was healthy enough to accept it.
The upside is that Bisping has long been regarded as a heel-ish figure who can sell a fight against anyone—and that’s what he’s tried to do since getting the call roughly two weeks ago:
In some ways, you've got to feel for the guy. Or marvel at his sheer audacity. Or both.
Bisping is going off as a 5-to-1 underdog, according to Odds Shark. For much of his long career he’s been regarded as perhaps the best mixed martial artist never to fight for a major title. Now that he’s finally got his shot, very few people think he can win.
That makes this a strangely feel-good opportunity for the seasoned veteran, who after years of being underestimated and overly reviled, has finally earned our respect. We want to see Bisping get his chance at immortality, even though everybody expects him to get his head handed to him by the younger, bigger, more dangerous champion.
And when we say everybody we mean, yep, pretty much everybody.
Weidman called Rockhold vs. Bisping “the easiest title fight in history” during a recent appearance on Ariel Helwani’s The MMA Hour.
Rockhold told MMA Junkie’s John Morgan this bout will be “fun” for him and quipped he was “just worried about keeping his paycheck intact.”
"I humiliated Bisping [in the last fight],” Rockhold told Fox Sport’s Damon Martin. “I beat him like he's never been beat in his whole career. Some guys just don't learn."
Even Bisping’s kid is picking against him.
As of this writing, though, Bisping isn't hearing any of it. He showed up to the final full-fledged media event before the fight ready to do what he does best—stir the pot:
Meanwhile, Cruz and Faber are set to renew a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 2007, when Faber was WEC featherweight champion and Cruz a 21-year-old upstart.
Cruz suffered his first professional loss in their initial meeting at WEC 26, but the following years ushered-in a wholesale role reversal for the two archenemies.
Cruz hasn’t lost since that first bout against Faber. Two fights removed from it, he dropped to bantamweight and has been on a tear ever since. He became WEC champ in 2010 and nine months later became the UFC’s inaugural 135-pound champion.
Unfortunately, injuries forced Cruz to vacate the title in 2014 as he spent what otherwise might have been the prime of his career on the shelf.
He got back to active duty in early 2016 and took the title he never really lost from T.J. Dillashaw with a shocking virtuoso performance. As it stands, he’s won 11 straight fights while advancing his overall professional career to 21-1 and is ranked No. 4 on the UFC’s official pound-for-pound list.
Faber, on the other hand, has faltered considerably.
He lost his WEC crown to Mike Brown in 2008 and hasn’t worn gold since, despite appearing in five title fights during the next eight years. In 2011—after running out of options at 145-pounds and dropping to bantamweight—he came out on the short end of a competitive but clear-cut unanimous decision to Cruz at UFC 132.
Since then, Faber has gone 8-3 and has perennially kept his name among the top fighters under 155 pounds. At 37, however, it’s largely thought his best days are behind him.
Cruz seems to be surging, while the popular view of Faber is as a guy who is drifting gracefully into the twilight of his career. Not surprisingly, Odds Shark has Faber as a 4-to-1 underdog to Cruz in the rubber match of bantamweight’s longest running feud.
It had been a minute since the two men were at each other’s throats, but they both got straight back to the business of despising each other as soon as this fight was announced. Here they are at the UFC’s “Unstoppable” press conference back in May:
They kept it up this week, as Cruz spent Thursday's presser mocking everything from Faber's height, to the length of his arms to the close-set nature of his eyes. Meanwhile, Faber accused Cruz of being a boring fighter and of "perving out" about his own championship belt during a recent television appearance.
So, yeah, that all happened.
Once the talk is finished, however, UFC 199 will come to the table with two title fights the odds say won’t be all that close. The event itself feels a little strange, sandwiched between May’s star-studded, Brazilian-centric UFC 198 and July’s gala celebration at UFC 200.
Both Rockhold and Cruz must be considered among the very best fighters the UFC has to offer right now. They’re always worth watching, so perhaps that alone is reason enough to tune in.
Their opponents? Not so much. Bisping and Faber seem as though they landed here because the champions needed identifiable, but beatable opponents to get their title reigns off and running.
There’s no shame in that, but you can’t blame the audience if the whole thing feels a little anti-climactic, no matter how many one-liners get dropped.