(This story appeared in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
The injury bug has again forced compromises, but for four top welterweights fighting on Saturday’s UFC card, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Two of them, Carlos Condit and Nate Marquardt, stand to make big advances in the talent-rich division as champion Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz headline Saturday’s UFC 158 (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view) at Montreal’s Bell Centre. If the title changes hands, it could be even better news.
After the withdrawal of co-headliner Rory MacDonald because of a neck and back strain, a shuffle put his original opponent, Condit (28-6 MMA, 5-2 UFC), against top contender Johny Hendricks (14-1 MMA, 9-1 UFC), whose original charge, Jake Ellenberger (28-6 MMA, 7-2 UFC), was paired with Nate Marquardt (32-11-2 MMA, 10-4 UFC).
Hendricks and Condit take the event’s co-headlining slot, and Ellenberger and Marquardt get featured status on the PPV main card.
Marquardt technically was recovering from his own injury when he received the call last month to fill in. In his previous bout, former kickboxer Tarec Saffiedine not only took his Strikeforce title but battered his left leg, which swelled gruesomely. Marquardt was on crutches for a week and worried he could develop heterotopic ossification, in which bone begins to grow in soft tissue.
Upon accepting the fight with Ellenberger, Marquardt attended a sparring session at his gym one week earlier than planned to see if his leg might crumble on his first kick. It didn’t.
“I waited for a second, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine,’” he said.
Despite an abbreviated training camp, Marquardt sees an opportunity for redemption. Two years ago, the UFC fired him for sacking an event’s headliner when he mismanaged a testosterone-replacement therapy regimen and wasn’t medically cleared to fight. He turned down a lucrative contract offer from Bellator to fight in the UFC’s sister promotion, now-defunct Strikeforce, hoping it would lead to a UFC return.
“I want to prove I can be the best,” Marquardt said. “I’ve never lost a fight when my mind is in the right spot.”
He’ll need his focus against Ellenberger, who looks to release frustration on Hendricks after the would-be opponent took the fight against Condit. Ellenberger says Hendricks, who’s widely regarded as the sport’s No. 2 welterweight behind St-Pierre, dodged a tougher fight.
“I was pretty pissed to begin with, but it is what it is,” says Ellenberger, who despite his enmity remains focused on getting his first title shot.
For Condit, it was a slight disappointment to fight Hendricks instead of MacDonald, who called him out after a previous loss. But his opponent’s place in the division gives him no lack of motivation. “A win over Hendricks puts me right back in title contention,” Condit says.
For Hendricks, it’s about keeping his spot in line. His camp requested the bout with Condit, believing it would be a quicker route to the belt. A title shot has been elusive despite five consecutive wins and two highlight- reel knockouts.
“I believe it’s me that has the most to lose,” Hendricks says. “Condit just got done fighting for the title, and I’ve been the No. 1 contender for at least two fights now. That right there is a lot to take in, but it makes me excited. … It’s also scary, because if I lose this fight, everything I’ve pushed for is nothing.”
UFC President Dana White says Hendricks is likely to get a title shot if he beats Condit. For the rest of the field, the future is less certain. It’s doubtful Condit will earn a rematch so soon with St-Pierre, though a rematch with Diaz, whom he bested via controversial decision, is highly promotable.
The brash welterweight also is a better option for Marquardt, whose frequent training with the champ could create more friction behind the scenes.
Ellenberger, meanwhile, has no history with either St-Pierre or Diaz.
With no guarantees, however, a good or bad performance could be all that’s needed to change the title picture. That’s probably why Hendricks is a little nervous and Marquardt and Condit anxiously await Saturday.
In a business where fortunes turn quickly, any one of them has a lot to win and much to lose.
For more on UFC 158, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.
(Pictured: Johny Hendricks)
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