As a media personality who has spent the better part of the last 5 years dedicating my life to covering the UFC, next week is one of the busiest of the year for me. As a huge MMA fan who can’t get enough of my favorite sport, next week is one of the best of the year for me. I’ve been lucky enough to cover almost every major sporting event and I can tell you that nothing has come close to International Fight Week. Nothing!
As a 44 year-old dude who still can’t get enough of Las Vegas, there’s no better place to be for a huge event. Sin City is the ultimate backdrop for the ultimate event for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Sleep- and sanity- will surely go straight out the window for 7 days, and I’m more than OK with that.
More than a million MMA fans will invade Vegas for UFC 200, the biggest event in the company’s history, the TUF 23 Finale and UFC Fight Night 19, plus the UFC Fan Expo. That’s three fight cards on back-to-back-to-back nights and the expo all day every day. It’s great food, parties, casinos, parties, concerts, parties, shows, parties and well, parties. It’s Super Bowl week times ten- in the ultimate adult playground.
But we’re really here to talk about the action inside the Octagon, and this could be the biggest and best week of fights anyone has ever seen, anywhere. As usual, our Arizona fighters are right in the middle of it all. Our guys always rep us to the fullest, and next week will be no exception.
Cain Velasquez, “Chicano” John Moraga and Anthony “El Toro” Birchak will wave our state flag next week in Vegas, on 3 separate fight cards on 3 separate nights. All 3 of them are great guys who I’ve known a long time, and I’ll be there to watch them. I’ll also be interviewing all 3 of them live on the radio show. Moraga and Birchak this Saturday and Cain next week for our special UFC 200 edition ‘live’ from Vegas.
I’ve known Cain for about 5 years. I first met him when I was on the ASU Wrestling advisory board for fund raising. Cain came back to say hello and shake some hands at our annual golf tournament. It was exactly one week to the day after he crushed Brock Lesnar to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship. He showed up at 7:00 in the morning, by himself, and stayed for hours. Since then, I’ve hung out with and interviewed him many times and seen him fight several times in person. He has never changed one bit. I love that about him.
The Yuma native, former ASU All-American Wrestler and UFC Heavyweight Champ (13-2, 11-2 UFC) looks to put his name back at the top of the #1 contenders list when he steps in the Octagon for just the 2nd time in 32 months to face Travis “Hapa” Browne (9-0, 9-3-1 UFC) in a crucial fight for both guys.
With all the hype surrounding the Jon Jones vs Daniel Cormier rematch, the return of Brock Lesnar and Conor McGregor’s pissing match with the UFC, Cain has almost been an afterthought at 200. I can’t remember the last time “Brown Pride” has flown so low under the radar heading into a fight. This is exactly how Cain prefers things. He doesn’t care much for the spotlight. He’s 100% healthy for the first time in a long time, and with everything to prove, (just like his fight vs “Big Foot” Silva in May of 2013 after he lost the belt to Junior Dos Santos) the former champ might be more dangerous than ever before. Just chew on this for a second. Cain’s name is nowhere to be found on the pound for pound rankings. Does anyone really believe Cain isn’t one of the top 15 fighters in the world? Not me. Not him either. No way.
Browne, a great striker with a real good chin, suffered tough losses to Werdum (in a title eliminator fight 2 years ago) and Andre Arlovski last year. He will need to use his height to keep Cain from mauling him in close or taking him down and beating him all over Las Vegas if he wants to pull off the upset, which would vault him back up toward the top of the heap in a suddenly crowded division. I think Cain is as healthy and focused as he’s ever been, and I think Travis Browne is in big trouble.
I first met Moraga, from Maryvale, when I ring announced for my buddy Joel Lopez at Cage Rage on the River 2 in July 7, 2012 at the Blue Water Resort and Casino in Parker, AZ. John was still working the local circuit and looking for his break. That night, he won a tough unanimous decision over Jose Carbajal. Less than a month later, he would knock out Ulysses Gomez on a UFC on Fox card in LA. Since then, I’ve always told him I was his good luck charm because I did his last fight before he hit the big-time. We’ve hung out a lot and I know him well. He’s as real as real gets and he bleeds for the 602. He’s quiet, humble and dedicated, but hard and tough and not to be messed with.
Moraga is the #6 ranked flyweight in the UFC and another former ASU wrestler, he is looking to climb back up toward the top of the division when he battles Matheus Nicolau (11-2-1, 1-0 UFC) at the TUF 23 Finale Friday night at MGM Grand Garden Arena. It will be the first time “Chicano John” (16-4, 5-3 UFC) climbs into the cage since last May’s tough decision loss to Joseph Benavidez, during which he suffered a serious concussion. Nicolau is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with a boxing background as well, so Moraga will have to be very careful on the ground and on the feet. It will be nice to see John getting back in there again! Remember, his only 3 losses in the UFC were to Flyweight Champ “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and top contender John Dodson.
Finally, I met Tucson’s Birchak (12-3, 1-2 UFC) when I did play-by-play and ring announced (yes, I’m insane) his Coalition of Combat: Clash of the Titans fight against Roman “El Galito” Salazar in Phoenix back in June of 2012 with my play-by-play partner Aaron “A-Train” Simpson. Birchak knocked out Salazar, who would also later jump to the UFC. Anthony then went on to become an MFC Champion and made his way to the UFC in 2014. AB and his wife Mercedes White run an MMA marketing company, Luta Elite MMA, and just opened a brand new gym, Toro Tech, both in Tucson. He’s a great dude and another fighter I always pull for.
Birchak will fight Dileno Lopes (18-2, 0-1 UFC) in a bantamweight matchup on the UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos vs Alvarez Thursday night, also at MGM Grand Garden Arena. “El Toro”, badly finished by Thomas Almeida last October in Brazil, is a strong wrestler and BJJ purple belt. Ironically, Lopes defeated Nicolau in the semifinals of TUF Brazil 4.
My job is a blast. Play-By-Play and Ring Announcing and hosting radio and TV shows has allowed me to watch a lot of great fighters at various stages of their careers and get to know them as people. Of course I’ll be pulling for all my guys in the cage next week, like I always do. It’s so tough watching your friends fight, knowing their dreams and maybe even their lives, can be altered forever. Anyone who gets in the cage for a living deserves as much respect as we can give them.
Over the next 10 days, I’ll be all over Vegas to bring you as close as you can get without being there. I’ll be at all 3 fight cards, the expo and the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA covering Team USA.
This is why we named the show Cage Side Seat. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I hope you enjoy it half as much as I do!
Until next time, keep your game tight and your mind right!