For all the criticism we regularly heap on their doorstep, I have to give UFC matchmakers credit. They are some resourceful SOBs.
It seems like more often than not, when injury, illness or some other unforeseen malady scrambles a planned high-profile bout, the company comes back with a replacement effort even better than the original. Such may be the case this weekend when Rick Story takes on Nate Marquardt as a late-ish substitute for Anthony Johnson.
Marquardt will be making his welterweight debut after six years in the UFC middleweight division that saw him defeat just about everybody who wasn’t the champ (and – I’m compelled to point out -- the greatest of all time) or soon to be the No.1 contender. Marquardt in fact was 5-2 in that division since 2008 and claims he’s making the cut to 170-pounds due more to changes in his diet and training than necessity. Though honestly, after dropping his championship opportunity against Anderson Silva in 2007 and then a pair of title eliminators to Chael Sonnen and Yushin Okami, he found himself in much the same position Kenny Florian was in just before making his own cut to featherweight.
So Marquardt comes to welterweight in search of a career rebirth and maybe even a fast-tracked title shot like the one Florian may now receive after just one win at 145. In Johnson, Marquardt would’ve gotten a stiff test from a giant welter that could’ve provided a good indicator of his future at 170. But Johnson dropped out with an injured shoulder and, in Story, “Nate the Great” may have found something better.
It could be hard, I think, to deny the winner of Marquardt vs. Story No. 1 contender status. For his part, Story rolls in on a six-fight tear capped by his unanimous decision over former top challenger Thiago Alves at UFC 130. If he defeats Marquardt, he’ll have put together one of the more impressive 29-day spans in the sport’s history. If he does it impressively, it’d be hard to see how Carlos Condit, Dong Hyun Kim, BJ Penn or Jon Fitch would deserve a shot at the winner of Georges St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz any more than Story.
Meanwhile Marquardt is, well, Marquardt. When he first came to America in 2005 after dominating the Japanese Pancrase scene for five years running he fostered the kind of hype and murky expectations that are hard to drum up these days. Like the mysterious man who shows up in the middle of a professional wrestling show, everybody wanted to see just how good this guy was. He impressed early, winning his first four fights in the Octagon, but after getting KO’d by Silva at UFC 73, he’s been a bit up and down ever since.
Yet it’s hard to see how a guy like Florian is any better known or more marketable (OK, maybe KenFlo is more marketable) than Marquardt. If Florian is going to vault into a title bout after just one win in his new division, you have to think the same is at least possible for Marquardt if he is able to derail Story.
Either way, it looks like a 170-pound division recently thought to have been cleaned out by its dominant champion could have a worthy new No. 1 contender as of Monday morning. Hard to argue with that quick-fix from matchmakers.