By Todd Stanford
In the (admittedly short) history of mixed martial arts in this country, has a year ever dawned with bigger anticipation for Pennsylvania fighters than 2012?
With this being the first full year of the UFC’s new mega deal with FOX, it’s certainly shaping up to be a big year for the sport in general. And the great thing is, a lot of fighters from the Keystone State are going to be front and center.
First of all, there’s Harrisburg’s own Phil Davis, a light heavyweight who is 9-0 and who appears to be one win away from a title shot against current UFC belt-holder Jon “Bones” Jones. Davis, an NCAA wrestling champion for Penn State in 2008 who now trains in California, will meet former champ Rashad “Sugar” Evans at UFC on Fox 2 on Saturday night, Jan. 28.
The Davis/Evans battle will be the main event of the card, which will take place in Chicago. Evans (16-1-1), as noted above, is a former light-heavyweight champ, and he’ll be Davis’ stiffest competition to date. But it says here that Davis’ athleticism will get him through, as the former Nittany Lion will set up what will be one of the biggest fights of the year when he meets Jones sometime down the line.
Just less than a month after the “UFC on Fox 2” spectacle, the UFC will hold its first card in Japan in more than a decade, where Sunbury’s Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch will face the biggest test of his career on Feb. 25. Boetsch, who went 2-0 in 2011 after moving down to middleweight, gets Yushin Okami (26-6), considered by UFC president Dana White to be the best Japanese fighter in the sport’s history. Okami last fought in August, where he lost a title bout by TKO to Anderson Silva.
Okami is rated one of the top five middleweights in the world by most analysts, so a win over him would jet Boetsch into contender status. This will be a tricky battle for Boetsch, a former wrestler for Lock Haven. Okami is a dangerous striker, so one would think The Barbarian (14-4) would have to use his wrestling chops to get the better of his opponent. But Okami is a judo practitioner who also trains with top middleweight contender and former collegiate wrestler Chael Sonnen, so taking the fight to the ground isn’t necessarily a no-brainer.
The Boetsch/Okami fight is not part of the main card at UFC 144, so it’s possible Boetsch’s fans in the Valley here will get to see the fight on basic cable on either FX or Fuel TV.
Moving on down to welterweight, 2012 could be the year in which UFC veteran Josh Koscheck gets a belt around his waist. Koscheck, a Waynesburg Central graduate and 2001 NCAA wrestling champ at Edinboro, fought for the title against Georges St. Pierre back in December 2010, and lost a one-sided bout to the famed Canadian.
But with St. Pierre on the shelf with an ACL injury until at least the summer, the UFC is holding an interim welterweight title bout at UFC 143 on Feb. 4 between Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit. Although nothing is official, there’s talk that Koscheck (16-5) — who scored a KO over MMA legend Matt Hughes in his last fight in September — could get the winner of that fight.
And then there’s the lighter-weight fighters from Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s Eddie Alvarez lost his Bellator lightweight belt to Michael Chandler back in November in what many tabbed one of the best fights of 2011. Before that setback, Alvarez (22-3) was one of the few fighters in the world who made top 10 lists despite not being under the Zuffa banner (i.e., fighting in either the UFC or Strikeforce). Alvarez will not enter Bellator’s next lightweight tournament — a prerequisite in that promotion in order to get a title shot. But look for the former Philadelphia Northeast Catholic High wrestling star to bounce back this year if he gets a rumored fight against DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki (30-5).
Pennsylvania also put two big names on the featherweight map in 2011. Swoyersville’s Jimy “The Kid” Hettes (also known as “Judo Jim”) turned heads at UFC 141 in December when he scored an impressive unanimous-decision win over “The Ultimate Fighter” veteran Nam Phan. “The Kid” is only 24 and he’s now 10-0; this could be a huge year for him.
Then there’s fellow featherweight Dennis “The Menace” Bermudez. The former Bloomsburg University wrestler made it to the final of “The Ultimate Fighter” tournament this year, and was beating well-regarded Brazilian fighter Diego Brandao when Brandao suddenly pulled off an armbar to get the submission. Look for Bermudez (7-3), a New York native who trains with the Long Island MMA team, to continue his career climb this year.
n Sports reporter Todd Stanford writes about mixed martial arts for The Daily Item. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/toddrstanford.