Thursday, April 5, 2007

UFC 69 features good guys and bad blood as MMA show comes to Houston

By Neil Davidson

HOUSTON (CP) - UFC 69 is officially called "Shootout," a suitably western theme for the organization's first foray into Texas.

But Saturday night's card at the Toyota Center (available on pay per view) could more accurately be called "Good Guys, Bad Blood." The good guys are headline welterweights Georges St. Pierre and Matt Serra, two of the nicest people in the world of mixed martial arts. St. Pierre (13-1), the reigning welterweight champion from Montreal, and Serra (15-4), a veteran jiu-jitsu black belt from Long Island, N.Y., like and respect each other.

It hasn't made for much of a pre-fight buildup. A nun could out-trash talk these two.

"I know it's going to be a tough fight. I'm aware of popular opinion. I can understand it to a certain degree," Serra, a huge underdog, told a news conference Thursday.

"George is a stud - and a snappy dresser," he added, pointing at the champion elegantly attired in a suit.

St. Pierre, meanwhile, was saying all the right things in talking up his first title defence since wresting the belt from longtime champion Matt Hughes in November.

"We like each other, but Saturday night it's going to be 25 minutes of business," St. Pierre said. "I trained very hard for this. I take nobody lightly. Matt Serra for me, in my book right now, is the most dangerous guy on earth."

If the main event reads like a Hallmark card, the story behind the undercard bout between Diego (Nightmare) Sanchez and Josh Koscheck was written with a poison pen.

This is a smack-talking, in-your-face rivalry that dates back to Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. Things went sour after Sanchez won a spit decision and the ensuing feud has played out on television, in nightclubs - and even drawn in family members,

"These two really do not like each other," UFC president Dana White said via closed circuit from Las Vegas, when the UFC was holding a televised fight card Thursday night.

"Their first fight was a war, now they hate each other," he added.

The Sanchez-Koscheck winner will likely join Hughes as candidates for a title fight with St. Pierre assuming he gets past Serra. They could even fight it out to decide the No. 1 contender, with the winner facing St. Pierre in Montreal later this year.

"There's a lot of top welterweights right now . . . The division is stacked," White said.

St. Pierre, 25, is seen as the new breed of mixed martial arts fighter, combining raw athleticism with all-round skills in striking, grappling and jiu-jitsu. He exudes class outside the cage as well, recognized throughout the sport as a true gentleman.

Serra, 32, is another nice guy, a veteran who earned his title fight by winning Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter, where he won a legion of fans for his sense of humour, down-to-earth attitude and skill and generosity in coaching fellow fighters.

For his part, Serra says underestimate him at his peril.

"I've got to bring my A game. He's a warrior. I plan on shocking a lot of people."

Koscheck, 29, says his fight provides a nice counterpart to the St. Pierre-Serra lovefest.

"You've got these nice guys who love each other, that respect each other, this and that. Then you've got these two guys that would spit on each other if they had the opportunity," Koscheck said. "It gives (something) to the fans that want to see the good guys and it gives to the fans that want to see the bad blood. . . . It makes it a very interesting card."

Sanchez, 25, didn't bother showing up for Thursday's news conference so there was no need for a spittoon. Koscheck didn't buy the official explanation than Sanchez was undergoing routine pre-fight medicals, noting he had just seen him in his hotel elevator. The two rivals elected not to share the elevator, but did trade insults.

"It's going to be fireworks," Koscheck said. "It has the makings to be the fight of the night,"

Sanchez is 19-0, almost unheard of in a sport where there are so many different ways to lose. Koscheck is 10-1, with his lone defeat coming in a 2005 fight against Drew Fickett that he was dominating until he caught a knee to the head in the third round and was choked out.

UFC president Dana White said such grudge matches are actually quite rare in his sport, given the martial arts backgrounds that often preach respect and sportsmanship.

Not with these two.

"I have a feeling that this may be a grudge match for a long time," Koscheck said.

While Koscheck talked up his rivalry with Sanchez after the news conference, Serra and St. Pierre posed for pictures separately and did interviews.

Later a reporter asked Serra if he could stay to chat, saying she was about to interview St. Pierre.

"I know the pecking order," he joked.

Notes: White says the show is expected to sell out, with the gate already at US$2.6 million. Tickets range from $50 to $450. ... The UFC is using the Houston fight to go after the Hispanic market with Sanchez and Roger (El Matador) Huerta both on the bill.


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