Legacies at stake at UFC 166

HOUSTON -- As everyone knows, any great real-life sports moment can be summed up by an equally great sports-movie quote.

For this weekend’s UFC heavyweight trilogy fight between defending champion Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, the quote has to come from Will Ferrell’s NASCAR classic, "Talladega Nights."

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” It becomes a rule of thumb for Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby -- the last thing his father says before running out of his adolescent life.

Saturday’s heavyweight title fight features, without question, the most dominant big men in mixed martial arts today. They are 1-1 against each other and a combined 18-0 against the rest of the division, including 15 finishes.

As talented as they both are, only one will leave the Toyota Center as champion. The other, the one who takes second, might feel like he finished last.

“I think the casual fan will remember the last fight between them and forget the ones before,” said Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head coach.

“From my observation, [in trilogies], the guy who wins the last fight is the winner. Muhammad Ali was the winner [over Joe Frazier]. Arturo Gatti was the winner [over Micky Ward]. The casual fan only remembers the last fight.”

So much is at stake at UFC 166, well beyond the normal stuff that comes with every title fight. History won’t be made on Saturday; it will actually be rewritten.

Excuses are a dime a dozen in the fight game, but dos Santos and Velasquez each has good ones when it comes to their first two meetings.

When dos Santos (16-2) starched Velasquez with a right hand just 64 seconds into the first fight in 2011, Velasquez was secretly nursing a serious knee injury.

When Velasquez (12-1) -- as UFC president Dana White put it Thursday -- “destroyed” dos Santos in a five-round rematch last year, the Brazilian was finalizing a divorce and dealing with rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition caused by overtraining.

There’s no real way of knowing how much those circumstances played into the first two results, but that doesn’t matter. Perception beats reality every day in combat sports. Saturday’s winner will have “proved” his loss to the other was a fluke.

It’s why Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Marquez turned down a massive payday this year to fight Manny Pacquiao again. Who cares if he retires 1-2-1 against Pacquiao? Marquez will feel forever vindicated by the crushing knockout he scored in the rivalry’s finale last year.

It should be mentioned that Saturday might not even be this rivalry’s finale. Mendez has confidently predicted a fourth (and perhaps even fifth) fight, as has dos Santos.

Of course, a fourth fight isn’t guaranteed, and by the time the UFC wanted to promote one, the heavyweights could be well past their respective primes anyway.

Mendez, who made it clear there is “no way in hell” Velasquez would lose, admitted that if he did, it would probably take at least seven wins to get back to a dos Santos fight. Velasquez echoed that thought.

“I think it will be settled for a while,” Velasquez said. “I won’t say we won’t fight in five years or so. That’s a possibility. But it will be settled for a while.”

Both Velasquez and dos Santos, when asked to identify the greatest heavyweight martial artist of all time, named former Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian heavyweight once went 28 consecutive fights without a loss.

Even in the UFC’s heavyweight division, where no champion has consecutively defended the belt more than twice, Velasquez and dos Santos are viewed as talented enough to produce a long winning streak.

Only one of them, however, can do it with a belt around his waist. And as Reese Bobby said, “If you ain’t first …”

“It’s really hard to ignore how huge this fight is,” Mendez said. “This is the biggest trilogy in the history of the UFC, and it may very well be the biggest trilogy of all MMA.”