Mystery men make up co-main at UFC 149

The curiosity in the UFC 149 co-main event isn’t Hector Lombard. It’s Tim Boetsch. Nobody saw him coming. Yushin Okami still isn’t sure what hit him that night in Saitama, when Boetsch came charging out in the third round with a mean salvo of uppercuts.

Boetsch has the “let’s see how long this can go” feel to him -- the mark of an overachiever. That’s why not very many people are talking about him as a threat to anything. Not to Anderson Silva. Not to Lombard. Not even to his original opponent, Michael Bisping (back when UFC 149 was a whole different event and people were talking about Erik Koch’s tan).

With all the conversation centered on “who’s next” for Silva, the focal point has been Chris Weidman (because he fought last) and on Lombard (because he can bench press the entire division). You can see why. Lombard has won 20 fights in a row, and hasn’t been defeated in 25. He comes from the other side of the partition (Bellator), where he’s been ruining careers for the last few years.

If Lombard wins and does it emphatically at UFC 149 in Calgary, he’ll look like the most marketable match-up of existing middleweights to get at Silva. Silva might welcome the chance, too. For starters, he’s not (necessarily) a wrestler. Weidman, a proud all-American Hofstra man, looks like a stylistic problem for Silva. Lombard, on the other hand, wants to knock you out.

You know what Silva does? He knocks out guys who want to knock you out. It’s his forte. This is a fight that would speak to him.

And from the UFC’s perspective, Lombard/Silva isn’t an anticlimax to Sonnen/Silva. It’s a fight that puts Sonnen in the rearview mirror and opens up a new slate of intrigues. The "champion versus champion" plot; each fighter with a trail of winning streaks that snake around the block.

The UFC likes that.

Here’s the thing, though. People are complaining in advance that a single win in the UFC doesn’t merit a title shot. Bisping, who has hovered in contention for years, is leading the chorus on it. He’s got a point, but it feels like half of the story.

The full underlying suspicion is that a single win in the UFC -- especially if it’s a win over Tim Boetsch -- isn’t enough to merit a title shot. The Boetsch factor is strong. If Lombard fought and defeated Brian Stann, that’s one thing. But you know how it’ll be -- if Lombard treats Boetsch the same as he did Trevor Prangley and Falaniko Vitale, he will have added another journeyman to his collection. Nothing will have changed with UFC-centric types who hate on Lombard for not having knocked off name brands.

The spin on all that? Hey, it adds to his mystique.

But Boetsch is the true mystery here. He’s been around forever and has only just arrived.

He’s a guy who toiled as a light heavyweight, went 2-2 in his first stint in the UFC, beat up some guys in smaller theaters, then went 1-1 in his second UFC stint as a 205-pounder. When Phil Davis submitted him with a modified one-arm Kimura -- later renamed the “Philmura” -- Boetsch dropped to middleweight.

Since then? Painstakingly quiet reinvention. Two fairly unspectacular wins over Kendall Grove and Nick Ring and a two-round, one-sided beatdown to Okami at UFC 144 until in the third round in that bout, when he stormed back for what has to be the forerunner for comeback of year.

Just like that, here he is; through circumstance and musical chairs, Boetsch is co-headlining a pay-per-view. And imagine if he wins? If Boetsch pulls it off he'll have exposed the greatest masquerade that ever was. In the told-you-so tradition of hindsight, Lombard then becomes grossly overrated. And part of why Lombard would then seem grossly overrated is because there’s something about losing to Boetsch that enhances the effect.

What are the stakes in this one? It might just be shaping perception one way or another.

Lombard could use Boetsch as a trampoline to Silva, and Boetsch could take one more step towards something unthinkable. But it’s safe to say Boetsch wouldn’t get an immediate title shot with a win. Whereas Lombard is marketable enough to do away with merit, Boetsch isn’t greatly marketable, and merit is slippery in his hands.

He’ll still seem like he’s overachieving, and, at some point, that becomes its own neat trick.