While the UFC has become synonymous with MMA, dig a little deeper beyond the heavier divisions and you'll find the best little fighters in the world in World Extreme Cagefighting. When Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia challenges champion Mike Thomas Brown for the WEC featherweight belt (145 pounds) March 1 in Corpus Christi, Texas, the true battle will be for recognition and financial rewards as much as it will be against the physical opponent.
Many consider the recognized champ a man among men -- maybe a James Bond type figure -- a player who drives fast cars and enjoys the good life. Still, although Brown (20-4) upset long-reigning featherweight champ Urijah Faber in November, he hasn't let his chest puff with narcissism or fallen prey to shortsighted thinking. You'll still find him working behind the front desk at American Top Team's Coconut Creek gym in Florida.
"I do a lot of selling memberships, answering the phone, everything you need me to do," Brown says. "I just kind of chill out at the gym all day and I'm the secretary or whatever."
To those in the know, Brown sits atop the division. But some casual MMA fans get under his skin when they fail to understand what the 145-pound belt says about its owner.
"People come up to me and ask me, 'Oh, that's great, does that mean you can go to the UFC now?'" Brown says. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about, man? This is like the No. 1 spot in the world! I'm the king in my weight class.' And they think that maybe I can go pro now or something; that's their attitude."
The low visibility of the WEC isn't the only drawback to competing in the lower weight divisions. Challenger Leonard Garcia (12-3) voices frustration over the discrepancy in pay.
"I still get a little upset when I see my training partners who are getting paid high up 100 grand and I'm still making under 30," Garcia says.
The situation has evolved somewhat with the growth of MMA. Remembering the early days of the sport when he fought for nothing, Brown is grateful to earn a full-time living playing a sport he loves. He still has a burning desire to garner more attention than the lighter divisions currently command (due mostly to the limited marketing resources the WEC can muster in comparison to the UFC).
In the meantime, Garcia hopes to become the third reigning champion in Greg Jackson's stable. The date of the fight actually commemorates the two-year anniversary of Leonard linking up with the famed New Mexico-based trainer.
"I think that after this fight, I'll be considered the best '45er in the world," Garcia says.
Garcia is known for his heavy hands, as well as his excellent submission skills. He has come a long way since the three-round war that saw him lose a decision to Roger Huerta at lightweight back in 2007. His plan calls for unrelenting offense until the champion folds up.
"I want to overwhelm Mike with everything. I want Mike to break," Garcia says. "If he does make it through the first few rounds, I want him to sit down and feel exhausted so that he doesn't come back in one of the rounds."
The champion is relaxed and confident because he believes he holds a critical advantage over Leonard that he will exploit come fight night.
"I see his weakness as his wrestling," Brown says. "He gets put on his back pretty easily, or fairly often."
Brown aims for consistency, looking to hurt his opponent with every shot and trying to maintain dominant position while on the ground. He has the momentum of eight straight wins coming into his first title defense, and he knows from experience just what he's capable of doing. He also seems to have a healthy perspective of his career and his position in the sport.
"I know to be smart and wise with my money, and I know how the sport is: You're only as good as your last fight. Once you get knocked out, people forget about you quick, so I'm just trying to enjoy where I'm at and hold on to that belt as long as I possibly can."
Garcia and Brown aren't just competing for the WEC gold Sunday; they're helping bring the lighter divisions to mainstream fans. It's their moment. Come March 1, there may be nowhere else in the world either fighter would rather be than in the cage facing off against the other.
Brian J. D'Souza is a Canadian writer whose work has appeared on CBC.ca, men's magazine Sharp and FIGHT! magazine.