Manny Tapia never expected to be a professional fighter, let alone challenging for the world championship. But on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, he's fully expecting to beat one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world.
Tapia (10-0-1) challenges WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres (33-1) in the main event of WEC 37, a match with historic significance in mixed martial arts.
"We're making history," said Tapia. "It's the first time two Mexican-Americans have been in the main event (of a major U.S. MMA show). It's in Las Vegas and it's sold out. It doesn't get any better than that."
Tapia, a significant underdog, called Torres, ranked No. 6 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound ratings "overrated" and predicted that the longer the fight goes, the more he'll surprise people.
"In the third round (of a scheduled five-rounder), if he lasts that long, I'll start picking him apart," said Tapia, who believes Torres will underestimate him. "But I think he's a great fighter."
Tapia says the key is his all-around game, conditioning and versatility.
"I can adapt very well," he said. "If my stand-up isn't working, I can adapt. I can throw more punches, change my style, change my stance. I've got a good ground game and have great submission defense. I'm ready to rock."
Tapia, 27, never thought things would end up this way, figuring he would wind up as a school teacher. Fighting somehow came naturally to him. He was a high school wrestler at Don Lugo High School in Chino, Calif., and even though undersized, as he weighed about 125 pounds at the time, he'd take boxing gloves with him to weekend parties as a way of settling things if tempers got out of control.
He was not a star on the wrestling team, having his best year as a freshman, before quitting as a sophomore after not wanting to cut to 103 pounds, then being injured through much of his junior and senior years after returning.
He was introduced to MMA a year out of high school through former teammate David Avilla, who had become a fighter training out of Millenia jiu-jitsu out of Pomona (now based out of Rancho Cucamonga). At the time, Tapia used his training more as his way to stay in shape, noting he loves training, but hates fight training.
"I just wanted to do one fight, just for the experience and to say I did it," said Tapia, whose debut was five years ago on a King of the Cage show in San Jacinto, Calif., winning via choke in 2:07 against Manuel Sawyze.
"They just kept calling me back to fight again. Now I've got to fight, because I'm broke," he joked.
Tapia, who walks around at 137 or 138 pounds these days, got the title shot coming off a win over Antonio Baneulos via split decision on Feb. 13 in Rio Rancho, N.M.
"I pretty much dominated the fight with Banuelos," said Tapia. "He kept running from me. They first called it a draw and the crowd started booing. Then they found they added things up wrong and when they said I won, everyone cheered. I wanted to cry when they called it a draw because I knew I won."
Wednesday's card is the first look at the new version of the WEC. It will be the company's first television broadcast based almost exclusively around fighters who weigh 145 pounds or less.
The four live fights on Versus (8 p.m. ET start) will be strictly bantamweight and featherweight matches.
Both the championship main event, and top two underneath fights pit consensus top ten fighters opposing each other.
In another bantamweight match, Brian Bowles (6-0) faces Will Ribeiro (10-1) with the winner likely getting a shot at the main event winner sometime early next year.
In a featherweight match, two of the top fighters in the division make their WEC debut, as the champion of the defunct International Fight League in that weight class, Wagnney Fabiano (10-1), a submission master from Brazil with brutal low kicks, faces former Shooto star Akitoshi Tamura (12-6-2), generally considered Japan's best fighter in the division. The other televised fight features featherweights Joseph Benavidez (8-0), coming off an impressive win on a network television broadcast in Japan, facing Danny Martinez (12-2).
The WEC has always focused on lighter weight fighters, in particular former featherweight champion Urijah Faber, but will focus even further on smaller fighters in 2009 as the light heavyweight and middleweight classes are eliminated. An increase from six shows to eight live events scheduled on Versus next year, as well as an attempt at pay-per-view, opens more spots for smaller fighters.
While UFC president Dana White has also talked of WEC as a potential home for a women's division, WEC vice-president Peter Dropick said at this point there are no specific plans in place.
In another change, Sean Shelby, Joe Silva's assistant in UFC matchmaking, will take over from Scott Adams as WEC matchmaker. The emphasis on matchmaking is expected to be more shows like Wednesday's, where you have both a championship match, and a top contenders match in the same weight class on the same show, leading to a natural progression of the viewers seeing two winners, who would then meet in the next championship match.
This is to help alleviate the problems that came out of Mike Brown's upset win over Faber last month. Brown never appeared on a live television broadcast before his title shot. So he was a complete unknown to all but the most hardcore fans and his name meant little as a challenger when he upset Faber heading into their Nov. 5 match.
The show drew barely one-third the television audience of Faber's previous fight, a tremendously promoted battle with Jens Pulver, which was the company's all-time high point. Faber will be rematched with Pulver on the WEC's next card on Jan. 25 in San Diego, with the winner expected to face the winner of a planned March match between Brown and Leonard Garcia.
Wednesday's card is expected to be the last WEC event at the present Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. The Hard Rock Hotel is building a new facility, holding 4,000 instead of the 1,000-seat capacity. The bew building is being built with better sight lines for boxing and MMA in mind.