UFC 135 in Denver may feature a title fight at the top of the card, but it also includes its share of fighters who are struggling just to get back in the win column. Some get more second chances than others to turn a losing skid around, but there are at least a couple who could be looking at a win-or-go-home scenario.
Who are they, and what are their chances to stay employed after Saturday night? For answers and analysis, we turn to The Cut List.
Nate Diaz (13-7, 8-5 UFC)
Who he's facing: Takanori Gomi
Why he's in danger: Don't look now, but the younger Diaz brother has lost two straight in the UFC after being outgrappled by both Dong Hyun Kim and Rory MacDonald. There's no shame in losing to either of those beasts, but three in a row is still a dangerous place to be, so he needs this one against Gomi. What complicates matters is Nick Diaz's suddenly shaky footing with the UFC, though I'm not sure if it helps or hurts Nate in the end. With Nick around, you get a real appreciation for how reasonable and easy to work with Nate is. Plus, just how much would the already paranoid, conspiracy theory-prone Nick freak out if the UFC cut his brother so shortly after his own troubles with the Zuffa overlords? I don't know, and I'm not sure I want to find out. The best thing for all non-Gomi parties would be for Nate to win this fight and save his bosses the trouble of making those decisions. Still, you can bet that Gomi remembers what happened in his infamous Pride bout with Nick and is eager for a little revenge against Stockton's first family of fisticuffs.
Odds of getting cut: 4-1. This is a fight Diaz should win, since Gomi will likely be content to keep it on the feet, where Diaz's height and reach should give him problems. Even if he loses, he's still an exciting enough fighter to warrant one more chance. The only thing he really can't do is follow in his brother's footsteps and fail the drug test.
Matt Hughes (45-8, 18-6 UFC)
Who he's facing: Josh Koscheck
Why he's in danger: Okay, so Hughes isn't really looking at a potential cut per se, but rather a contract that might not be renewed once this final fight is in the books. And honestly? That's not such a bad thing. Hughes will be 38 in October, and the welterweight division of today is not the same one he dominated half a decade ago. If he sticks around he's probably looking at an increasingly depressing game of diminishing returns, and for what? He doesn't need the money and he's got nothing left to prove in this sport. In fact, the worst-case scenario might be that he upsets Josh Koscheck and decides that Matt Hughes is back, baby! Then he might actually get a new contract, and before you know it he's the 40-year-old ex-champion getting thumped by Seth Baczynski in a co-co-main event. The best thing might be for him to ride off into the sunset here, which seems a lot more likely to happen if he ends up taking the beating that oddsmakers are forecasting. Koscheck is like a younger, more powerful, and slightly more abrasive version of Hughes. In a bizarre way, it could be the perfect passing of the torch.
Odds of getting cut not retained: Even. I think Hughes is in for a rough night against Koscheck, and I expect that will only make it easier for him to decide that he'd rather be at home in Hillsboro. It's the right call and the right time for it.
Takanori Gomi (32-7-1 NC, 1-2 UFC)
Who he's facing: Nate Diaz
Why he's in danger: Gomi managed to sandwich a knockout win over Tyson Griffin in between losses to Kenny Florian and Clay Guida, so it's not as if he's been fighting chumps since coming to the UFC. At the same time, winning more fights than you lose is the best way to ensure job security. A loss to Diaz and Gomi falls to 1-3 in the Octagon, and right after his 33rd birthday. That might make the Japanese lightweight seem like a bad bet to the UFC brass, especially when you look at the uninspired last few years of his career. He can be an exciting slugger when he gets the chance to fight his fight, but he also seems to lack the overall game necessary to ever become a serious contender in a division full of bull-headed wrestlers.
Odds of getting cut: 5-1. Unless he loses very, very badly, "The Fireball Kid" is probably sticking around at least until the UFC's Japanese invasion in 2012.
Takeya Mizugaki (14-6-2, 1-1 UFC)
Who he's facing: Cole Escovedo
Why he's in danger: Right off I'll just say it -- Mizugaki should consider himself lucky to have made the cut when the UFC absorbed the WEC. He was up and down for his entire stay in the WEC, winning the easier ones and losing the tough ones. Not that defeats to guys like Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres are signs that you suck, but let's be honest and admit that the current lack of depth in the bantamweight division hasn't hurt Mizugaki any. This prelim bout against Cole Escovedo is a little like the scene in Dark Knight where The Joker drops a broken pool cue in the middle of some faceless henchmen for "tryouts."
Odds of getting cut: 2-1. This is a very winnable fight for Mizugaki, who can take a beating with the best of them. If he's smart, he'll approach it as a must-win and behave accordingly.
Cole Escovedo (17-7, 0-1 UFC)
Who he's facing: Takeya Mizugaki
Why he's in danger: Escovedo's career has been a rollercoaster ride in more ways than one. He's been up and down in weight, while also following impressive winning streaks with strings of losses. He's 1-3 in his last four, and that one wasn't against a particularly impressive opponent. In his lone UFC bout to date he lost a unanimous decision to Nova Uniao standout Renan Barao. He and Mizugaki are fairly evenly matched, so there's no better time to show the brass that he can be something other than an opponent. But with the way he's been going lately, he probably won't get too many more chances to do it.
Odds of getting cut: Even. I give Mizugaki the slight edge in this one. If Escovedo can't pull it out, there won't be many reasons for the UFC to keep him around.