Every athlete must clear their own set of obstacles every now and then. They may pay a high price physically or mentally for doing what they must do in order to clear those hurdles between them and their opportunity to do what they love, but the payoff proves worth the peril, no matter how taxing.

For the UFC, this holds especially true in regards to the promotion’s journey back to Boston’s TD Garden, site of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 26. The event hosts a light heavyweight showdown between former UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and former two-division UFC title contender Chael Sonnen, as well a heavyweight co-headliner between Alistair Overeem and Travis Browne. These four joined UFC President Dana White on a teleconference to promote the event, and everyone stood attentively as they absorbed each competitors’ road to the Octagon.

The co-main event tells a tale of two fighters on rather compelling and vastly different paths. While Overeem looks to reclaim his status as one of the world’s true premier heavyweights, Browne still looks to prove himself as an elite heavyweight in the making. With the edge in experience inside the cage, as well as in kickboxing, Overeem aims to return to form on fight night. However, Browne feels that he will see familiar things against Overeem, especially in the realm of experience, because Overeem does not mark the first opponent to hold more experience than “Hapa” coming into a bout.

“On paper, it makes sense, but I’ve been fighting guys that have three times as much experience as I do my entire career,” Browne said. “I’ve had to come up the hard way, and that’s something I’ve dealt with since day one. We’ll see on Saturday, but unless he throws something at me I’ve never seen before, I’m not sure experience will be the x-factor for this fight.”

Overeem will not expect anything too unfamiliar out of Browne, either. While Browne rebounded from his own loss to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva by beating Gabriel Gonzaga, Overeem’s momentum took a hit in the way he lost to Silva, and an injury prevented him from a planned UFC 160 bout with Junior dos Santos. Reclaiming that momentum means focusing on Browne now and worrying about other challengers later.

“I’m just really focused on Travis Browne,” Overeem said, “I’m coming off an injury and getting back on track. I made a lot of changes at camp and evolved in the process. I put 100 percent into my preparation. It’s up to the gentlemen of the UFC to decide.”

A tumultuous 2012 filled with failed drug tests, appeals and other strange happenings now falls behind Overeem, who looks to move past those events and press forward. In the same manner, the two headliners of the card, Sonnen and Rua, look to do the same after respective losses in the division. Sonnen may often appear one interview away from getting introduced as colorfully as a prime “Superstar” Billy Graham once introduced himself to the pro wrestling world, but his participation in Saturday’s headliner fell into a temporary state of jeopardy. Unite Here, known better as “the Culinary Union” to many in the MMA world, filed a number of complaints suggesting a ban on minors attending the event, as well as arguing that the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission should deny Sonnen a license due to his 2011 conviction on money laundering. The conviction, which also led to the cancellation of a planned bout with Yoshihiro Akiyama, did not hinder Sonnen’s goal of getting licensed, nor did it really bother him, but it did linger in his mind.

“They confused me more than upset me,” Sonnen said. “I got a call the day of a hearing scheduled by the commission. I didn’t know about it, I had no time to prepare. I called in to answer questions. I was only there for less than a minute. It could have bothered me if I knew about it for longer.”

White, of course, showed his excitement via a tweet he sent out once Sonnen received his license to compete. Still, Unite Here did rear its head in the UFC’s business for the umpteenth time and attempted to sabotage another UFC event, albeit unsuccessfully. The ordeal left White to question if the promotion would return to Boston, regardless of what happens Saturday.

“What these guys are doing,” White said, “they’re spending their union members’ dues to try and hurt the UFC. It’s so transparent and so ridiculous. For instance, what they do is they use other organizations on serious issues—whether it’s women, gay rights—they use these different organizations to try and get what they want. If they get what they want, it’s Station Casinos. If they get Station Casinos, it’s another 10 million dollars a year for the union.”

Despite the hurdles, Sonnen remains set on clearing his biggest hurdle, Rua, come fight time. Sonnen seems like a favorite to defeat Rua, due largely to his wrestling abilities and his proven ability to keep his pace going for five rounds. Above all else, however, he will look to show the world that as long as certain athletes in MMA keep motivating him to fight, he will entertain plenty of electrifying encounters with anyone packing a pair of four-ounce gloves.

“What motivates me is I never reached my goal,” he admitted. “Besides a world championship, there’s some guys I want to fight. I don’t know if Shogun is one of those guys, but a few of his friends are. I love being part of this sport. I don’t have a lot of friends, so it’s nice to go to the gym and be in a social atmosphere. I’m very impressed with guys that extend their career and make us feel young again. I admire people that can do that. If you’re healthy and you love something and you’ve got a chance to do it, that window’s very small. It could be over any day now.

“I’ll have to be forced out of this sport. I will stay in it too long because I love it. I’m not gonna pull the plug on myself.”

Rua switched things up in his own fight preparation by taking his talents to renowned trainer Freddie Roach to tune up his boxing, but he made other improvements as well and looks to showcase them against a very worthy opponent. For Rua, though, it doesn’t hurt his motivation to hear Sonnen talk about him, even though Sonnen complemented Rua in the weeks leading up to this bout. Still, if anything, the challenge of overcoming a solid wrestler who always talks a big game and fights with intentions of backing it up boosts Rua’s motivation coming into Saturday’s headliner.

“I’ve worked a lot on my takedown defense because I know he’s a great wrestler,” Rua said. “But I also worked a lot on my game, my Muay Thai. This doesn’t change my will to win. Whether he says bad things or good things about me, my will to win is the same.”

Rua and Sonnen share that will in common. Both have seen what the other brings to the cage, and while the bout may look in Sonnen’s favor to some, underlying x-factors remain in question. Will Shogun’s gas tank carry him to his first decision win in seven years? If the 2013 version of Sonnen does no longer retain a durable chin or an ability to withstand large amounts of punishment, will it show against Rua? Both men hold an idea in mind, and Sonnen makes no bones about spelling it out for those still wanting to know what to really expect when the cage door shuts Saturday in Boston.

“I’ll be going straight ahead and he will be too,” stated Sonnen. “We both have our skills and we’re gonna bring our skills. We’re the main event, and you can’t play around in the main event. It’s gonna be a lot of action. Whether it’s positive or negative, there will not be any feeling out. As soon as we’re ready to go, we will.”

Photo: Chael Sonnen (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.