UFC in ABQ Features 2 Top Contenders and a Pioneer of the Sport

Brian Oswald@@briancoswaldMMA Editor June 6, 2014

USA Today

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.  For the first time in its 20-year history, the UFC will host a fight card in the city most recently known for being the backdrop of the hit TV show Breaking Bad.

But for fight fans, they know Albuquerque first and foremost as the home to the most celebrated, and sometimes vilified, MMA trainer in the world, Greg Jackson.

Under big blue open sky, Jackson has groomed some of the best fighters the sport has seen: former champs Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans and current pound-for-pound champ Jon Jones.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - APRIL 2: UFC lightweight champion Jon 'Bones' Jones joins in for a warm up during an open training session for fans and media at the Jackson's Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness on April 2, 2014 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Aaron Sw
Aaron Sweet/Getty Images

But the fight history of this city runs even deeper than what Jackson has built up in this semi-desert terrain with a picture-perfect mountain range in the background.

Johnny Tapia, a five-time world champion boxer who wrote in his autobiography he'd been "raised to fight to the death," was born and died here.

Dating back to 1868, the book Boxing in New Mexico: A History details a roadside boxing match, 35 miles north of Albuquerque, where men gathered to witness a 165-round, six-hour bare-knuckle brawl—it was credited as the first "official" prizefight in the state.

It's no coincidence that part of the unforgiving movie No Country for Old Men was filmed here. The Wild West has been mostly kept alive in motion pictures, but if you're here in person, you can still feel a bit of its rough-and-tumble pulse in the air.

It's near criminal that the UFC has not brought its brand of cagefighting to this city before, but all can be forgiven, as it has stacked its first show in Albuquerque with two top contenders and an MMA pioneer.

UFC.com promotional material

Benson Henderson, John Dodson and Diego Sanchez compete in the three headlining fights to be showcased on UFC Fight Night 42 on Saturday. The event takes place at Tingley Coliseum, which actually featured Floyd Mayweather's second professional fight. The UFC told Bleacher Report it expects upward of 9,000 in attendance.

Henderson, a former lightweight champ and perennial top contender, is set to face off against Rustam Khabilov, a Dagestani-born Russian who visited Jackson's gym years ago. It was an instant fit. A win over Khabilov would move Henderson one step closer toward the goal of getting his belt back next year.

Dodson, who competes in the flyweight division, is a rare bird at 125 pounds because of how much knockout power he packs. He fought for the title against champ Demetrious Johnson, coming up just short. If Dodson, who has lived in New Mexico his whole life, is victorious, he'll be back in line for a second crack at gold.

And then there is Diego Sanchez.

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Gilbert Melendez (red gloves) fights against Diego Sanchez (blue gloves) in their lightweight bout during UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

For the original The Ultimate Fighter, fighting in his hometown of Albuquerque is a dream. If he can notch his 14th career UFC win on Saturday night, in front of hundreds of family members and thousands of fans, it'll  move him into a tie for fifth on the UFC's all-time wins list.

What is truly special about this particular Fight Night is that so many of the fighters on the card, from the main event down to the prelims, either live here or travel here specifically to train at Jackson's gym.

The city does not have a professional sports team. The college basketball team, the Lobos, are the closest thing the residents have. Jackson's gym and fighters are considered a professional team here in their own right.

Fighting is in the air here.

This weekend, the UFC will add a little extra oxygen to the night sky.