A pair of Northwest Indiana's most successful MMA fighters have the biggest opportunities of their careers right in front of them.
Eddie Wineland, of Westville, recently signed to fight for the UFC's interim bantamweight title. And Hobart's Darren Elkins, just three days after improving to 5-0 in the UFC's featherweight division, will waste no time getting back to work. He'll fight again next month.
For Eddie Wineland (20-8-1 MMA, 2-2 UFC), it's a chance to regain a title he once held. Wineland won the first 135-pound belt in World Extreme Cagefighting history. That promotion ultimately was purchased by Zuffa, which eventually merged the WEC with the UFC.
UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has not fought since an October 2011 win over current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson due to back-to-back knee surgeries. With a timetable for his return unknown, interim champion Renan Renan Barao (30-1 MMA, 5-0 UFC), of Brazil, will put the temporary belt up for grabs for the second time – and Wineland is the fighter the UFC called on for that shot.
"Fighting for the belt is as big as it gets. It's what everyone in MMA wants the most: the UFC belt, the most prized possession in MMA," Wineland said.
"Barao poses a lot of problems, but I'm ready for them. He's never fought someone like me. I'm going to push the pace, get in his face and make him fight my fight.
"That's my belt originally from the WEC days, and now it's my time to put it in the hands of the original owner. I'm extremely excited and have three months to prepare. This will be my longest and best training camp. I'll be better prepared for this fight than any of the others."
As the UFC's No. 4-ranked bantamweight, Wineland has two consecutive wins after starting his UFC career 0-2. In June, he became the first fighter to knock out highly-regarded Scott Jorgensen. And in December, he outboxed Brad Pickett for a unanimous decision. Both of those opponents are ranked in the UFC's top 10.
Wineland fights Barao in the main event of the UFC 161 pay-per-view at MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Elkins (16-2, 6-1 UFC) on Saturday got his first stoppage win as a UFC featherweight. The knockout of Antonio Carvalho in Montreal gave him five consecutive wins at 145 pounds, and after the fight, he asked for a top 10 opponent next.
The UFC wasted no time, and sources close to the Elkins camp told The Times the fighter was offered a fight with Chad Mendes (13-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC) within 10 minutes of his win over Carvalho. Mendes was scheduled to face Clay Guida, a native of Johnsburg, Ill., at UFC on FOX 7 on April 20 in San Jose, Calif. However, Guida fell off the card with an injury, and Elkins will be the one who steps in on a month's notice for the fight.
Mendes is ranked as the UFC's top featherweight behind champion Jose Aldo. A little more than a year ago, he had a shot at Aldo and was knocked out with just one second left in the first round for the only loss of his career. He has rebounded with back-to-back quick first-round knockouts, and he clearly is the biggest opponent of Elkins' career.