LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The thought of spending the Fourth of July weekend in Sin City conjures up all sorts of celebratory images, an air-conditioned fantasyland complemented by unlimited fireworks.
It’s also becoming an early summer rite of celebration for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which for the second straight year will mark Independence Day by hosting “Fight Week” activities leading up to its UFC 162 mixed martial arts show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night.
Lincolnville native and middleweight contender Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch figures prominently on that card, with the former four-time wrestling state champion from Camden-Rockport High School squaring off against Californian Mark Munoz in one of five pay-per-view bouts that caps off the show.
But while others will be enjoying the marriage of Las Vegas and MMA, Boetsch will only modestly acknowledge the festivities going on around him.
There’s simply too much at stake for Boetsch and Munoz, who both remain ranked among the top 10 UFC middleweights despite suffering losses in their most recent fights.
“A win over Munoz is very critical for my career at this point,” said the 32-year-old Boetsch, 16-5 overall and 4-1 since dropping from the light heavyweight division to middleweight in 2011. “Whenever you beat another guy in the top 10 you move up and get closer to where you can start talking about a title shot.
“But you can’t have two losses in a row, so it’s very important for me to win this fight to stay in position to be part of that conversation.”
Boetsch last fought on Dec. 29 at UFC 155 in Las Vegas where he got off to a quick start against Costas Philippou — a late replacement for injured teammate Chris Weidman, who will challenge Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight crown in main event of UFC 162.
But after injuring his right hand and the victim of a head butt that opened a gash on his forehead, the fight was halted in the third round with Boetsch suffering his first loss since late 2010.
“Fans always remember your last fight,” said Boetsch. “I had four wins in a row over some pretty good fighters going into that fight, and then all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Boetsch, he’s really no big deal.’ Never mind what I had done before, they quickly forget.”
The last six months have provided Boetsch ample recovery time as well as the chance to spend the last month training at the AMC Pankration gym in Seattle, before arriving in Las Vegas on Sunday.
“It took quite a while to heal up from the last fight,” he said. “I had to take a solid six weeks off, but it worked out pretty well. I had plenty of time to heal, but it was about the limit of the amount of time I want to take off.
“If you’re out a full year you get cage rust or octagon rust. If you’re not in and out of the octagon for that long it can be overwhelming. There’s absolutely no way to substitute for the feeling, the emotion and the adrenalin that goes with walking out to the octagon.”
That’s one of the challenges facing Boetsch’s UFC 162 opponent.
The 35-year-old Munoz (12-3, 7-3 in UFC matches) hasn’t fought since being taken out via second-round technical knockout by Weidman last July 11.
Like Boetsch, who wrestled at Lock Haven (Pa.) University after graduating from Camden-Rockport, Munoz has a rich collegiate wrestling background as a former NCAA champion while a senior at Oklahoma State University.
“He was a very accomplished wrestler in Division I,” said Boetsch. “He’s got a very strong wrestling background, which is something I admire and respect.”
But this bout figures to be much more than wrestler vs. wrestler, a fact that figures prominently into Boetsch’s preparation efforts.
“It’s a mix of everything,” said Boetsch. “I spend a lot of time studying video to get to know my opponent and what his strengths and weaknesses are. But I also try to focus on what I can do to win the fight and how I can impose my will in a fight.”
One way Boetsch has been successful in imposing his will on such recent middleweight victims as third-ranked Yushin Okami and the highly touted Hector Lombard is through his efficiency inside the octagon.
Boetsch trails only the champion Silva in percentage of significant strikes landed among current middleweight fighters, according to UFC statistics.
“It’s one thing I kind of pride myself on, and it goes all the way to my hunting background and going out with my dad and being taught to focus on a very specific spot, like a spot within a bulls-eye,” he said.
“So I’m not just looking to hit a guy’s head, but a spot on the head like the chin or the temple or under an ear where it can do the most damage.”
Boetsch acknowledges that Munoz, also known as “The Filipino Wrecking Machine,” is much more than a wrestler.
“He’s known as being a very powerful striker, and he’s known for finishing guys with his ground and pound,” said Boetsch.
The Boetsch-Munoz fight originally was scheduled to be televised nationally on the FX cable channel as the featured preliminary bout at UFC 162, but when one of the main-event fights had to be cancelled, Boetsch’s bout was moved to the pay-per-view portion of the card.
“It definitely benefits us in terms of sponsorship dollars,” said Boetsch. “But to me that seems a little funny because probably a lot more of my fans would watch on free TV than on pay-per-view.”
Boetsch’s future as a middleweight contender may depend in great part on how he fares Saturday night, but he also was interested to learn that UFC president Dana White expressed interest during a visit to Maine last week in staging a card in his home state — at the soon-to-be-opened Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“I think it would be awesome, and it would be even better if I could get my title shot in Bangor,” said Boetsch. “That might be wishful thinking, but it would be awesome.
“There are a lot of hardcore MMA fans up there, and there’s definitely some MMA heritage up there with Marcus Davis and former UFC [heavyweight] champion Tim Sylvia. MMA has some deep roots in Maine, and if they had a show there, I know the place would be packed.”