Pierce nearing career crossroads

Due to the sheer numbers of the UFC roster, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. There are nine divisions. There are men and women. There are legends and champions and rookies. Everyone else sort of blends together until they find a way to stand out. For the sake of building a career, it’s incumbent upon the athletes to find a way to step into the spotlight and differentiate themselves from the crowd. Even winning is not always enough.

Take for instance, the case of welterweight Mike Pierce, who has quietly labored in the welterweight division for four years and compiled an impressive 9-3 record. As UFC fighters go, Pierce is fairly anonymous. When he says something, it doesn’t make instant headlines. When he fights, it’s not necessarily appointment viewing.

Pierce, who competes on the main card of Wednesday’s UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields event, has had his chances to demand that kind of attention but failed to do so. Each time he’s stepped up to the top level of competition, he has lost, albeit in close decisions, and to others who either had been or went on to be No. 1 contenders in the division, including the current spot-holder, Johny Hendricks.

In both of the most recent defeats — to Josh Koscheck and Hendricks, respectively — the judgments were split-decisions. In both instances, I scored the bouts for Pierce. There are legitimate arguments to be made that he won both. Against Koscheck, he landed more strikes in both the first and second rounds. Against Hendricks, he landed more strikes in both the second and third.

While the judges saw it differently, Pierce rebounded from those losses by doing what he does best, to grind. His style is not particularly aesthetically pleasing, but when you’re fighting names like Hendricks and Koscheck to a debatable conclusion, you’re skills can no longer be questioned.

On Wednesday, Pierce returns to face Rousimar Palhares, which becomes the next, next important match for him. After a four-fight stretch that saw him compete against Carlos Eduardo Rocha, Aaron Simpson, Seth Baczysnki and David Mitchell, he is finally back in a situation where he competing against a recognizable name and on a main card.

It is imperative for him to seize the opportunity. It is rare that a fighter performing well and under a reasonable contract (Pierce made a $28,000 show purse his last fight) gets cut. However, just two weeks ago, we saw that exact situation play out when longtime middleweight Yushin Okami was let go after a single loss. Okami had been a No. 1 contender in the past, and in explaining the decision, UFC president Dana White said that Okami “has had every opportunity to fight the best,” and that at some point, it’s time for both sides to move on.

Pierce has never ascended as high as Okami, who was ranked No. 6 in his division at the time he was let go, but he has had some high-profile opportunities, and even if his losses were close, they are still on his record, unavoidable.

At 33, Pierce is not old, but he’s not young either. Despite the lack of fanfare around him — which by the way, is made more curious when you realize he has a respectable three knockouts in his last six wins — there is little question that Pierce has the kind of game that could threaten anyone on any given day. You don’t push Hendricks and Koscheck to the brink by accident. But the top of the division is always moving, and it won’t wait for him to catch up, either. Rory MacDonald is there. Carlos Condit, too. Matt Brown is chomping at the bit for a chance to fight for the belt. A rejuvenated Robbie Lawler is in the mix. Demian Maia is inching forward.

All of those guys draw headlines and eyeballs, but Pierce largely remains stuck in neutral, somewhere below them in ranking but somewhere close in ability. At some point he has to prove it by actually beating someone with some divisional significance. By strict definition, Palhares is not that guy since it’s his first time fighting at 170, but given his dangerous reputation and his drop in weight, it’s a step in the right direction.

If he needs any motivation, he can probably look ahead of him on the card, to guys that he can probably identify with in Maia and Shields. And ahead of him in the schedule, to a guy that he nearly beat in Hendricks. If he wins, Pierce can start to make his case for a top 10 ranking and another chance to fight a major name. And if not, he will be one step closer to becoming another cautionary tale, a guy who ran out of chances and forever wondered what might have been if only a judge or two along the way had seen things differently, and if he had only found a way to make us care.