In a year that already has proved to be massive for the UFC, with one major card after another, UFC 205 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York looks to be the biggest and most important of them all. In honor of such a marquee event, ESPN.com is providing dedicated previews to all 13 bouts on the card, breaking down what's at stake and projecting who will win, along with quotes and statistics for each fighter.
Middleweights: Rafael Natal (21-7-1) vs. Tim Boetsch (19-10)
Odds as of Nov. 2: Natal -160; Boetsch +140
Dana White's thoughts
"You know, two tough veterans, battling to stick around here. That's how sports go. All sports, not just this one. Make a few errors in a key game, you're on the line. NFL -- Jonas Gray was a running back for the Patriots, stud, every time they put him on the field he'd get 100 yards rushing, was late to practice and you never saw the guy again. Done. So, that's just the truth of every sport."
What's at stake?
One step back to take a few forward for Natal
Manhattan's Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy sits less than two blocks away from Madison Square Garden.
Natal, 33, has been shaping his skills at W. 30th Street since moving to New York eight years ago and believes none of those years has been as critical to his development as 2016.
Natal was recently shaping up to be the Cinderella of the division, having strung together four consecutive wins. That streak ended in April, when he came up short in a three-round fight against Australia's Robert Whittaker.
Following the loss, Natal requested time off to fill certain holes in his game, and he is eager to show that off against a battle-tested opponent in Boetsch.
"Renzo's academy is one street behind Madison Square Garden. I see it every day," Natal said. "In my last fight, I couldn't take him down -- first time in 30 fights. I take people down all the time. He avoided it, and that was a little frustrating. But I believe everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the best thing is to take one step back to take a few steps forward.
"I asked the UFC to give me a few months off to improve. Had I beat Whittaker, I would have asked for a top-five [opponent]. I wasn't ready for that, but now I've fixed these things."
Boetsch: 'I never feel secure until I get my hand raised'
Just about every fighter on the UFC's roster would have given anything to receive an offer to fight in New York.
When that offer came for Boetsch, the first emotion he felt was something close to dread.
"I was expecting to fight at the beginning of next year," Boetsch said. "When I got a call from [matchmaker] Joe Silva out of the blue, I was concerned."
Boetsch, 35, is coming off an upset win over Josh Samman in July, but before that, "The Barbarian" had lost three consecutive bouts. He has never forgotten what it felt like to exit the UFC; the promotion let him walk in 2009 before re-signing him the following year.
"I had three losses in a row before my last fight," Boetsch said. "I was anticipating the call to say, 'We appreciate your time but no longer need your services.' I was prepared for that call, and it never came. Instead, they called to offer me a fight on the biggest card in UFC history.
"I take pride in giving people exactly what they expect when I fight, but if we're being honest, I never feel secure until I get my hand raised. I've been cut by the UFC before. I understand the nature of this business. You better put on an exciting performance, but at the same time, you better win every fight. I go in with that mindset. I probably shouldn't put that pressure on myself, but it's always on my mind."
Boetsch believes others fighters might have "scrambled their game" after dropping three in a row, but says he was able to take a sensible approach. In June 2015, he got caught by a Dan Henderson right hand. In January of this year, it was an Ed Herman knee. Disappointing losses for sure, but Boetsch said he believes he has always had the recipe for success and that it hasn't changed.
"Those are two weapons no one wants to run into, and they found their way through on me," Boetsch said. "That's just fighting. I know the formula to win is there though. I just need to execute."
Natal: 21-7-1 record (9-5-1 UFC); four-fight winning streak snapped in last fight Natal: 36 takedowns in UFC competition, most all-time in middleweight division
Boetsch: 19-10 record (10-9 UFC); 14 of 19 wins by stoppage Boetsch: Lands 53 percent of significant strikes in UFC middleweight fights, sixth-highest among active UFC middleweights
Natal isn't kidding when he says he couldn't get Whittaker down. He struggled to get anything going in that last fight, and his decision to take time off and evolve speaks to that.
Boetsch doesn't have the same steady kickboxing approach that gave Natal so much trouble. His output is way lower, but he has a good deal of one-punch knockout power. Natal performs better when he's not on his back foot the whole time, which shouldn't be the case against the heavy-handed but at times lumbering style of Boetsch.
A lot hinges on Natal's ability, or lack thereof, to avoid the big shot. He's durable and will probably have an advantage with judges simply because he does more, but Boetsch is a bigger threat for a KO.
PREDICTION: Natal via decision.