I. Will the UFC's new TV deal lead to a new kind of live event? In the old days it was the Spike shows and the pay-per-views, and it was very easy to look at the fight cards and tell the difference between the event you were expected to pay for and the one you were merely expected to be home for. But now the UFC has FOX, FX, and FUEL at its disposal, and it still has a pay-per-view regimen to keep up. Judging by this first event on FX, it seems possible that a reclassification of sorts is underway. Just look at the fight poster for this one. You see two former contenders who are both coming off losses, two journeyman welterweights, and two heavyweights who are a combined 4-6 in the UFC. I point this out not to knock any of those guys -- all three of those fights are interesting for different reasons -- but rather to ask, you think these are all main card fights in a world where the UFC isn't sandwiching a cable TV event between a pay-per-view and a network TV show? It's a natural progression, really. If you put on more total fights, but without significantly expanding the roster, you're going to end up shifting the spotlight onto some guys who were toiling in the dark before. Again, that's not all bad. Fighters like Ludwig deserve a little face time with the fans. The question is, will the fans agree? Will they keep showing up and sitting down for fighters that they've been trained to view as undercard material, or will more of them decide to wait for the next one, when guys they know and care about are fighting? My guess is that 2012 is the year we find out.
II. How far away from a title shot is the winner of the Jim Miller-Melvin Guillard fight, anyway? The lightweight division is so choked with talent these days, for a while it seemed like nothing short of a Secretariat-esque winning streak would earn you a crack at the champ. But now that the Edgar-Maynard trilogy is in the books, things might be opening up a bit. That's good news for Miller and Guillard, who both seemed to be on their way to the top before one loss stopped them cold. Now that Ben Henderson is getting his shot and Gilbert Melendez seems to be staying put in Strikeforce (for now), it might not take more than a couple wins for either Miller or Guillard to make their case all over again. But then, this is a tough match-up for both of them. Whoever loses will have dropped two in a row, and will then feel miles and miles away from the top of the division. And after being so close, once upon a time, that he could have reached out and touched it.
III. New voices for a new era in the UFC. It had to happen. There's only so much you can ask of longtime UFC commentators Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan. For this event, the organization turns to its so-called "B-team" of play-by-play man Jon Anik and fighter/color commentator Kenny Florian. Neither is a rookie at this, and they had great chemistry together on ESPN's MMA Live, so expectations shouldn't be lowered just because they're not the UFC's varsity announcing squad. Watching Anik on the UFC 142 post-fight show, you'd have thought he'd been working these events for years. It should be interesting to see how well the two of them handle their first time calling a UFC event together, but I have high hopes. Both these guys are good hires, and the addition of a couple fresh faces at the broadcast table comes at just the right time.
IV. Mike Easton finds himself in a tough position in what's supposed to be an easy fight. There's a definite downside to facing a late replacement who's new to the UFC. For starters, everyone expects you to smash the guy. Easton is a 4-1 favorite according to some oddsmakers, and you can take your pick of reasons. Either it's because Jared Papazian has never fought at this level, or because he took the fight on short notice after Ken Stone was forced out with injury, or just because Easton seems like the superior fighter. I can't argue with any of that, but that does create a situation where Easton has relatively little to gain and a ton to lose. You beat Papazian in his UFC debut? Good for you. You lose to him? Total disaster.
V. Somewhat surprisingly, Duane Ludwig's improbable redemption saga trudges on. In March of 2010, "Bang" was 0-2 in his latest UFC stint and looking like he might be on the verge of washing out of the big time for good. He was beaten up and broken down, taking fights he shouldn't have taken and further abusing a body that had already seen a lifetime's worth of punishment in MMA cages and kickboxing rings. But what was he going to do? He had a family to support and a career to maintain. Neither could wait very long for him to feel fully healthy and ready again. It would have been very easy for this story to take a turn in the other direction. If he'd lost his third fight in a row to Nick Osipczak at UFC 122, he might have been done in the UFC. Instead he pulled out a close decision down the stretch, then surprised a lot of people by battering Amir Sadollah in his next fight. Somewhere in there he also got the UFC to recognize his knockout of Jonathan Goulet as the fastest in the organization's history, and he got Joe Rogan to sign his action figure. It's as if everything just started coming up Ludwig. It didn't happen on accident, of course. It happened because he kept coming, refusing to be slowed by injuries or discouraged by losses. Now he's enjoying a charmed second (maybe even third?) act in his MMA career, and there's no telling how far he can go if he keeps racking up the wins. It's a good lesson for the younger fighters out there: just because you're losing at the moment, that doesn't necessarily mean you've lost.
VI. Prelim fighter to watch: Nick Denis. You'll have to get in front of the TV early to do it -- his bout with Joseph Sandoval is up first on the FUEL TV broadcast, beginning at 6 p.m. ET -- but I think you'll be glad you did. He's an interesting guy, as the nickname "Ninja of Love" suggests. Denis is a Canadian bantamweight who dropped out of a PhD program in biochemistry when the UFC absorbed the WEC and suddenly it looked as if a 135-pounder might earn a living at this MMA stuff. He finished his last fight with a brutal slam KO -- his ninth TKO finish in ten career wins. If you're late getting to the couch for this one, you may miss it.
VII. Can Pat Barry put together a complete effort, from the first bell to the last? We don't know, because it's been a while since he's done it. There's no doubting the man's kickboxing ability or his power. He's one of the rare fighters who can and has finished opponents with leg kicks alone. But lately his problem has been fast starts followed by lackluster finishes. Of his four losses in the UFC, at least three came in fights where he seemed to be dominating early, only to let the victory slip through his fingers. Some of that could be inexperience in MMA -- this is just his eleventh fight with the little gloves -- or it could be simply bad luck. Whatever it is, the time to shake it off and put together a complete effort is now. But that's easier said than done when you've got a 6-foot-6 monster like Morecraft standing across from you.