Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
As we are hours away from tonight's UFC 154 event in the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and the return of mixed martial arts' welterweight king, let's take a moment to survey the stakes for the UFC as well as the fighters involved.
UFC 154 is an interesting test of the Canadian market as well as Georges St. Pierre's popularity. There's been some hand wringing over ticket sales, but those are mostly misinterpretations. Tonight's gate should pull close to or over $3.5 million, which is a win no matter how you slice it. Sure, GSP didn't sell out the venue right away, but this isn't 2008. MMA has cooled a bit and while GSP's popularity is still strong, not being at an all-time high doesn't therefore indicate it's altogether gone. A dip is not a departure.
However, GSP's physical health actually might portend the future health of the sport, particularly in Canada. Like the rest of the MMA world, the UFC will be closely watching how St-Pierre performs. Will the knee hold up? Will he still be dominant? Can he really come back from the injury and return to form? For the UFC, GSP isn't merely important because he's their welterweight champion. It's a paramount concern because he's arguably their best athlete, current top draw and one of the key lynchpins for success in the Canadian market.
UFC President Dana White has repeatedly denied Brock Lesnar is or was the company's top draw, insisting St-Pierre deserves that accolade. That's highly debatable, but let's assume it's true for the moment. If GSP can't return to form, they could be facing a reality where they lost their second-best attraction last year and are in the process of watching their ace wither into a lesser version of himself this year.
I'm not trying to be overly doom and gloom. For starters, I'm picking St-Pierre to win. I also don't think a loss in and of itself would be so terrible. St-Pierre may yet need more time to get back to where he was. Rematches, as far as I can tell, have also typically gone St-Pierre's way.
The point is this: the attention paid to ticket sales for an event that will ultimately do very well is little more than misplaced priorities. What really matters for the UFC is whether the return of GSP means the return of what was or the start of something new. I'm betting if the UFC had their choice, they'd prefer to have back what was taken 19 months ago.
At stake: defying odds, beating all the doubt fear can muster. It's fairly obvious what's on the line for GSP and Condit even when we aren't talking about the welterweight title.
GSP is in a very tough position where he has to face a top-flight contender who has had an unreal amount of time to prepare. Worse, he has to do so after a near two-year absence from professional competition that was the result of an injury that could mean the end of the dominant version of himself as he (and we) knows it. No pressure, right?
Condit, on the other hand, has snuck up on everyone. Sure, a few knew how good he was or what he'd become, but not many. And here he is, ready to do what he's always done: defy expectations and conquer a seemingly insurmountable challenge. A win recasts him as a truly elite talent, although it isn't clear if it'll provide a significant boost of popularity. A loss, on the other hand, pushes him to the back of the queue where it's not clear if he'll ever reach these heights again.
The question for GSP is what's left? Can he really still do this? Does he have the fire or even the physical tools to make it happen? If he does, he'll carry on the current trajectory he's on as one of the sport's all-time greats. In fact, healing from this kind of setback will place him a position that few if any of the other greats will be able to match given the unique challenges of it all.
A loss doesn't necessarily rewrite the course of history unless it portends a new normal. Or perhaps the loss causes things to psychologically unravel. GSP's fears haven't defined him, but they've held him back in moments. And those came when he was fully capable. What will happen when he has fears about not just the challenge on the other side of the cage, but the physical frailty within himself?
GSP always say his impending fight is the most important of his career. This time it really is true. This isn't just about defeating a top contender after an injury layoff. Tonight represents one of the most difficult and consequential hurdles ever in the welterweight champion's career. He has to defeat a debilitating injury, time off, Carlos Condit and positively maddening amounts of doubt about everything he is today and every decision he's made that brought him to this point.
If you're going to make a dominant return, beating back all of that is probably the best way to affirm you really, truly are back.
At stake: maybe everything, maybe not much. The problem with this fight is that it's going to be incredibly tough to win and yet the victor may not have much to show for it. Depending on the outcome of the main event, the winner between Hendricks and Kampmann could simply end up fighting another contender. Or two. Perhaps they'll get the title shot they want if Condit pulls off the upset. Forecasting what's next for either in the event of a win is difficult if not impossible.
A loss, however, presents a slightly clearer future. For Hendricks, it could be potentially devastating. A villain and highly accomplished wrestler in college, Hendricks has yet to raise his profile or achieve the elite status he enjoyed in his previous athletic career. A loss would mean a failure to meet the expectations many hoisted upon him when he began his entry into MMA. At 29, it's not as if he has an unlimited window to earn another title shot. Very few who fail to achieve them or lose in them the first time ever get a second attempt. Besides, it's incredibly difficult to gather momentum at welterweight.
In fact, look at the run Martin Kampmann is having, it'll be extremely difficult for him to ever produce it again. He's defeated Rick Story, Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger all in a row. The Story bout he won clean, but nearly lost to Alves before a miraculous turn of events. Ditto for the Ellenberger fight. And those are just his wins. He was arguably jobbed out of decisions against Diego Sanchez and Jake Shields that should've gone his way. Kampmann is chiny, but he's also one of the most talented and well-rounded welterweights not named GSP. If it's this difficult for him to get some momentum going, you can imagine how hard it is for everyone else.
Winning tonight keeps them at the front of the line, but it's not clear how much more it does than that. Being first in the welterweight contender queue is nothing to scoff at, of course. Yet, it's not clear it promises a ton either. All of this is proof that if you manage to get a title shot in the welterweight division, you had to do quite a bit of work to get it.
At stake: being the real deal holyfield. Can you compete at this level against opposition that matters or not? That's what this fight is asking, although it's asking it of two guys in the same position who ended up here from vastly different paths.
Carmont had a bumpy start in MMA, but in recent years has turned things around. He's with Tri-Star Gym now and is 3-0 in the UFC. The problem? He's 3-0 against opposition who are largely limited or have fatal flaws.
Lawlor's tasted success, but also came up short when a little luck would've helped him. He lost a split decision to Aaron Simpson. Despite handily beating Joe Doerksen, ended up being submitted by him. He also had the poor fortune of facing Chris Weidman.
Carmont appears to be on the way up, but hasn't beaten anyone as good or battled-tested against good fighters like Lawlor is. Lawlor is also a wrestler than can steal rounds and fights from strikers with lopsided skill sets. Lawlor has a lot of ability, but needs to prove he can apply it consistently, fight over fight. It's one thing to be good; it's quite another to be good enough. Carmont and Lawlor are aiming to be for the latter.
At stake: proving you've improved. Both Bocek and dos Anjos are incredibly talented, particularly as ground operators. But both have faced setback when they couldn't use their main skills to earn victories and were forced to rely on other parts of their game that simply weren't there. Since facing a few setbacks, they're both on solid paths, each having earned two consecutive victories inside the Octagon. Yet, they did so against talent who either aren't up to par or had flaws that were particularly open to their specialized attacks.
In a fight with one another, the winner will obviously climb the ladder. But he will also have to call upon some of the other improvements in his game to do so. Bocke and dos Anjos will still be specialists. I'm not suggesting they are new fighters. But if you want a chance to prove you still deserve to be looked at as a contender because you've changed for the better, beating someone who claims the same thing and is in a similar position as you is the best way to do it.
At stake: UFC employment. Hominick and Garza account for some of the best featherweight wins (and lightweight, too, in Hominick's case), but both have fallen on hard times. Hominick's best performance in well over a year has been his fifth round against Jose Aldo, a bout he still handily lost. He's since been torched by Chan Sung Jung and outslugged by Eddie Yagin. Those are statements I'm not sure I would've ever written even after the drubbing Hominick received at the hands of the UFC featherweight champion back at UFC 129.
It's remarkable to see Hominick and Garza in roughly the same position without having the same career arc. Hominick fought for the title and was widely regarded as a top featherweight before this recent skid. Garza's had some notable wins and nice first-round finishes, but not much more than that. And yet, here there are, both struggling to stay on the UFC roster. What a cruel game fight sport can be.
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