The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale fight card: What's at stake?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

This is probably an all-time low point for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). It's the lowest-rated season in the show's history even if there is some talent on the cast that merits more attention. In terms of developing buzz much less a stable audience, though, TUF 16 was a failure.

Still, the show goes on and in 2013 in a improved capacity. The next set of coaches are more popular figures while the timeslot will be much improved. How far ratings and interest will rebound is anyone's guess, but any bounce back is a welcome change.

There isn't a ton riding on the line for the UFC tonight. Some outcomes would be preferable to others, but nothing here involves the most precious assets the UFC has or needs to develop. And since this was a bit of a lame duck season with record-low ratings, I doubt anyone at FX or the UFC is expecting record viewership numbers.

Tonight is about wrapping everything up and getting ready to finish the year strong while setting the stage for the next TUF season. No more, no less.

Star-divide

Roy Nelson vs. Matt Mitrione

At stake: a chance to matter before it's too late. Roy Nelson is 36 years old. Mitrione is 34. If either one of them is going to do something special in their prize fighting career, now is the time. There are some in the MMA community who parade their ignorance when they state a fighter's prime begins in their early 30s. Such a statement is only possible in the absence of all available evidence or cursory knowledge of sports, generally.

This isn't to say Nelson or Mitrione are no longer competitive. Not so. It's simply that the best years to athletically develop while grooming skills are behind them. If Nelson ever wants a title shot or fight against another marquee name in a marquee slot, he cannot backslide here. Similarly, Mitrione has only one career loss - his last fight - but lacks any signature win over a signature opponent.

Small cards with a seemingly low profile are often the best opportunity to make career advancements. There is less distraction or competition for media narrative from big ticket fighter action, so main event competitors can achieve quite a bit. And since both Nelson and Mitrione need to make something happen while they still can, tonight offers big opportunities.

Melvin Guillard vs. Jamie Varner

At stake: a grip on their job. One caveat here: both of these fighters are seemingly so exciting whether they win or lose, their services could be retained even admist a losing streak. But speaking realistically, neither is sitting too comfortably. After putting together a five-fight win streak at lightweight in 2010 and 2011, Guillard has lost three of his last four, which makes his situation borderline dire. Varner is 1-1 since his return to the UFC in May and in fairness, he's looked very good in both performances. Still, a two-fight losing skid is hardly an advisable path or anything to brush off. Fighters often change their style of play for the worse when their backs are against the wall after losing multiple fights. The time to right the ship is now.

Jonathan Brookins vs. Dustin Poirier

At stake: the rebound. Stated plainly, both of these featherweights are trying to get back on track. Brookins has been up and down since returning to featherweight and not maturing at the rate some had expected. Poirier stumbled against Chan Sung Jung, but has otherwise wrecked shop. What's notable about this match-up is that both are highly-respected tacticians, well-rounded fighters and often good finishers. A win for either over the other says a lot about the future for the victor. A loss isn't the worst of all worlds and wouldn't necessarily mean the exit for the loser, but it could signal their upside is more limited than we previously imagined.

Pat Barry vs. Shane del Rosario

At stake: being someone to be counted on. As we've seen over and over, it's one thing to be exciting. An ability or willingness to be a crowd-pleasing fighter can do wonders for an otherwise middling career. Barry has proven himself an inconsistent winner, but a consist pleaser. Del Rosario hasn't proven much of anything in the UFC yet. Granted, he's only had one fight and he hardly looked terrible, but he is a talented guy. I'm not sure that came through in his loss to Stipe Miocic.

What's most interesting in this bout is the position of both fighters relative to one another. Barry is the known commodity of excitement, but needs to win more often to keep his roster spot. Del Rosario didn't get his UFC career off to the best start, but can easily turn things around. He also has more upside as a heavyweight given his well-rounded talents. He, too, has shown a penchant for excitement in his Strikeforce days.

Who can the UFC count on to be a heavyweight who wins enough to not be a liability but also exciting enough to serve as reliable main card talent? This bout, among others, helps decide that future.

Colton Smith vs. Mike Ricci

At stake: a better UFC start than average. Being on The Ultimate Fighter doesn't mean what it used to, but it isn't altogether invaluable. One of the better outcomes of being a winner is the semi-favorable matchmaking and card placement the winner often receives. The winner of TUF seems to washout of the UFC these days more than ever. At the very least, they're not title contenders like they once were. But winning the show can still be a decent way to get the right kind of fight for the right kind of moment or skill level at a particular time in a fighter's development. It's probably debatable whether winning the restrictive TUF contract is a blessing, but helpful matchmaking is not. That's something worth fighting for.

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