The UFC makes its long-awaited return to Seattle, a market whose only previous UFC event was a success both at the gate and on television. I'm sure the UFC is hoping this second go-round will yield the same kind of results. And they'd be right to do so. The event sold out the Key Arena, a good sign of fan enthusiasm not simply in Seattle but among the MMA community generally.
For the UFC, this is about proving despite a cooling MMA market, they can still shine. They can still put together cards people care about with fighters we call 'stars' and that hardcores and casuals alike will tune in.
They've done their part. They built the right kind of card for the right kind of format. They're packing the house with ticket purchasers. They and FOX have worked together really well to market and promote this event. They've done everything they can do.
They've built it. The question is: will the audience come? After struggling with the series the last couple of times, UFC needs a rebound night. At the very least, they need a strong one. Everything is in place to deliver. All they can do now is wait to see if their game plan worked.
At stake: perceived legitimacy. If there are any two elite lightweight fighters who are treated unfairly, it's these two. That isn't to say they're not regarded as elite and revered for their skills. They are, as they should be. But this fight has creeping undertones of 'ah ha!'-ism in virtually every discussion about what the outcome will say.
In other words, the loser will be viewed in terms of 'ah ha! I knew he was overrated! I knew he wasn't really going to be champion!' Or in this case of Henderson, the sentiment goes, wouldn't be champion for very long.
It wouldn't be the most unexpected thing in the world if the UFC lightweight title is played like hot potato, going from champion to contender for years on end as the parity of the division plays itself out. And it would certainly undermine the idea of any of these fighters as transcendent, which is fine. But that shouldn't force the view of these fighters that they're fated to not be who they say they are or who some suggest they are.
The 'ah ha!'-ism I spoke of is a way to basically undermine a fighter as ultimately flawed. As someone who may be good, but not good enough or more lucky than good. And perhaps they are all of those things. Destiny, however, has little to do with it. No matter who wins tonight, the result is not necessarily a referendum on the loser. That's especially true in the case of a close fight. The loser here, though, faces a tomorrow where some in the community will say this is their destiny all along. They were never going to be X or Y. Unfair though it may be, there is lingering suspicion about the length and consistency of their talent.
At stake: a chance at Jon Jones. I'd say it's fair to conclude Shogun's legacy is pretty much intact. And Gustafsson is too young to be viewed as a loser with no future in the event he comes up short this evening. So what's the issue?
It's a chance for a title shot. For Shogun, probably his last. Dana White has a changed heart about Shogun's work ethic (of late) and believes a win over a surging contender like Gustaffson is reason enough to consider him for a title challenge. Or maybe a number one contender's match, at the very least. There's still pull in that ox.
Gustafsson is a relatively similar position heading into this fight, but certainly not in the arc of his career. A loss here is a setback, sure, but very likely not a legacy-definer. A win, on the other hand, is likely a fast track to the title or at least the winner of Glover Teixeira vs. Rampage Jackson. Or Dan Henderson or Lyoto Machida.
At stake: identity. Penn is the first fighter who I was ever a fan of for reasons I've stated innumerable times. But he is trying to do too much too late in his career. His career was a personal sojourn of 'I'm badder than you" even when he wasn't and was trying to prove it against men much larger than he in all corners of the globe. He runs headlong into someone who is not quite who he was 10 years ago, but someone who is a close facsimile of that but with all of the modern trimmings of careful management.
For Penn, this is about proving he is who he thinks he is. A fighter, when he buckles down for a few weeks, can beat any of his contemporaries in a 20 pound radius. For MacDonald, this is about proving Penn's last grasp is just that: grasping. MacDonald wants to prove he's not only the better talent between the two, but that his ability to follow the rules and order of the fight game is what's going to earn him all of the accolades Penn lacks. Namely, the consistent ability to win, fight in and fight out, for a protracted period of time.
Where Penn wouldn't train or diet properly, MacDonald would. Where Penn didn't want to cut weight or do the extra work required to succeed, MacDonald would. Penn believes he can still win that way, although by all accounts he's done more work for this fight. But MacDonald has certainly done enough or as much as Penn. And he wants to show tonight that's what Penn should've been doing all along just as he is, day in and day out.
At stake: keeping the UFC dream alive. I don't expect Swick to return to his previous stature of a top welterweight contender, but I do expect to win more often than he loses and to finish his career in the UFC. I'm not sure the same can be said for Brown, but stranger things have happened. And besides, for being a fighter of limited ability (relatively speaking), he's rattled off three wins in a row in the Octagon. He's also gotten better as a fighter even if he'll never be in a position to contend for a title.
Perhaps most telling, Swick and Brown are being paired off because UFC brass have confidence in them to deliver action as soon as FOX begins broadcasting this event. Being an exciting fighter according to UFC management in 2012 is not the worst of all worlds. That can take you pretty far even if you don't win as much as you'd like. Just ask Dan Hardy.
So what does this fight for either guy? It's a little more troubling for Swick if he loses, but not terribly so. And Brown has always been up and down in the UFC. A win tonight pushes the UFC dream along by adding a win to the column. It's a little career cushion or insurance. And since this bout is all but guaranteed to be exciting, it's probably a little extra pocket money, too.