UFC 143 goes down in Las Vegas this Saturday night, but the stakes are not necessarily equal for all the fighters on the Super Bowl weekend fight card. From those who need a win in order to save their jobs to those who just need to repair their image, there are a few men with a little extra motivation to get their hands raised in Sin City.
Who are they, and what are their chances? For answers, we turn to the Cut List.
Walkout Shirts: Nick Diaz | Carlos Condit | Roy Nelson
Fabricio Werdum (14-5-1, 2-2 UFC)
Who he’s facing: Roy Nelson
Why he’s in danger: Okay, so danger probably isn’t the right word here, but this is a bit of a fork in the road for Werdum. You’ll recall that he got dropped from the UFC after getting dropped by Junior dos Santos and then getting into a bit of a contract dispute with his employers. The UFC decided he wasn’t worth the cash back then, but a brief revival in Strikeforce has helped up his stock. Or at least, it would have if he’d made the leap after beating Fedor Emelianenko. Instead, he’s coming in off an ugly decision loss to Alistair Overeem. Ordinarily, a loss to "The Reem" would be nothing to hang your head about, but it’s how he lost that makes you worry. You know how Lorenzo Fertitta justified keeping Dan Hardy on the roster by explaining that he likes "guys that WAR!!"? It’s safe to say that the UFC is not quite so enthusiastic about guys who pull guard and politely ask their opponents to join them. Werdum is a top heavyweight when he wants to be, and he’s understandably a slight favorite over Nelson in his return to the UFC. Still, if he pulls that jiu-jitsu tournament crap in the UFC and gets himself into another disagreement about what his services should be worth, he might find that it's a buyer’s market for heavyweights these days.
Outlook: Bright. I have to think that the lessons of the Overeem fight -- not to mention the JDS loss -- were not completely lost on Werdum. When he fights like he’s trying to win, he’s a threat to just about anybody. When he’s simply trying to avoid getting knocked out, he becomes exactly the kind of fighter that the UFC dumps on sight. My guess is he knows that now. At least, he’d better.
Matt Riddle (5-3, 5-3 UFC)
Who he’s facing: Henry Martinez
Why he’s in danger: Riddle has done a lot of growing up in the Octagon over the past few years, and you have to appreciate the rarity of a guy who’s had his entire pro career take place on the big stage. Still, dude has lost two in a row, which is never a good sign. It’s not like he’s been fighting total chumps lately, but neither has he distinguished himself with a win over an opponent who really matters. He’s done just enough to hang around on the Fight Night/pay-per-view prelim level, so he probably can’t afford a three-fight losing streak just now. The thing about a young fighter with more raw ability than polish and experience is that the powers that be will often give him a little more time and space to develop. Riddle’s got a goofy charisma to him, and he’s also got some skills. Even in losing efforts he still puts on a show. Those are all good reasons to wait and see if he’ll become something other than a decent prelim fighter, but he still needs to win every now and then in the meantime. In Martinez, Riddle is facing a UFC newcomer from Greg Jackson’s gym with a solid record but not much time to prepare after taking the bout on very short notice in order to fill in for an injured Jorge Lopez. At 6’1", Riddle will tower over the 5’7" Martinez, and he has the advantage of having been in the Octagon before. If all that doesn’t add up to a win for Riddle, what will?
Outlook: Cautiously optimistic. There’s every reason to think that Riddle will snap his losing streak here. Most oddsmakers have him as a 3-1 favorite, and that’s no accident. If he performs up to expectations, he should smash Martinez and get back on track. If he doesn’t, well, maybe he doesn’t belong in the UFC right now.
Matt Brown (12-11, 5-5 UFC)
Who he’s facing: Chris Cope
Why he’s in danger: At this rate, Brown is shaping up to be the Cut List’s most frequently featured fighter, and not because it's so fun to write about him. Despite going 1-4 in his last five fights, he’s somehow still hanging on to a roster spot in the same organization that cut Gerald Harris for losing just one fight in four attempts. How is this possible? The last time he beat someone who held on to his job afterward was in November of 2009. He went through the dreaded three-fight losing streak and still got a fourth chance, which is rare even for top-tier UFC fighters. His decision win over John Howard (who was then released) likely saved him, but then he turned right around and got submitted by Seth Baczynski at UFC 139, so you’ve got to think he’s still facing desperate times here. The weird part is, he’s not a bad fighter. It’s not as if he’s getting murdered in most of these losses; it’s just that a hyper-aggressive style and a weak submission defense is a really, really bad combo. You get the sense that with a tweak here or there he could fix that and turn things around. Then again, if it were that easy he probably would have done it by now.
Outlook: Slightly pessimistic. He’s a heavy favorite over Cope, who has his own problems (more on that in a moment). Chances are he’ll win this fight and avoid the axe yet again, but how much longer can this go on? He needs to win a couple in a row, preferably against quality competition, to prove he belongs here. Unless he makes some big changes soon, I don’t see it happening over the long run.
Chris Cope (5-2, 1-1 UFC)
Who he’s facing: Matt Brown
Why he’s in danger: The former TUF competitor got off to a good start with a decision win over castmate Chuck O’Neil (who was subsequently released), but got wrecked by UFC newcomer Che Mills in his next bout. It made for a nice addition to Mills’ highlight tape, but it didn’t do much for Cope other than expose him as a guy who might not be ready for this level of competition. You look at his record and you see a fighter who could have only gotten a shot at the UFC via the reality TV route. What you don’t see is a hot prospect that you can imagine anyone at the UFC getting truly excited about. Oddsmakers expect him to get schooled by Brown, who is himself just barely holding on by the skin of his tattoos, and they’re probably right. Chances are Brown will knock him out, and that will make for some good TV. What then? In all likelihood, Cope will join the ranks of the Spike TV almost-weres: the guys who were good enough to fill out a reality TV cast but whose usefulness to the UFC was quickly exhausted. Or -- who knows? -- maybe he’ll make fools of us all and pull off an upset against a very beatable opponent.
Outlook: Grim. Cope seems too one-dimensional to last long at this level, even if he does defy the odds with a win over Brown. Unless he’s gotten much, much better since the last time we saw him, he might want to use this outing as a last opportunity to collect some UFC souvenirs.