For the UFC, the stakes are fairly light tonight. The main event does carry important implications, particularly if Bisping wins, but they aren't world alterating. In addition, the UFC wants to put on a good show for their first event in Sao Paulo (Brazil's largest city) and it's been reported the ticket sales were a bit sluggish. But it's a marathon, not a race and while the first show in the the large metropolis needs to go well, this event isn't do or die. Besides, a good first show could probably help boost the size and success of subsequent UFC events in the area.
For the fighters on tonight's main card, however, the stakes are dramatically different. Let's take a look.
At stake: making a career's worth of fights count. We hear it all the time from fighters: why else are they in this business except to become the champion? Michael Bisping has been accruing wins in one of MMA's shallower divisions and has done well, but faced setbacks every time he was set to move onto title contention. That, surely, has not been the point of this entire MMA endeavor for the Brit. And time is running out. One never knows when the end is coming, but three strikes and you're probably out. It didn't work against Dan Henderson, nor did it materialize against Chael Sonnen. Given his age and given the number of title eliminator attempts he's had, it's hard to imagine him getting another such fight again in the UFC.
For Belfort, a loss hurts, but a win doesn't do much. It doesn't move the division forward in any particular way since he isn't getting a title shot with a victory. Still, another title shot probably isn't out of the question if he can stay healthy. Beating Bisping and doing it spectacularly at least pushes his name in the direction of getting a highly-coveted rematch with Anderson Silva.
At stake: belonging in MMA. Both of these guys are hanging on to MMA by a thread. By that I don't mean to suggest they aren't talented, but I do mean they've both come close to calling it quits. Gonzaga once did, only to reconsider later. Neither are particularly close to a title shot and won't get one even with a win here or even a win or two after this one. But I do think they're both looking for validation they belong competing. Is this something they can still do or is it not? That's the central question here. I don't know if the loser of this bout will retire, but I wouldn't rule it out. They've both had their run. When it comes to end, I suspect they'll be ready to get off.
At stake: belonging in the UFC. While the aforementioned heavyweights are wondering if they still need to be in MMA, these two are trying to prove they belong in the UFC. That said, the two are trying to stake that claim from different positions in their careers. Sarafian was derailed by injury on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, but was on a tear before that. He's trying to prove something he didn't get to in the finale of TUF: Brazil 1. For Dollaway, this is about whether he still has enough left to compete at this level. He's been, at best, inconsistent and hasn't progressed as some expected. If he can't beat a guy with literally zero UFC experience (even if he's a top prospect), there's a question of whether he really has a future in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
At stake: moving on up, to the eastside. These are by no means the two most famous lightweights in the UFC division, but they'd sure like to be. Tavares once had some hype, but wins over Jason Black just aren't going to get the job done, especially when they're book ended by loses to Shane Roller. But he is on a two-fight win streak and is still a viable talent. If he can get past this Daegestani who is on the roll, that's the kind of shot in the arm his career could hugely benefit from.
Conversely, Nurmagomedov has the hot hand. His victory over Tibau was a little iffy, but he is clearly talented and probably on the way up. Beating Tavares doesn't catapult him into the stratosphere, but it does give him another win over another proven commodity. Lightweight, arguably more than any other weight class, is a series of tiny stepping stones. Tiny, however, does not mean insignificant. Beating Tavares isn't the most important such step, but this is hardly the moment to take a step backwards.