What's at stake for the UFC in Houston on Saturday night? In actuality, not a lot. At least, no more than what they normally risk on a given event or pay-per-view night.
Sure, some victories or losses favor future matchmaking and main event possibilities more than others. It wouldn't be terrible for the UFC if Daniel Cormier looked superb. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Junior dos Santos kept the rivalry between he and Velasquez alive with a dominant victory. Who doesn't want to see Gilbert Melendez in a future title bout?
The reality, though, is even if those things don't happen, it's not necessarily the end of the world. More importantly, to get to a place where those outcomes can become actionable to work off of, they must have an event like tonight first. In other words, whatever happens tonight is basically unavoidable. It has to happen for any other future reward to be possible.
Maybe the UFC rushed the trilogy fight between Velasquez and dos Santos a little too early. I'm not averse to the argument, but I'm long resigned to the idea it's got UFC's business approach and fingerprints written all over it. That is to say, UFC is aggressive and constantly pushes for the next iteration, next opportunity and next corner to turn. Sometimes they burn out customers and opportunities that way. Other times they deeply satisfy them while creating new ones simultaneously. There is a risk tonight's main event was too much, too soon, but knowing the UFC, they wouldn't have it any other way.
Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos
At stake: the narrative of history. I'm sympathetic to the argument that we really don't know if this is the greatest MMA or UFC trilogy ever. Everything is so dependent on what happens in the cage that making bold proclamations ahead of time, while tempting, can be premature. They may end up being correct, too, but they run the risk of looking moderately foolish depending on how things go.
Consider: If Velasquez knocks out dos Santos in the first round? Not a great trilogy. If both men gas and fight badly by the third? Not the best trilogy. If dos Santos wins a squeaker with no offense? Not the greatest trilogy. None of those scenarios are particularly likely, but you get the idea: it's not official until it's official. Strange things happen in this sport. You have to let them play out first. The greatest trilogy doesn't assume that position by fiat. It has to be one not merely of consequence, but the ingredients of greatness.
Then again, there are ways the claim could become true. Maybe dos Santos knocks Velasquez out in a thriller. Maybe Velasquez wins in a bout that could've gone either way. Maybe dos Santos surprises everyone with a submission victory. In any of those circumstances (and others), an arc of history is set up to make this the great MMA or UFC trilogy ever. Hell, some outcomes set up future bouts beyond the next one on Saturday night, rendering the trilogy book ends premature placements.
The point is this, as it always is in the UFC: the complexion of the fight matters. And how it looks is how we'll remember the night and the other fights they had that preceded it.
At stake: the chance to look impressive. If we're speaking candidly, I don't believe Roy Nelson is ever going to get a UFC heavyweight title shot, but he'll hang around in the division for as long as he can. Cormier could conceivably get it, but has been insistent he's on the road to light heavyweight. That means Cormier needs to do everything possible to look impressive. Sure, he beat Frank Mir, but didn't really wow anyone like he did in the Josh Barnett victory. Cormier needs to get back to that.
For Nelson, he's got something of a loyal fan following and a pay-per-view ready fight style. That's not UFC gold, but it's something many men who wear UFC gold don't have. Win or lose, if Nelson fights to his strengths and at least makes a decent showing out of it, he can please that audience. And if he really can beat Cormier, he'll earn the signature win of his entire MMA career.
At stake: lightweight title sweepstakes. UFC President Dana White has been hesitant to say whether the winner will get a title shot, which seems appropriate given all the different ways things could go at the top. What is clear, though, is the winner of this bout has the chance to put themselves in part of that larger conversation.
Many (including this writer) believe Melendez did enough to beat Ben Henderson when they fought and deserves a second opportunity for UFC gold against Anthony Pettis. Beating Diego Sanchez, and doing so with emphasis, could help bolster support for his cause. On the other hand, Sanchez defeating Melendez, which is undoubtedly an upset, would fast track him into a conversation he hasn't been a part of for quite some time.
At stake: erase previous impressions. Gonzaga was once retired and is now on bonus time in the sport. Among other problems, he's had an issue with big, quicker punchers. Jordan doesn't exactly fit that description, but is heavy-handed and has some measure of speed to his arsenal. But the American's issue has been being controlled by, well, controlling heavyweights. Gonzaga also doesn't exactly match that description, but has the ability to fight that way on occasion. This bout represents the opportunity to either confirm or deny the less than flattering impressions of either fighter even if the opponent doesn't necessarily pose those exact challenges.
At stake: a moment to entertain, maybe advance. As a general rule, the first bout on an UFC main card has expectations of entertainment more so than other fights on the card. Obviously the main event has fans' highest hopes, but in the more naked, engineered sense, the first main card is expected to deliver and therefore, typically set up in such a way to fulfill that humble destiny.
This is just such a bout. It's true Dodson needs more exposure and wins for the road back to a title shot. It's also true Montague can make a huge statement beating someone the caliber of Dodson in his UFC debut. Those factors cannot be overlooked, but neither can the anticipation that two elite flyweights are going to get the pay-per-view party started. That's good for the UFC, the fighters and the burgeoning division generally. That's assuming, of course, they actually do what's expected of them.