There are a few questions heading into UFC 167, but none of them alarmist (at least not yet). The last two UFC pay-per-views have deeply underperformed, but the question is whether that's due to something specific and fleeting or a larger climate affecting buy rates. St-Pierre seems to be a good barometer of whether there are systemic problems or if the aforementioned under performing pay-per-view events had their individual crosses to bear.
By all accounts, this event should be and already is a smashing success. What UFC must be wondering is what will replace GSP once he leaves. Even if the rumors of him retiring after this fight are premature and misinformed, that day is eventually coming. We're closer to that now than ever. The reality is GSP cannot be both a once-in-a-generation talent and also replaceable, certainly not among his peers in his weight class.
So, UFC will have a very strong weekend with this event, as well they should. It's a celebration of all they've achieved and they're showcasing their finest talent to date in honor of it. It's a moment in time they should relish. But even with all the success, we cannot shy away from what's ahead or what could be brewing. Maybe it's something to worry about. Perhaps it is not. Either way, however, it's a reality UFC must confront once the lights are down in Las Vegas after this Saturday night.
At stake: welterweight greatness. We're talking about two different levels of greatness given the two positions these fighters find themselves in.
First, GSP. With a win over Hendricks, he can make the case he has defeated three generations of welterweights, which might be one of the most difficult feats to pull off in all of mixed martial arts. It's true Anderson Silva has wins over top 5 opposition in three weight classes, but part of the reason he jumped to the third weight class was due to the thinness of the space where he resided as champion. Welterweight is arguably MMA's toughest division. To have defeated the very best as the arise, decline or ultimately leave the sport - if GSP can pull it off - should go done as one of MMA's more remarkable accomplishments in any organization by any athlete in any era.
A loss for the current welterweight king would also, at least temporarily, remove the possibility of retiring the champion, another feat that gets short shrift among the MMA community, but is exceedingly difficult.
GSP's resume is in tact. He's a first ballot hall of famer, so to speak, and what he's already accomplished won't soon be repeated. But to reach surpassing levels of greatness, defeating Hendricks is required in the process.
As for the challenger, there's no need to belabor the point. Becoming welterweight champion is of paramount value and to do so by defeating that division's best competitor is a career maker. A loss isn't the worst thing in the world, but does put him back in what is a very difficult queue to find advancing opportunities.
At stake: relevancy. Do these fighters still matter and if so, to what extent? 'Matters' is a loaded term, of course, and there are degrees to which they can be relevant. They're both grasping for contender status, which seems unlikely no matter the outcome (at least in this weight class). What's more pressing is a level down: a fighter with name value capable of being in big fights, but not on a title track exactly. What they're looking to prove here is they're still worth your entertainment dollar and capable of being in relevant fights opposite respectable opposition.
At stake: welterweight contendership. This one is straightforward. These two are gunning for a title shot. I don't know if they'd get one directly from a victory in this contest, but neither is too far away. Lawler is the elder statesman of sorts (despite not being old) opposite MacDonald's new hipster MMA fighter, but both are potential viable candidates to fight for the welterweight crown in the not too distant future. Both also present big challenges to the other in terms of relevant tests of their abilities. A loss for MacDonald is more forgivable given how time is a little kinder to his chances, but Lawler needs to get busy and he needs to do right away. This is about striking while the iron is hot because it may not stay that temperature for very long.
At stake: do or do not; there is no 'try'. This is partly about relevancy, but less so than with MacDonald and Lawler. Koscheck has reached close to what is the pinnacle of the sport, but is on the other side of his athletic prime and needs to demonstrate he's still at least a viable welterweight. Woodley hasn't yet done much climbing and after a lot of hype as well as hope that someone as talented and athletic as he would pan out, needs to prove that faith in him was not misplaced.
At stake: flyweight contendership. There are three basic functions to this bout. First, given its placement, it's expected to deliver as a pay-per-view opener (and it should). Second, is Elliott a real contender or is Bagautinov the surging prospect? This fight will help us further understand each fighter's respective placement. Last, but certainly not least, the UFC is slowly putting together a roster of fighters from Russia and former Soviet satellite states both because there's lots of talent to grab and for the long-term prospect of entering the market. Maybe - just maybe - Bagautinov can help further and be a part of that process.