UFC on FOX 7 fight card: What's at stake?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Many fans and even UFC President Dana White express confusion regarding the MMA media's focus on the business end of sports reporting. Looking around the news landscape, reporters covering traditional sports don't have nearly the same obsession, dedication, interest or even need to cover such issues.

It's not accidental why MMA reporters follow ticket sales, television ratings and search trends. For starters, it's one of the few tools to combat promoter spin. More importantly, combat sports always exist in a more tenuous space than traditional counterparts. Combat sports, generally speaking, are much more likely to live and die in boom and bust cycles. Reporting on business is a natural by-product of how close to the earth combat sports hover relative to their traditional sports cousins.

All of that brings us to our present concern. Saturday's card is arguably their strongest FOX card to date, but it lacks the promotional backing of ad space and barking during NFL season. UFC did the right thing by creating this card well in advance, giving itself enough time to promote a card they knew would lack the aforementioned support. The question is whether or not that's enough to match previous ratings benchmarks. Can the UFC put on a sensational card on network television without being buttressed by the network's most popular programming and still draw commensurate ratings?

We're going to find out.

Star-divide

Ben Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez

At stake: title as world's top lightweight. For Melendez, this has been an opportunity a long time coming. Henderson, by contrast, is simply in another title defense. Despite what this means to either fighter, the risk and rewards on this one are actually fairly simple. Henderson is the UFC champ and as such deserves the nod as the top lightweight competing today. Melendez is the Strikeforce champ and as such deserves high praise but not the room to avoid questions about where he truly belongs. Saturday is a chance to resolve the dispute over whether that hierarchy should remain in place.

Frank Mir vs. Daniel Cormier

At stake: a new contender. Heavyweight is thin. The fighters are huge, but the talent isn't rich beyond the top five and certainly not the top ten. Consider Antonio Silva is getting a title shot rematch against Cain Velasquez. Yes, he beat the fighter who was widely expected to get the shot, but he's also in his current predicament because there are few other choices. And he was previously savaged by Velasquez in a way that doesn't inspire confidence no matter how many do-overs he's given.

Mir is known as a dangerous finisher with commendable career highs, but there are concerns he's on the back end of his career. Cormier is relatively old for a fighter (much less a prospect), but he isn't shop worn. His time in the sport isn't infinite either, but there does appear to be a window to make a noteworthy run.

If someone is going to make a move, now is the time. Climbing back from a loss here is going to prove difficult even for a division as thin as this one if for no other reason than the ability to be promoted as a real challenger in the division. Cormier could feasibly do it, but losing to Mir would be a major setback. Mir, by contrast, has changed everything in his training. Losing to a fighter with far less in-cage experience would be a huge indictment on any claims of being a top heavyweight after he's revamped and renovation so much.

A win, however, would be a superb catapult forward. That's true at heavyweight. It may even be true for Cormier if he wants a bout with Jon Jones. Either way, a setback on Saturday puts the loser in a dramatic deficit of becoming a contender, even in a division as remarkably thin as this one.

Nate Diaz vs. Josh Thomson

At stake: limited and lopsided opportunity. This one is a little harder to parse. Thomson is looking for a chance to get back to the top of the lightweight division. When he left the UFC, he did so as one of the world's very best 155 pound fighters. He returns with no real popularity or status bump from his Strikeforce sabbatical. A win over a UFC mainstay like Diaz would do wonders to recapture what has been lost.

Diaz, however, is a tougher nut to crack. He's already considered to be a better fighter than Thomson. He's certainly more highly ranked. A win doesn't do much to put him back at the top of the title queue at lightweight. And even if it did, it's not clear Diaz wants the placement. The Stockton native has talked openly about a move back to welterweight, especially if Melendez (his training partner and friend) defeats Henderson. Any win in the UFC is important, but Diaz is probably looking to remain relevant such that he's given the biggest fight possible.

Matt Brown vs. Jordan Mein

At stake: a move from prospect/veteran to actual contender. A fight with Hardy was a much better deal for Brown. The British slugger was a more known and fan-adored commodity. Just as importantly, Hardy is a dedicated but ultimately flawed fighter. Brown is no world beater, but he had enough to give Hardy a tough fight at worst, a beating at best. Brown still had quite a bit to lose against Hardy, but the upside of a potential victory was significantly high.

Mein is the opposite. He's a better, fresher fighter than Hardy with far more offensive tools. He also has a name only known to hardcores, realistically speaking. There's credibility for Brown should he get the win and it's not as if he's beyond the stage of his career where that sort of achievement is hugely helpful. But it's much harder slogging for a moral victory.

Mein, by contrast, has a chance to make a considerable splash. He's a late replacement, Brown is at least regarded as a reasonable test for prospects and FOX is a incomparable platform. Beating Dan Miller was impressive and the jiu-jitsu black belt might be a tougher fight than Brown. But the exposure is probably greater and the combination of first defeating Miller with Brown afterwards is the kind of achievement that creates momentum and changes one's placement in the welterweight division. Mein's at the beginning of a long journey, but this is his chance to move from prospect to contender.

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