The UFC isn't really risking much with this event. They're in a market that's traditionally been responsive to their product. They're trotting out arguably their best fighter in a bout where he's generally expected to win. The rest of the card is filled with respectable fights, some of which are excellent. Others are pretty ho-hum, but buried on the Facebook portion of the card. There isn't much to complain about as a fan. There isn't much to fret about as an observer.
If we had to look closely and nitpick for the sake of being nitpicky, though, there are two aspects of this event that concern me. First, it's proximity to Mayweather vs. Canelo. I've long believed the MMA and boxing fanbases are largely distinct, but an event the size of which we saw last week crosses so many boundaries, there could be some reason to be concerned about sort of buy rate tonight's MMA event will pull.
The other worry one could have is about turning Jones into a star. He doesn't seem to have found a breakout, star making moment. It's been a slow build and one that's gone well enough, I suppose. But again, we are talking about arguably the best fighter in the world who is in the early prime of his career. One wonders if 400,000 and 500,000 are truly the best he can do in terms of per event pay-per-view buys. Is there more the UFC could be doing to enhance his star power? Is this really all there is to it? Is it just a function of time? There are no clear answers to those questions, but that's not the point. The issue is that it's quite appropriate to ask them.
At stake: different kinds of history making. Personally speaking, I don't believe there's a light heavyweight on the planet who can defeat Jon Jones. I could be right or wrong, but no bother. The point is there's a wider perception about Jones that's displaying something similar. Many, if not most, rational observers understand the magnitude of talent we are dealing with is something close to if not outright peerless. Again, I'm not suggesting the number of people who believe such a thing makes it true, but rather, we should acknowledge the larger reality before us.
That means Gustafsson's opportunity isn't simply about the life-changing opportunities that come from winning the belt, but upending our very sense about how the top of the light heavyweight division operates. Gustafsson has a chance to re-write the 'laws of MMA' as they apply to what has historically been the UFC's marquee division. To upend the career trajectory of a man many believe to be the best fighter alive destroys our impressions of who is where, why what works and who Gustafsson is as a competitor.
For Jones, this is about solidifying a place in history. Now, he's already done that to some extent. And he'll do it again later in other ways if his exploits keep growing in number and stature. But beating Tito Ortiz's light heavyweight title defense record is a sign post of achievement anyone can grasp: no one in this storied division has ever so dominant a champion. And to do it against a young fighter in his prime who isn't weathered by years in the game helps wash away the argument that Jones only collected the bones of his fading elders to get to where he is today.
At stake: proving their true value. We think we know how good Renan Barao is. We also think we know how talented Eddie Wineland is. The standard argument is Barao is either the best or second best bantamweight in the world and Wineland, while highly respectable, is something of an elite gatekeeper. This fight represents a chance to either affirm those positions or explode them altogether. Obviously the winner will earn (or keep) a UFC title, and that's a particularly high achievement in the sport. But more than anything else, this fight aims to answer the question, "Are they who we thought they were?"
At stake: UFC worthiness. I'm not claiming either fighter will be cut with a loss. After all, we're living in a world where UFC is strangely signing all sorts of heavyweight talent that appear to be sub-UFC level (Jared Rosholt, Nikita Krylov, Soa Paleilei, etc.). But we are also living a world where we're ready to make a final determination about Schaub and Mitrione's ability and how much longer they have left at this level. Both fighters are coming off of wins, but a loss here would have them dropping three of their last four. A best case scenario for the pair would be going .500 in that same stretch. When I say 'UFC worthiness', I mean someone who can beat enough good fighters at this level consistently to merit good card placement, attention, promotion and more. Schaub and Mitrione are both talented enough and flawed enough such that the winner in this bout keeps themselves sufficiently relevant while the loser sends a message to brass that the sponge of viability is just about out of water.
Francis Carmont vs. Costa Philippou
At stake: middleweight pecking order placement. The victor in this contest might emerge as a legitimate 'contender', but I don't want to oversell the risks and rewards here. Certainly Carmont and Philippou have put together commendable winning streaks. And certainly both merit a tough fight against someone, like themselves, who appears to be on the precipice of breaking through to the next level. Neither will necessarily be badly damaged by a loss, but a win here is a key component in continuing the process they're on today. It's a long road to top contendership, much less the title. A win at this career juncture is hugely helpful if they want to get as far as they can.
At stake: Anthony Pettis sweepstakes. Neither of these fighters can be told they're too far from a title shot. They still have to win tonight and probably against a couple more contenders, but they are legitimately on the shortlist. The reality is Gilbert Melendez is likely to get another crack at it sooner rather than later. We'll see what happens with Josh Thomson, but after that the picture isn't so clear. Rafael dos Anjos is floating around, too, but he's only a couple of steps ahead of either Healy or Nurmagomedov. Some might object that Healy's no-contest against Jim Miller nullifies the argument and to some extent they're right. But if the American can look as impressive in victory over Nurmagomedov as he did in a perennial top ten fighter in Jim Miller, the truth of the resume will be too hard to ignore. Conversely, there's legitimate hype growing behind the Daegestani. A win over a veteran and enormous a lightweight as Healy would only serve to help the legend grow.