Benson Henderson might have been defending his lightweight belt on Saturday against any number of guys, and that would have been par for any telecast on what we’ve affectionately come to know as "Big FOX." Yet fate intervened and now Chicago is housing fate’s whims.
But hold up, hold up, hold the f--- up! Before we complain about a free card like perfect ingrates, let’s clear things up and remember how we got to a point where Henderson is not only not defending his belt Saturday night, but looks and feels like Purgatory personified. And let’s remember, too, that there are no straight paths to anywhere in the fight game, despite our continued belief that the future can be neatly plotted (and controlled).
In a nutshell, TJ Grant, the true No. 1 contender at 155 pounds, was supposed to fight Henderson during the Harley Anniversary weekend in Milwaukee, but got concussed in jiu-jitsu training and that opened the door for Wisconsin’s own Anthony Pettis (himself shamanically healed in the nick of time after pulling out of a fight with Jose Aldo four weeks earlier with a knee injury)…Pettis won and shut the door on Henderson for as long as he reigns…(because he’s 0-2 against Pettis now, which ain’t exactly grounds for no threematch)…and with Grant slow to heal in a thrashing sea of lightweights, Josh Thomson was elevated to contender, and matched with Pettis…Pettis got hurt and will be hurt for long while, which means Henderson, stuck in no man’s land, is fighting Thomson this weekend in frigid Chicago, in merciless January, in a non-title fight.
On Big FOX.
That fight is not worthy of Bruce Buffer’s main event evangelism. On a Fight Night card maybe, but not on the FOX flagship. Not when Henderson is all sideways for as long as Pettis holds the title. Think about the stakes: Should Henderson win, the only thing we’ve done is lop off another lightweight contender in Thomson. That means the drama is strictly whether or not Thomson slips and loses his pending shot at Pettis. And to take Thomson at face value, he had the worst camp of his career. That makes him A) a "best camp of my life" cliché buster, and for that kudos to him, and B) vulnerable to losing his place in the pecking order.
But Henderson/Thomson isn’t really the problem. If Henderson wins, hey, feed him to Khabib Nurmagomedov and let the Russian straighten the picture out. The problem is the rest of the card. Free or not, when trying to tantalize those elusive casuals, Darren Elkins and Jeremy Stephens seems like a different kind of portal altogether.
Maybe it’s still in a process of being defined, but the FOX cards were supposed to be a little more glamorous by now, weren’t they? Or at least attention-grabbing?
Forget the big "bonus" card that kicked the FOX/UFC partnership off with Cain Velasquez/Junior dos Santos in 2011, the subsequent FOX cards were all leading somewhere. UFC on FOX 2 had the big relish tray of three co-main events. There was Rashad Evans-Phil Davis, Chael Sonnen-Michael Bisping and Demian Maia-Chris Weidman. After that there was a feeling out process. UFC on FOX 3 went in for an action-driver with Jim Miller-Nate Diaz, but with Johny Hendricks and Josh Koscheck in the wings. FOX 4 was supposed to be Brian Stann and the just signed Hector Lombard (which fell through and became Brandon Vera versus Mauricio Rua).
All understandable, forgivable, playable.
The FOX cards since then have had smaller class title fights as headliners with particularly compelling undercards. FOX 5 had Henderson against Nate Diaz. FOX 6 had flyweight John Dodson against Demetrious Johnson (with strong support). FOX 7 was Henderson versus Gilbert Melendez (with Daniel Cormier and Frank Mir as its co-main). FOX 8 was Johnson defending the 125-pound belt against John Moraga (yet Rory MacDonald against Jake Ellenberger, the lead-up fight, was supposed to scorch the earth). FOX 9 was Johnson against Joseph Benavidez, a rematch. That Sacramento card was stacked before injuries fairly decimated it.
Now granted, UFC on FOX 10 lost its clash between Jared Rosholt and Oleksiy Oliynyk when Oliynyk was injured, so we’re getting a bastardized rendition of the original blueprint (ahem). But still, Stipe Miocic versus Gabriel Gonzaga as a co-main event doesn’t make you want to break out the party favors. And Donald Cerrone against Adriano Martins is, at best, two ships passing in the night. Martins has everything to gain, Cerrone has everything to lose, and it ends up in a question -- why?
And speaking of why, why wasn’t Ricardo Lamas, who’s from Chicago, booked in the main event against Jose Aldo? Wouldn’t that have been the perfect headliner for this card, since they are only a co-main event a week later at UFC 169? Why not at least put name brands like Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem on the card, with the stakes that the loser goes home?
As Dana White likes to say, it is what it is. Sometimes you’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul.
In any case, UFC on FOX 10 comes up a little short of an "event." Aside from Thomson not ceding his contender’s spot, Saturday’s card just doesn’t have the precious stakes and storylines that we’re used to. The winner of Gonzaga-Miocic is, if we’re being generous, "in the mix." While Martins could have a coming out party, Cerrone is stuck fighting for relevancy (and the lure of bonus money). Elkins and Stephens are table-setters fighting for another table to set. These types of narratives leave something for the imagination.
Then again, it’s free, which is the go-to counter-argument for all complaints. Free on Big FOX, which has traditionally been a Big Deal. Perhaps we’re a little spoiled as to what that all means, or what to expect. As Dana White likes to point out as one of the fight game’s cardinal sins: You can’t judge a card before it happens.
You can, of course. And as a way of compensating for the lack of stakes, you can hope that you’re wrong.