UFC on FOX 10 fight card: What's at stake?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The fight card for UFC on FOX 10 is interesting. To be sure, there's a lot of undesirable fluff on there. That Nikita Krylov is fighting in the Octagon while Ben Askren has to take a flight to compete for ONE FC in Singapore would be comical were it not pathetic. That said, Saturday's fight card isn't bad at all. The question is whether people know that.

To the hardcore fan's eye, there's a lot to like here. The main event should be white knuckle, break neck-paced elite MMA action. The co-main will settle a question about future contenders in the heavyweight division. The other two bouts on the main card feature top talent in relevant, important fights. It'd be wrong to bury this card for not meeting fan demand or generally high standards.

The problem, of course, is the dissecting and discerning eye of the dedicated fight fan isn't the most relevant eye. It's certainly not the eye of the majority of viewing public. It's the casual fan that fills the stands and watches on television. In fairness, this event was promoted during some of the best and most-watched NFL games of the season. That can do nothing but help. But tickets sales do not appear to be strong. There's no real big names on the card. No title is up for grabs. The reality is when fans are debating whether an event is good or a card lackluster, that typically means it is, at least to a sizable portion of the crowd.

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I'm sure if viewers tune in tonight, they'll be treated to elite MMA action. That's a non-controversial take here. But even with the push of NFL tie-ins, is there enough heft to grab the viewer? Is that combined with the continuity of Benson Henderson appearances on UFC on FOX events enough to keep FOX happy and an event relevant? I don't know, but we're going to find out.


Ben Henderson vs. Josh Thomson

At stake: losing sands in the hour glass. Henderson isn't up against a wall. I think a fighter like that will always stay relevant for title shots given how competitive he is with all of the best in the division. Even if he loses here, his will is unflappable and skill impossible to overlook. Certainly two losses in a row is nothing to disregard, but we shouldn't overstate the potential consequences either.

Thomson is in a different spot. This might be do or die for him. He's 35 years old, which is aging for MMA, generally, to say nothing of the talent-rich lightweight division. Perhaps most importantly, his win over Nate Diaz was truly spectacular, but his record is up and down in the last few years. If he can't get by Henderson, it's hard to see him putting together a win streak, staying healthy and finding a way to get past a guy when the wind was at his back (bad fight camps, notwithstanding). Maybe it's not do or die. Maybe it is, but if we're even contemplating the possibility of that for a fighter, the issue probably isn't idle.

Stipe Miocic vs. Gabriel Gonzaga

At stake: becoming an elite contender. Both of these fighters are ranked in the top 15 of the division. Miocic is ranked in the top 10. In a division as comparatively thin as this one, being in a position like that means you're never too far from the top. But this isn't about title shots per se. Neither is so far away that the question is irrelevant, but there's a matter more pressing than this one, namely, which fighter is truly elite? Gonzaga has had his career moments. He's fallen short quite a bit, but he at least reached the pinnacle of competing in a UFC title fight. He's shown flashes of brilliance.

Miocic has as well, but is still in the building process of proving where he can go. What we don't know - and what this fight could help decide - is how far that actually is. There's some belief in Miocic that his combination of talents makes him a future title contender. His win over Roy Nelson helped solidify those views, but he has to go further. Gonzaga is a different test, arguably a tougher one. The Brazilian also thinks he has another title run left in him. This bout will help sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of who really is moving into rarefied air.

Donald Cerrone vs. Adriano Martins

At stake: staying visible. I should say this is 'staying visible' for Cerrone, not for Martins. At least not in the same way. The Brazilian is a very talented grappler and the win over Daron Cruickshank was eye opening, but Cerrone is another ball game. A win over the Jackson's MMA product isn't just good for name value recognition, it also proves his worth as a competitor. To put it plainly, should Martins emerge victorious tonight, it would be the most significant win of his career by far. One can imagine how important that can be for all aspects of a fighter's career.

As for Cerrone, he's been slightly up and down in the last few years. He's also told of tales of financial mismanagement and harrowing near-misses in his active lifestyle of rock climbing and four-wheeling. Martins isn't necessarily good for garnering mainstream respect - although hard cores will know what it means - but he is good for putting a win streak together. Where that ends up is hard to say. I don't think Cerrone is an obvious candidate for a title shot at any point in the near future. But win streaks bring more than that, namely, great card placement (which means greater potential for bonuses), bigger name opponents and more visibility generally.

Darren Elkins vs. Jeremy Stephens

At stake: a place in line. Elkins is ranked in the top 10 of the featherweight division and with good reason. Stephens appears to have not lost a step since moving to down from lightweight, but the truth is we haven't really seen him tested in this division. Of course, he faced a number of incredibly talented and tough fighters at lightweight, but this is different. Often when a fighter drops weight classes it resets and refreshes them (other times it does nothing or it's a disaster). The key question is whether this Jeremy Stephens, for all his talents and faults, is still the same one that existed at lightweight? Moreover, if Stephens is renewed and has gained some advantages from the drop, he's going to want to take Elkins' place in the contendership queue. The stakes in this fight are surprisingly high.

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