This is a bizarre fight card, which I don't necessarily say pejoratively. What I mean is the UFC is offering a card, formed as much by engineering as serendipity, where in three of four bouts on the main card, established fighters have significantly more to lose than gain. Winning in the UFC is always important and there's always something to be gained. I'm not suggesting otherwise, but it is noteworthy that this many competitors of consequence find themselves in this predicament at this precise moment.
Then again, maybe not. One is a blue chip prospect, but one yet to fully assert himself. Another had a more established opponent, but lost the chance to face him due to injury. The third has what some are deeming an easy fight, albeit one that carries as much risk as there is reward.
Perhaps more than any card to date in 2014, this one underscores both a UFC in transition and one actively attempting to create a more hospitable global mixed martial arts climate. By some measurables, their efforts are wildly successful. There are growing television rights deals in countries across the planet. UFC is able to service far more markets at one time (the one hosting tonight's event being one of them). There is evidence fans are responding in kind. The tickets for this event sold out despite no title being up for grabs and only one major name headlining the card. Other recent international cards have also pulled strongly at the gate.
Still, the main card also is an example of trying to work with what's available in world where being good at MMA is a very hard thing to do. There simply aren't that many high-level fighters one can retain and keep the integrity of the product in a perfect and some recognizable state. Responses that the level of talent is appropriate for the medium in which the fight is being broadcast is a non-response. The event is televised in a number of key markets globally, only over the Internet in the United States. In addition, suggesting the talent level is commensurate with the medium, even if that argument weren't already incoherent, is already an admission the quality is reduced. It's true some portion of the MMA fan base refuses to discern talent levels, but the majority of fans do not and can recognize when the product looks as good as it can and when it doesn't.
Whatever the case, the experiment marches forward, with plenty of reason for optimism and just as much for keeping an eye on the product and fan enthusiasm around it. There is no such thing as a free lunch and while markets are being serviced and global fans given access to a product, the question remains about what is happening to that product fans are accessing.
At stake: a date with destiny. Destiny, yes, but arriving from two very different positions. For Manuwa, there are very little expectations of him. Sure, some folks are cheering for him as he is the hometown attraction, but he's 34 and while an accomplished kick boxer, hasn't faced anyone in the MMA even close to the caliber of the Swede. Moreover, he's demonstrated he's rather green when it comes to any portion of the ground game, a place where Gustafsson is as adept as anyone in the light heavyweight division. Still, a win here catapults him into immediate relevancy in a way that almost defies description. Manuwa has a good record in the UFC, but not one that indicates he's earned this sort of fight to claim these kinds of rewards. He's partly here because UFC needs the content to fill the number of shows. But whatever the case, he's here and the stakes are enormous.
As for Gustafsson, not only would losing to a fighter widely considered to not be in the same class as him be detrimental, he'd lose his title shot opportunity guaranteed to him should he win. Gustafsson has been itching for a rematch with Jon Jones since his narrow loss in their first meeting in 2013. Jones has business with Glover Teixeira in April, so while the Swede may not get a second crack at Jones, he would get an opportunity to face whomever is the title holder.
At stake: real divisional placement. I'll get to the real stakes here in just a second, but it'd be criminal to not mention the level of bragging rights up for grabs here. Two former teammates competing, likely with a fair degree of bad blood between them? Yeah, that's something to savor. In any case, this is about getting ranked in the top ten. Guillard's been there before, but has been inconsistent. Johnson's knocking on the door, but isn't quite there. Johnson is also taking this bout on short notice. Whatever the case, this is the sort of contest where the winner can make a claim to being a top 10 talent in the division. The loser, on the other hand, seems destined to be eliminated from that conversation for the foreseeable future.
At stake: visibility. Every so often (and routinely during injury substitutions), weird bouts like this are set up to the product moving. Pickett is making his flyweight debut and was originally set to face Ian McCall until the American withdrew late due to injury. Filing him for him is relative journeyman Seery, who has an okay record, but has admittedly done well of late in the Cage Warriors promotion. Still, unless the cut to flyweight has been hellacious for Pickett and badly compromises his ability to compete, this is a complete washout. Pickett can do wonders for himself with a sensational stoppage win, declaring himself a flyweight contender by virtue of a spectacular win. Seery, it's true, could also do that should he manage to pull the upset, however unlikely that may be.
At stake: turning the corner as a contender. This applies more to Nelson than Akhmedov, which is, Nelson has slowly been improving and fighting better competition, but hasn't yet quite turned the corner where he's routinely facing the division's best en route to a title shot. It's arguable this bout won't help to serve those interests, but I suspect if Nelson shines here, the MMA fan base will be clamoring for the jiu-jitsu and karate fighter to get a crack at the division's deeper talent pool. Akhmedov, by contrast, would giving himself quite the career boost by stopping dead in his tracks the run of a celebrated prospect. Obviously much depends on how he wins just as much as the win itself, but if the Dagestani fighter can show the world something it doesn't expect to see, he'd be doing himself quite the favor.