The UFC's near ubiquity on television, tiered system of events and international expansion has resulted in something curious, but fun: the ability to explore new markets stateside.
In all their travels in all these many years, the brand leader in mixed martial arts has never been to Orlando, Florida. South Florida is a different story, although events there have sometimes produced mixed results at the gate or with fan enthusiasm. But that's not the case here. The event at the Amway Center is sold out and media participation is high.
What's been the difference in terms of exploring new markets? In part, just the willingness to try, but also the other reasons aforementioned. They have the infrastructure developed now to stream their fights from virtually any relatively modern venue; the events don't all have to be pay-per-view size, so different markets present different opportunities; and UFC has become at least some part of the sporting diet among North American consumers.
We all talk about international expansion, but perhaps the other story to be told is the UFC's visitation to mid-major markets that weren't able to be treated before for what could be perceived as minor reasons that were actually significant roadblocks.
Enthusiasm in the local market is one thing and shouldn't be over looked, but isn't the final arbiter of success. The televisions ratings for big FOX are also part of that equation. They're also part of what we will all look back on when the UFC decides or doesn't to work with FOX once this initial seven-year deal is up. Tonight will either be a moment the UFC uses to tout in their larger body of work during their FOX run or one they try to bury. Historically, outside of a title fight or NFL football season, UFC numbers on big FOX have been mixed. The card is a hardcore fan's delight filled with intriguing, potentially exciting, hugely-relevant fights. As it is always the case, the question is whether those outside of the hardcore kingdom or Orlando, Florida, know that as well.
We're about to find out.
At stake: a shot at the title. This one is fairly straight forward. The winner of this bout is expected to face UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in Mexico at some point in 2014, perhaps 2015. That's the big time, insofar as such a thing can be described.
For Werdum, all of this is a bit of a redemption tour. He was cut from the UFC in 2008, but went on to have a very successful career in Strikeforce, which culminated with a submission victory over Fedor Emelianenko. Along the way, he shored up some of his technical deficiencies and turned himself into a threat in virtually every phase of the MMA game.
Browne is the little engine that could, if that can be said for an enormous 6'7" UFC heavyweight. His career started out decently enough and despite a couple of spots where things didn't exactly go according to plan, he's managed to become a fighter who uses all of his natural athletic gifts supremely well. He's developed dangerous takedown defense, a diverse striking arsenal from the perimeter and has guts for all as long as he needs them.
The difference between them isn't much, except for perhaps a few years in age. They are far apart in terms of where they are in their own career trajectory, however. For Werdum, this might be his only shot at a UFC title. Should Browne fall short here, he may get another opportunity. In that sense, Werdum has more to worry about in terms of defining how his career ends, but in either case, this bout represents everything good about heavyweight fighting in mixed martial arts and two guys who've earned their spot by the sweat of their brow.
At stake: status at the front of the line. Tate hasn't won a fight in the Octagon and Carmouche is in 1-2 inside the UFC. To put it mildly, things aren't going exactly as expected for either competitor. Even if you write off the loss both have in the UFC to Ronda Rousey, there's something to be concerned about. Tate was looking in control against Cat Zingano until the fight slipped through her fingers. Carmouche had a strong showing against Jessica Andrade, but looked lifeless against Alexis Davis. If there's pressure to be felt in this bout, both fighters are probably sharing and equal burden.
A loss here is damaging, but I don't think it's employment ending. Tate is a bit of a fan fixture with a fan-friendly style. She was a coach on The Ultimate Fighter and has taken Rousey deeper into a fight than anyone. Carmouche holds a position in history with Rousey for the first women's fight ever in the Octagon. Perhaps most importantly, the division itself isn't particularly deep. In short, these two women would be missed by fans in a division that needs all the fighters fan can care about.
What this fight more likely represents is the spoils that come with being closer to the front of the divisional line: bigger fights on bigger stages against more recognizable opponents. That means more attention, more media, perhaps bigger paydays and better sponsorship opportunities. We can't rule out either fighter being cut with a loss, but we should more likely expect them to fade into a portion of the UFC space where everything blends together.
At stake: ladder climbing. It's probably premature to say the winner of this bout gets a title shot, not simply because of the distance between these competitors and the very top of the division, but also because of champion Anthony Pettis' schedule. There's also the issue of the prelim 'headliner' in Rafael dos Anjos vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. But if there's a lightweight title hunt shortlist, the winner of this bout is going to be on it.
For Cerrone, beating a striker as feared and respected as Barboza at his own game or leveraging his skill advantages on the mat over the Brazilian would be a statement. For Barboza, defeating a competitor as experienced and highly-ranked as this one would move his career to a place it has never been before.
One of the most interesting prospects is how the entertainment value of this bout could buoy the winner's title shot aspirations. Cerrone isn't the best wrestler and Barboza has formidable takedown defense. In all likelihood, this one will be contested on the feet where both are known as devastating attackers. A win here is nice, sure, but a win in a war or a war with a spectacular finish can fast track just about anyone.
At stake: rounding the corner. There's lingering doubt about both Tavares and Romero. How good are they really? Who in their division of note can they really beat? They're fair questions, and yet, run headlong into the surprising truth their resumes speak. Both have done far better than expectations, but both still have quite a ways to go. This isn't the sort of bout that makes or breaks a career, unless the performance is so incredibly bad or good. That's also not the sort of clean, polished performance either gives. Tavares is an up from the bootstraps fighter whose skills seem to accrue fight over fight. Romero often makes terrible decisions in competition, but is saved by his ungodly athleticism. If either Tavares or Romero are to challenge those at the top of the division, they must continue to do what they've done right. The trick to this bout, as it is with every incremental challenge in the UFC, is to commit fewer errors than ever. Then again, if you're Romero, it's often better to be lucky than good.