As the saying goes, every fight in the UFC is the most important of a fighter's career. That's true whether you're contending for a title or making your UFC debut. There may be no gold up for grabs at UFC on FUEL TV in Omaha, Nebraska, but that doesn't mean tonight's fights aren't about something more than a win or loss on a fighter's record. Let's take a closer look at what tonight's fighters face at this moment in their careers.
You don't get many climbs up the welterweight ladder. This is Ellenberger's moment to capitalize on the momentum he's been building. Lose it now and he could very easily never get it again. To the point: it's not clear whether a win over Sanchez would get him a title shot. He could just as easily face the winner of Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks and maybe even Martin Kampmann vs. Thiago Alves. If the method of victory over Sanchez is dominant or uniquely impressive, that could also affect whom he faces next. The key is this: he's one or two wins away from the opportunity of a lifetime.
Sanchez, by contrast, probably would not be considered for a title shot with a win over Ellenberger. 'The Juggernaut' has put together a better streak and that's enough of a difference to earn matchmaking preference. Still, a win over Ellenberger could arguably place Sanchez back in the top 10 of the division. Most importantly, we need to see what's left of Sanchez's game. He got by Martin Kampmann with dubious judging after absorbing a tremendous amount of punishment. The win was outstanding, but it wasn't a showcase of technical ability. A fighter can go far willing themselves to victory and Sanchez is living proof. Over time, however, skills win fights. What Sanchez needs to demonstrate is that his skills at welterweight are on par with the surging Ellenberger. If he can do that and win in the process, Sanchez would be back in the 170-pound division in a major way.
Neither is clamoring for a shot with Junior dos Santos or any of the division's elite just yet and who can blame them? They've both got some issues to iron out. Struve admitted his own poor risk management has caused him to lose fights he shouldn't have. He's been up and down in the UFC heavyweight division, but he most recently earned a win over Pat Barry at UFC on Versus 6. Beating Herman is a nice feather in the cap, but what is most important is how he does it. He needs to abandon the kamikaze style for a more measured approach, but not one so suffocating he ends up being less offensively potent. If he wants to go anywhere in this division, he's got to show more than physical maturation. Strategy matters and he needs to prove he can execute an effective game plan where strategy is evident.
For Herman, it's hard to know where his ceiling is. He's clearly an athletic heavyweight with real talent, but also a bit of a head case. He, too, has maturity issues. That's why this fight is so intriguing. Both will be tempted by their own reckless inclinations as well as the bad habits of the other to reject real use of strategy. For Herman and Struve alike, this fight is less about collecting scalps and more about demonstrating that tactics and plans are a real priority for them.
There is no debate about it: the middleweight division is one of MMA's thinnest. That's why it's exciting and intriguing when a blue chip light heavyweight prospect makes the move to 185 pounds to forward his career. For Nova Uniao's Markes, the sky appears to be the limit. Beating Simpson would be a very commendable achievement. Simpson's talents are lopsided towards wrestling, but in that space they're potent. If Markes can effectively shutdown Simpson's game enough to stifle the Arizonian and in turn use his offensive weapons, he'll be passing a key test in a prospect's development.
Simpson, at age 37, is apparently past some health-related issues and says he feels as good as new. He also believes he can compete for years to come. He's probably being candid, but physical decline as an athlete can best be mapped by a negative exponential decline, not an arithmetic one. You never know when it will hit, but rest assured when it does time is short. If Simpson feels as physically good as he says he does, he needs to do everything possible to maximize his exposure. Win big enough and do media well enough to get better opponents on bigger stages for bigger paydays. He's not on a contenders path right now - the best one to gain aforementioned attention and riches - but beating Markes in impressive fashion is a good first step on that road.
As far as the MMA cognoscenti is concerned, Miocic is the one to watch. A former Division I wrestler and Golden Gloves boxing champion, Miocic has entered the UFC with a fair amount of hype. He turned in a capable performance against Joey Beltran in his UFC debut, but needs to show more of his skills and killer instinct to truly impress. Against a talented but limited fighter in De Fries, tonight presents the perfect opportunity to do exactly that.
De Fries, on the other hand, is something of an afterthought. Beating a monitored prospect like Miocic isn't like Gabriel Gonzaga shaking the foundations of MMA by head kicking Mirko 'Cro Cop', but it could be a nice way to force the rest of the MMA world to pay closer attention to him. When fans and media pay closer attention, UFC brass are much more likely to set them up with bigger opportunities.
This is a dangerous fight for two top prospects. Dillashaw comes in with Team Alpha Male backing and a menacing skill set. Yet, he fell short against John Dodson in his UFC debut. He seems to have all the potential in the world and desperately needs to avoid going 0-2 to start his UFC career. I'm sure he's mentally tough, but that kind of rough start to such a critical stage of a fighter's career can play head games. Best to avoid that by getting through Watson.
Watson, too, needs to avoid dropping two straight. The UFC is rumored to be cutting the size of their bantamweight and featherweight divisions. Losing two straight is no way to be sure you'll stick around even if the losses come to credible opposition. Then again, beating a strong wrestler when you're primarily a striker also sends a powerful message about how far you can go in this game. It's up to Watson to figure out which message he'll convey.
Albert is being widely discounted here, although not for totally unfounded reasons. Menjivar is a serious talent and experienced fighter. He's a handful for anyone in the division. As a result, a win by Albert would be a nice signature victory and a serious statement about his upside in a very deep bantamweight talent pool.
I've long considered Menjivar to be the sleeper of the bantamweight division. If the critics and oddsmakers are right, this is not much more than a tune up fight for 'The Pride of El Salvador'. Certainly a win would be a setback, but this is more about getting the right kind of performance out of himself for a subsequently bigger and more lucrative challenge.
From the undercard:
- Jonathan Brookins desperately needs to avoid a loss tonight. Dropping two consecutive fights since going back to featherweight puts him in a precarious place. If you consider his loss to Jose Aldo at WEC 36, another defeat would mean he's never won at 145 pounds under the Zuffa banner. With limited roster availability at featherweight, this sends all the wrong messages to UFC brass. That's especially true since his opponent, Vagner Rocha, has a limited skill set he should be able to overcome.