When UFC 144 was announced, critics considered it a vanity project. Supporters, on the other hand, thought it would be a fun, but relatively unimportant effort in Zuffa's grander global ambitions. The truth about UFC 144 is just how full of consequence it actually is. Among title shots, the ability to rejuvenate a tainted market and divisional contendership, the risks/rewards are higher for this event than any other in recent months. Let's take a closer look and examine what's on the line for Saturday night's fights.
At stake: Opportunity cost. Here's a thought experiment: imagine if this event was cancelled immediately, but you had to place the existing fights on other UFC fight cards within a reasonable proximity. You could divide it any number of ways, but what you'd immediately discover is how much better several other important UFC events would instantly become.
Two examples stand out. UFC 145's headliner is arguably one of 2012's best, but should something happen to it there's no supporting cast on that fight card to make it a box office or pay-per-view success. UFC on FOX 3's main event between Nate Diaz and Jim Miller could end up being fight of the year, but neither has the promotional muscle to guarantee good ratings.
The point is this: UFC serves a lot of masters. They have to annually fill shows for more than a dozen pay-per-view events, four UFC on FOX shows, two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter and much more. With a finite talent pool available, they're doing the best they can to make each event special. One wonders, however, if resuscitating a Japanese market - an effort with no guarantee of success - is worth more putting a fighter tailor made for the FOX platform like Frankie Edgar in front of his hometown New Jersey crowd.
At stake: The title. Both fighters are young enough in their careers such that a setback here doesn't necessarily close off second opportunities at a title. The risk, therefore, is not as high as the reward and that's good for both competitors. The prize is enormous and a career changer for Henderson should he wrestle away the title from the champion. For Edgar, it's unclear what effect even a dominating win over Henderson will have on the MMA community. The champion is the odds-on favorite to win this weekend (just barely), but still doesn't command the overwhelming respect other divisional champions in the UFC enjoy. In part, that's due to the parity of the lightweight division as well as Edgar's less than gripping personality. Still, one wonders what will move Edgar past the tipping point of doubt or reluctance in the minds of the MMA faithful.
At stake: Divisional relevance. Both Jackson and Bader had mixed success in 2011. Bader dropped two of three, but rebounded nicely against Jason Brilz at UFC 139. Jackson went one for two. Both lost to Jon Jones. At the time of this writing, Bader is ranked, 16th in the light heavyweight division, while Jackson is 5th. That means a win for Bader could see him return to the top ten while a loss for Jackson might push him out of that elite group. Neither fighter faces the chopping block should they lose and Rampage is popular enough to get a reasonably big fight almost no matter what happens until his inevitable departure. That said, Rampage is closer to retirement than ever. A terrible loss to Bader that pushes Rampage out of the top ten could accelerate his retirement time line. Bader, on the other hand, has an opportunity here to right the wrongs of last year against one of MMA's most popular figures.
At stake: Consciousness. A win for either fighter doesn't do much for their personal standings. They won't be inched closer to title shots even as thin as heavyweight may be. Kongo and Hunt, however, possess the ability to do serious bodily harm. Given the less than stringent use of risk management by both fighters, that means the biggest threat here is physical health.
At stake: Unemployment. Let's be clear about the terms: a win here is fairly essential. The assumed UFC ‘three strikes and you're out' rule is overstated, so it's not as if they'll surely be cut should they fall short. But they'd be perilously close.
Shields understandably lost to the best welterweight on the planet in his second UFC bout. He also understandably lost to one of the division's top contenders shortly after his father's untimely passing in his third. Losing to Akiyama - who is making his welterweight debut - now after he's had at least some time to regroup would be nearly unforgivable. Akiyama is an excellent grappler, but this is Shields' fight to lose particularly given Akiyama's notorious gas tank issues.
For Akiyama, he's useful to the UFC given his relative popularity in Japan. He could potentially occupy a roster spot courtesy the relative leeway UFC brass are likely to grant him. But dropping from middleweight to welterweight is going from the frying pan into the fire. Shields is no easier a fight than anything he's faced at middleweight and is arguably tougher. A win over the former Strikeforce middleweight champion would be a significant victory, but it'd also be euphemistic to say Akiyama's got his work cut out for him on Sunday morning.
At stake: Not much. A win over a highly-ranked Okami would the biggest win of Boetsch's career, but he's miles away from a title shot. Okami's mostly on this card because of his nationality and doesn't really get much from a win over Boetch save for another try in the Octagon. Middleweight is thin enough that neither fighter is hugely set back with a loss, but the stakes are also low enough that neither is propelled too far ahead with a win.
At stake: Image blandishment. Hioki entered the UFC heralded as one of the few Japanese imports with the skills to compete with the UFC's elite featherweights. The jury is still out on whether that's actually true and he wasn't particularly impressive in his UFC debut against George Roop (Roop arguably won). If he gets blasted by Palaszewski, all the hype and inflated rankings will appear to have been just that.
For ‘Bartimus', he's already much of a known commodity. A well-rounded veteran, he isn't a world beater. However, he has shown capacity to rise to the occasion. He holds wins over Anthony Pettis and Tyson Griffin. Palaszewki isn't going to challenge Jose Aldo any time soon, but beating Hioki would be in keeping with his ability to earn victories over odds-on favorites and in this case, a highly-ranked competitor.
At stake: Contendership. Lauzon told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani that UFC matchmaker Joe Silva told him they wanted his fight with Pettis in Japan in case something happened to Henderson and a replacement was needed. That doesn't mean a win over Pettis necessarily guarantees a title shot. UFC on FOX 3's Miller vs. Diaz is likely up next. But it puts both Lauzon and Pettis near the front of a very long queue. For Pettis, that's familiar territory. Lauzon, on the other hand, has fallen short against top flight talent each time he's tried to climb the divisional ladder. Beating Pettis arguably puts him in the most favorable contendership position of his entire UFC career.
From the preliminary card:
- Takanori Gomi has a tougher than reported fight on his hands against Eiji Mitsuoka. A win for Gomi could push him back to the main card. A loss to Mitsuoka, which would be Gomi's third in a row, could mean his exit from the UFC.
- Norifumi Yamamoto has a very winnable fight against the scrappy but limited Vaughan Lee. Yamamoto is a popular figure in Japan and therefore valuable to the UFC. However, if he is losing to the likes of Lee, is he worth the roster spot for the occasional visit to Japan UFC will be able to make?