The UFC spring break officially ends Saturday as UFC makes its promotional debut in Sweden with one of MMA's top prospects (coincidentally, a Swede) in the main event. The event - UFC on Fuel 2 - offers the typical fare of what we're accustomed to seeing on the channel: prospects in important fights in their careers looking for advancement and some other bouts thrown in for good measure.
Not every bout on the card carries the weight of the world, but it'd also be wrong to not recognize how much is riding on the main event and even the co-main. Not only does Alexander Gustafsson have a lot to lose, but his opponent Thiago Silva has quite a bit to prove in the headlining fight of the night. The same can be said for Brian Stann as he locks horns with Alessio Sakara in the evening's second biggest bout of the night.
Let's take a closer look at the main card and even a few preliminary card fights to see what Saturday's fighters are up against, what can be gained from a win and where they could find themselves after a loss.
At stake: fulfilling expectations. Some are suggesting should the Swede defeat Silva, he'd be in line for a title shot. That could be true, but between UFC 145 and Dan Henderson waiting in the wings, I'll bet Gustafsson has at least a couple more fights in front of him.
And that's just fine. Some fighters are preternaturally quick to pick up the MMA game. Say, fighters like UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. He's able to technically improve on a timeline that is either too rapid or altogether impossible for others to match. To be fair to Gustafsson, he is warming to the higher end of the game extremely fast, too. Maybe not as fast as Jones, but quick nonetheless. He needs a little bit more seasoning than Jones and there's nothing remotely wrong with that.
That's sort of the point. Jones may ultimately be able to improve more quickly, but Gustafsson shows the sort of promise that tells us he could arrive at the same point as Jones in the future.
Silva is an important test for Gustafsson, but not the type of opponent that springboards him to title shot status. He needs to face a former champion first and given how many times the light heavyweight title has been handed off, that shouldn't be too hard to arrange.
As for Silva, this post probably sounds like I'm discounting his chances. I probably am. I will never rule out the possibility of anyone winning in MMA, let anyone someone as capable of Silva. And a win over Gustafsson would be arguably the best way to re-launch himself into the light heavyweight division after a long hiatus. All sorts of possibilities open up after that, but getting to that point is going to be a herculean climb for the American Top Team product.
At stake: UFC contender viability. This is far less true for Sakara than Stann. The former U.S. Marine suffered a rather dominating defeat at the hands of Chael Sonnen at UFC 136, but is still capable of a real rebound. Overcoming the top-heavy wrestling talent in the middleweight division may prove difficult, but he's got enough existing tools and time to round out the edges on his other skill sets to still give it a go. Besides, Sakara will likely slug it out with Stann. That's a fight I'm betting Sakara loses and the entire experience may end up serving as tune-up for Stann.
Then again, a win over Stann would arguably be Sakara's best to date and would majorly derail a tough divisional talent. Sakara would still have his work cut out for him to continue climbing the ranks, but defeating Stann at least gets that ship sailing in the appropriate direction.
At stake: Momentum. Two different kinds of momentum, though.
For Thiago, he did win his last bout against David Mitchell at UFC 134, but he hasn't quick had the same spark as he did in strong performances against Jacob Volkmann or Josh Koscheck. In fact, he's dropped two of his last three. He'll need to build off the Mitchell win by defeating a talented veteran-yet-newcomer in Bahadurzada to really gather some steam and make some noise in the UFC welterweight division.
Bahadurzada already has momentum going. He hasn't lost since November of 2008, but he also hasn't been facing a commensurate level of competition to Thiago. For hardcore fans of MMA, there's much intrigue and expectation for the first Afghan fighter in the UFC. He's with a strong camp, has the wind at his back and the right kind of opponent to validate interest in him. The last thing he wants to do, though, is start his UFC career off on the wrong foot.
At stake: finding a home. Why is Siver dropping to featherweight? Apparently the lightweights are just getting too big. That's only a mildly surprising justification to hear from Siver given his stocky frame and very respectable power. But, he isn't lording his physical strength over anyone at 155 pounds and wants to see what it feels like there. He's had success at lightweight, but recognizes a title climb is not going to happen for him there.
Can 145 pounds be the answer? Let's see how he looks on Saturday. Does the cut kill him? Is he faster? Stronger? Depending on what kind of effort he turns in, we'll either have a new contender at 145 pounds or a lightweight trying anything to get ahead. In fact, Siver hasn't ruled out a return to lightweight should this gambit prove fruitless. But that's what Siver is looking for: a sweet spot where his talents shine best. Is it at 145 pounds or is it an illusion that doesn't even exist?
Nunes seems to be good; just short of great. He's lightning quick, can fight the full distance of three rounds no problem, has a world-class support system and plenty of other positive traits. He hasn't quite put all of the pieces of his game into place and seems to lack focus fighting even in winning efforts. A win over Siver would not only provide bragging rights, but would likely have to come by uniting many of the things he does well but does so apart from one another.
At stake: a win or a loss. Let's not overstate the stakes. It's true a win or loss in the UFC is no small matter. To Johnson and Maguire it likely means everything. It should. But there aren't divisional implications here. It's also unlikely (though not impossible) either would be cut in the event of a loss. May the best man win.
At stake: positive return from setback. Bantamweight is an increasingly improving division and MMA is no forgiving game. When you lose, sometimes you lose badly and sometimes it damages your career in profound ways.
Both Page and Pickett aren't there yet. The two of them head into the Octagon on Saturday having suffered rather crushing defeats in their last fights, however. Pickett was thrashed by top contender Renan Barao in a one-round tornado of pain while Page lost to Brian Bowles for the second time in a manner - quite literally - identical to the last time he lost to Bowles. Page is also on a two-fight losing streak.
Rebounds matter more in MMA than basketball. Getting on the right path after setbacks is both hard to do and necessary. One defeat, especially a stinging loss, can change a fighter's psyche. Two or three of them in a row will cause them to lose more than their UFC employment. Getting back on the horse is hard, but it's the only option if you plan on riding again.
From the preliminary card:
- Ricardo Almeida black belt Tom DeBlass makes his UFC debut on short notice against Cyrille Diabate. He fills in for Jörgen Kruth, who had to withdraw late due to injury. It's a huge opportunity for the upstart DeBlass. Diabate, meanwhile, has lost two of his last three.
- Top prospect Papy Abedi returns to action after being outclassed by Thiago Alves. While the Alves bout proved he needs more time before he's ready for elite competition, he's still a fighter whose development deserves observation.