The level of enthusiasm for the UFC 146 fight card is somewhat dampened from what it had when the original line up came together. The departure of Alistair Overeem from the title fight and event altogether is mostly to blame, but other injuries have also contributed to that diminished feeling. Another unfortunate result of the reshuffling is the UFC's effort to gain marketing and press traction with the all-heavyweight main card fell short.
Still, tonight's card is fairly spectacular. For starters, every single fight on the preliminary portion of the card either promises to deliver a healthy dose of violence or carries important stakes of its own (that's especially true for Dan Hardy and Jason Miller). If you removed the entire main card, the preliminary card would make for an excellent UFC on FX card by itself.
Most importantly, though, is context. In this age of more UFC cards than we can handle, plan A is usually far, far better than plan B. That is, when the original fight or fights that supposed to be a part of a fight card fall through, there often isn't anything left that's nearly as exciting or important. Nowhere is that more true than UFC on FUEL TV 3, where the card lost all local attractions and the original main event. What's excellent about UFC 146's main card is not just how good it is in spite of essentially being a replacement card to the original, but that the B card is still A card quality. That they were able to maintain the all-heavyweight angle of it makes the entire effort even more remarkable.
But that's the card itself. Let's take a closer look inside tonight's event to see what's at stake for the ten fighters in tonight's five main card bouts.
Junior dos Santos vs. Frank Mir
At Stake: more than just a title. If we're being serious, the title is obviously the most coveted prize and potential acquisition in tonight's contest. I've found the UFC-pushed marketing line that this is some sort of revenge for the champion since Mir broke his friend and mentor's arm at UFC 140 to have never really gained any steam. The title is up for grabs and with the unpredictability in MMA, that's enough of a marketing angle in and of itself. That's especially true when both competitors can't bring themselves to pitched animosity to sell a fight.
In truth, though, there is a little bit more than just a title on the line. Mir can become a three-time heavyweight champion with a victory, something only Randy Couture has managed to achieve. For dos Santos, this could be the start of a long title reign. There is little worse than winning the title only to surrender it in your first defense. This is a chance to begin cementing his placement as the heavyweight far and above his peers.
Dos Santos is also slowly but surely building himself into a popular attraction for MMA fans, casual and hardcore alike. He's not there yet and frankly has a long way to go. But each top performance - and all the media accompaniment that comes with it - is another building block towards that end. As he perfects his punch as much as his English, his endearing attitude and ferocious fighting style is gaining admirers, one unconscious opponent at a time.
At Stake: legitimate contendership. From everyone I've spoken to close to the situation, Velasquez was badly injured heading into his bout with Junior dos Santos at the first UFC on FOX 1. Now is a chance (assuming he's healthy) to right what went wrong that fateful evening. It's not just a win, but an opportunity to demonstrate the shoulder surgery didn't set him back; that getting knocked out didn't psychologically hatch any self-doubt; to justify the belief many have in him as the world's best heavyweight. A win over Silva won't accomplish the latter, but it will put him on a path to re-establishing faith.
For Silva, this is also not just a chance to get on the winning side of the ledger, but to do so in a way that would catapult him to the top of the division. It's a huge opportunity and one he stumbled into by accident; one he may never get again. Silva's always been as flawed as he is talented. More technical than he's given credit, he often loses fights on a lack of hustle. Against Velasquez, he's got his work cut out for him (specifically in that regard), but great challenges translate to enormous opportunities.
At Stake: opportunity at continued visibility. Neither of these fighters is going to earn a title shot winning tonight. They may not even get a fight after this that puts them any closer. However, both fighters deliver a quotient of entertainment and do so at a technical level higher than what you'll likely see in Struve vs. Johnson. Yes, Herman lost to Struve and Struve is only facing Johnson because of Mark Hunt's last-minute departure. But Herman doesn't fight like Johnson, nor does Nelson. This match-up between hirsute heavyweights won't be a replay of Nogueira vs. Barnett, but it promises to be enough of a display of skill and entertainment that the eventual winner will be able to stay visible as a main card fighter in future UFC events.
At Stake: being a heavyweight real deal Holyfield. Not the actual Evander Holyfield, of course, but whenever two prospects fight one another - particularly when they're undefeated - winning is an undeniable statement of potential growth and even arrival as a burgeoning contender. Still, I'd caution reading too much into this (depending on the complexion of the fight). I tend to view del Rosario as the more well-rounded of the two, but his time off from the sport after recovering from being hit by a drunk driver is a major x-factor. He can still win tonight, but if he loses and even loses soundly it's still not clear what that could mean. Both fighters seem to have promising futures and there can be no understating what a resounding performance tonight can do for the victor. Let's just be careful about suggesting the loser of this bout is in a markedly different position.
At Stake: physical health, and maybe a chance to prove something more. This fight is similar to Johnson's last fight at UFC on FOX 3 against Pat Barry. They're at the beginning of the main card because they're expected to deliver fireworks. Johnson knows it, Struve knows it, we know it.
Johnson, more than Struve, is more at peace with a loss given certain circumstances. If he fights the way he prefers and happens to get rendered unconscious in the process, all can be forgiven in time. Struve is similar, but still believes in his ability and the need to develop as a prospective talent. Struve isn't opposed to falling on his sword, but he also views himself as a budding contender whose well-rounded skill set can carry him far in the sport. Johnson, by contrast, is MMA's version of a hockey enforcer. And like any hockey fight, Johnson is usually done for by the time it hits the ground.
Tonight is an opportunity for Struve to demonstrate growth in his skill set and fighting maturity...if he chooses to fight that way. Johnson likely views tonight as another chance to let his blood and guts style of brawling earn him adulation, a bonus check and another fight against a fighter who favorably accommodates his style. How it turns out is more up to Struve than Johnson and whether he wishes to inch closer to contendership or serve as reliable if permanently flawed vehicle for entertainment.