Is tonight the biggest fight in UFC history? It's certainly the biggest rematch, surpassing the second fight between Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo, the rematch between Couture and Chuck Liddell and arguably a notch above Brock Lesnar's second fight with Frank Mir. As for the original question, I can buy the idea this particular main event is the biggest UFC fight ever. The event itself, however, will probably fall short of UFC 100 and perhaps even UFC 116 in terms of being a pay-per-view draw.
Interestingly, much of the promotion has happened in the absence of UFC President Dana White. While he hasn't been entirely absent, his presence has been less ubiquitous. I don't know if that's by accident or design, but maybe that's all for the best. White won't always be around to buoy shows with his presence and panache. UFC learning how to promote without him (or with less of him) isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The only risk the UFC faces here is falling short of expected returns. MMA is no longer in the boom market that lasted through 2010. UFC 148 has also been an organ donor of sorts to other UFC events in close proximity that needed fights after key participants on those fight cards were injured. And UFC's television partner in FOX was noticeably and inexplicably missing in helping to promote this event. If UFC 148 is to cross the coveted one million pay-per-view marker, it will have done so in a cooled market and without real assistance from a television group White once dubbed 'the best partners' the UFC has ever had. A big night tonight is a win by UFC, for MMA.
As for the fighters themselves, let's take a closer look and examine what a win or loss means for them this evening.
At stake: everything, especially for Sonnen. It's hard to overstate the stakes here. If this is the biggest fight in UFC history, then there are a near infinite number of ways to unpack all that's on the line, all that a win or loss means.
The truth, though, is there's much more to lose here for Sonnen. Should he win tonight, he'll be a bonafide star. A former journeyman who talked his way to the top while quietly improving his fighting ability along the way to defeating the best fighter the sport has ever seen...and while he's in his 30s. There is no precedent for something like this in modern combat sports.
On the other hand, should he lose the phenomenon known as Sonnen is effectively over. Sure, he'll still have fans and a big fight or two, but Sonnen needs an antipode. There is no greater one than the greatest ever. Losing to Silva - especially if it's particularly one-sided - is losing him as a foil, target and rival. Sonnen's absurd charade is only effectively offset when contrasted against it's opposite. Outside of Silva, there is no such person.
It's fairly obvious what's in store for Silva if he wins: the status quo. And if he loses, there's a) a rubber match in store and b) the undeniable reality he's already achieved quite a bit in the sport. His legacy takes a ding, but not one that alters its fabric.
This is it for Sonnen. Either he wins tonight and achieves one of the most miraculous career turnarounds in MMA history or all of that sound and fury meant little in terms of sporting accomplishment. Tonight is do or die for the Gangster from West Linn, Oregon.
Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Grifin
At stake: a last impression. This isn't Griffin's final fight, but it is his final fight with Ortiz. Both have been close, the latter one surprisingly so (although I personally didn't think it was as close as it was scored). While Griffin has clearly peaked as a professional fighter, he's still competitive with other elite light heavyweights. If he isn't to retire, beating Ortiz is helpful way to stay in relevant bouts for the short run in however much longer his career continues. It also can't be bad for self-confidence and personal competitive spirit to take two out of three against a UFC Hall of Famer and the only man Griffin has fought that many times.
Ortiz obviously would like to end his career on a win. And like Griffin, against a fighter with whom he has some history - real or manufactured. This isn't the Liddell trilogy, but it isn't a negligible relationship with Griffin either. I get the cosmic sense Ortiz's win over Ryan Bader was all of the redemption from career difficulty Ortiz was ever going to receive. Asking for it against Griffin seems almost greedy. Still, Ortiz looked physically prepared at yesterday's weigh-ins. Going out on a high note is clearly a massive priority.
At stake: a future. This is more true for Cote than Le. As the former Strikeforce middleweight champion has indicated, tonight could be his last fight and he'd be satisfied with what he's accomplished in the sport thus far. His acting options have also had to his career fulfillment. Still, he hasn't declared retirement intentions and certainly wouldn't want to drop two straights, which coincidentally would be his only two in the UFC. There's face-saving to be done and a win over Cote - arguably the most legitimate opponent Le has faced - goes a long way toward that end.
Cote has a different set of priorities. At 32, he doesn't have time to get bounced from the UFC again. If he's going to do anything of significance in his career again, he's going to do it now. That may or may not be a title shot, but it can easily be a big paycheck, headlining a smaller UFC event, getting a win over a top-ranked opponent and the like. Beating Le would be a great launching pad if Cote is to do anything of relevancy in MMA again.
At stake: relevancy. Both Maia and Kim have fallen on something of hard times. Not 'being cut from the UFC' hard times, but something resembling invisibility. For Maia, he's been in a decision rut - win or lose - at middleweight and is seeking a fresh start. Welterweight is a considerably tougher division, but he'll ostensibly have some physical size to lord over opposition.
Kim was on a roll up through UFC 125 where he beat Nate Diaz. But the loss to Condit seemed to instantly derail him. He rebounded with a win over Sean Pierson, but needs a name opponent to recapture his lost luster.
Kim is useful for the UFC insofar as their South Korean expansion plans are concerned. A loss here won't be the end of the world. Maia, too, isn't performing so poorly he risks losing his job. But each of these fighters need a boost to extract themselves from this career inertia.
At stake: nothing and something. This fight isn't meaningless, but only by virtue of any and all fights having some sort of existential value. Short of that, it's absurd and nonsensical.
Mendes gains little with a win. He's clearly a superior fighter in virtually every respect and if he can avoid the only true weapon McKenzie possesses (the guillotine), this should be a very manageable affair. A loss, by contrast, would be fairly devastating for Mendes' young career, although not debilitating.
McKenzie might be able to notch a win here, although I doubt it. I'm told by several professional grapplers his game is not particularly effective against solid competitors at grappling tournaments. If the guillotine-only game of McKenzie doesn't work at Grapplers Quest, it has no business working over the long haul in the UFC. A win likely only delays in the inevitable for McKenzie. A loss accelerates it, namely, departure from the UFC. There isn't much more to this bout than that.
At stake: interim title shot...almost. No, the winner of this bout doesn't get an interim title shot against the eventual winner of UFC 149's Renan Barao vs. Urijah Faber, but they put themselves close. Easton tells me he's been informed by UFC management a win over Menjivar (particularly a stoppage win) puts him in top three consideration for a shot.
There are other sorts of pressures here. Menjivar needs to finally put his considerable ability and veteran experience to good use. Easton, too, needs to finally show the UFC bantamweight division what he's capable of by being more proactive and mixing up his offense. The truth, though, is that this is about laying claim to a bigger fight that will position the winner for an interim bantamweight title opportunity.