The UFC is really hitting their stride with FUEL events. Almost everything they need to do they're accomplishing. In this particular case, they need to satisfy UK market demand by staging a show, deliver a card for FUEL, feature homegrown talent and meet a few other responsibilities. They also need to make sure they deliver quality both at venue and for North American audiences without cannibalizing the rest of their product. They've succeeded rather brilliantly here in no small part because they can offer a title fight of significance and contribute value to all parties despite said bout not being useful for other UFC shows.
FUEL cards aren't marquee events, but they often have the most unique identity. They take place more often than not now overseas (which is a great way to satisfy international demand), feature rising prospects and give local talent a chance to shine. I hesitate to call any card 'perfect' and certainly tomorrow's FUEL card is not. But in terms of what can reasonably be expected from the UFC in terms of what they need to deliver for local audiences and their television partners, there isn't much to criticize here.
So, is there anything at risk for the UFC? Inasmuch as there's risk for any event the UFC stages, sure. But they're firing on all cylinders. They're able to break new ground in the UK with this smaller show, yet feature a fight card mixed with elite as well as local talent in mostly (in some cases very) meaningful bouts.
The only thing really left to say is, well, enjoy the fights.
Renan Barao vs. Michael McDonald
At stake: winning MMA's Last Chance Kitchen. If you watch Bravo's 'Top Chef', then you know eliminated chefs don't go home after being eliminated. They first move to the 'Last Chance Kitchen'. There they'll go up against whichever other eliminated chef is currently the winner of the most recent head-to-head competition against other incoming eliminated chefs. At the end of the season, the chef who is the last winner of Last Chance Kitchen challenge will compete in the finals with the non-eliminate chefs for a chance to win the entire show.
If you've ever been a wrestler, imagine being able to win the NCAA championship despite moving to the wrestlebacks.
Here's my point: there's obviously quite a bit at stake when a UFC title is up for grabs. But because the UFC refuses to strip bantamweight champion Dominkck Cruz, the most significant benefit to winning or keeping the interim bantamweight title is to win the equivalent of Last Chance Kitchen. The last man standing with the belt gets the chance to face the guy with the more important belt.
Cub Swanson vs. Dustin Poirier
At stake: featherweight sweepstakes. It's true UFC believes one of the better way to make interesting lighter weight fights and/or build up Jose Aldo's stature is to ask elite lightweights to face him at featherweight. Ricardo Lamas may have the resume to deserve a title shot, but he doesn't move the needle like the lightweights moving to featherweight do. That may not necessarily be the case with either Swanson or Poirier. Both are either beginning to or have already substantively developed a bit of casual fan awareness and following. Both are highly regarded as competitors, know as much for their technical skills as their ferocity.
Aldo is tied up until August with Pettis and who knows what the fallout of that could be? No matter who wins between Poirier or Swanson on Saturday, it seems almost certain they'll have to fight at least one more time before title talk comes into the picture. Still, beating someone else that exciting and that respected in the division can be the catalyst for a serious title campaign.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Cyrille Diabate, Gunnar Nelson vs. Jorge Santiago
At stake: a chance to build or steal momentum. Manuwa and Nelson are in one position; Diabate and Santiago in the other. The former group are the hot prospects at the beginning of their UFC runs. They need to take out respected if flawed veterans to make the next step in their career and prove just how good they really are. The latter group know the UFC likely expects them to lose, but they contend that is a mistake. They likely believe their experience is being undervalued and their toughness overlooked.
Both groups have a ton of gain, more so the latter. For all that a win over Diabate and Santiago means, prospects often get a mulligan after a misstep. By contrast, Diabate and Santiago are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. A win over a highly-touted prospect is a chance to gain some respect, steal some thunder and demonstrate they are worth another big fight in the UFC.
It's also a rare opportunity to beat a name opponent before they're a name. As good as Manuwa or Nelson may be, they're only going to get better. If you're going to beat them and have that loss stick out on their resume, now is the time to do it.
At stake: a few brain cells. I don't mean to suggest neither is anywhere in the light heavyweight division, but it is fair to suggest the queue is long and hard to climb. At the present moment, both are sufficiently far away that talk of titles or even serious placement in the division is deeply premature.
Every UFC fight is important and every win a building block towards something bigger, but the loser of this bout should not be facing any sort of pink slip. A win is valuable, but a loss is hardly the end of the world. Instead, what both Jimmo and Te Huna need to be more immediately concerned with is the capacity of each man to exact a respectable degree of violence over the other.
At stake: bragging rights. Among UFC welterweights, both Mills and Riddle are something of an afterthought. I positively do not mean that to be derogatory. That they're even in the UFC and several fights into the welterweight dive is evidence they have skills. Yet, they're competing in what is arguably MMA's toughest division. If we're talking about serious players in that space, neither is in the conversation.
But what matters most here is the somewhat amusing if moderately embarrassing stakes Riddle has created by insulting the British, deriding their dental hygiene and lampooning their national identity. I can't confess to finding this even moderately entertaining, but Riddle is all in as evidenced by his ear-to-ear grin at the weigh-ins amidst a showering of boos. Mills, whether he likes it or not, is being tapped to stand up to the boorish American and defend British honor. It's all a circus in the end, but careers and peak athletic moments in fight sports have been built from less. However asinine and manufactured, a win for either man will likely be a source of pride for years to come.