I am often asked by UFC faithful and skeptics alike what more UFC can do to better promote their fighters or events, particularly those at lightweight or below. My response is the same: the UFC sometimes stumbles (no organization is can execute every time), but they more often than not do an admirable job of leveraging their considerable resources.
The central question, though, is not what the UFC can or can't do from a resources standpoint. That's a necessary condition for large-scale success, but by itself is insufficient. The chief consideration is what larger phenomenon can they discover or harness that captures the attention of everyone around them.
Big fights are big because the UFC worked in concert with and left most of the heavy lifting of promotion to interested parties beyond the MMA universe. Large media organs outside of the UFC trained around a single subject can do more to promote a fight than the UFC can by itself.
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Ronda Rousey was a burgeoning star before the UFC ever got ahold of her, but that's precisely why they appropriated her talents. What they contributed to her was the ability to put her in a place to merit a larger shine in a bout of greater visibility and higher stakes.
So, what's at risk for the UFC tonight? Whether this was all worth it. They summoned the world and asked them to pay attention to their newest champion, which is as much an act of nobility as profiteering. It's not that they risk ruining those relationships if Rousey falls short, but converting on the promise of hype is the best and most lasting way to earn popularity and credibility. There is no better time to do that than the true moment of introduction.
Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche
At stake: known unknows. Let's exclude the obvious prize of the title being up for grabs. What else is on the line? For Rousey, she is women's MMA's Atlas, hoisting the world upon her own her shoulders, a task which she claims to have embraced. She isn't merely expected to win this evening, but to impress; to maim; to disfigure if need be. If she fulfills the promise of fight promotion (although there's no way she won't fall short of some of the utterly outrageous hyperbole), she'll solidify herself as one of the sport's rising if not preeminent stars, irrespective of gender.
A loss, however, could be complicating for Rousey and women's MMA. Some of that depends on the complexion of the bout, how she loses and what can be spun or promoted going forward. But what desperately needs to be avoided is anything that resembles the Seth Petruzelli-Kimbo Slice dynamic. Rousey is absolutely the real deal Holyfield where Slice was a pure pretender, but MMA is a merciless game. A genuine talent can be made to appear inauthentic in this disorderly sport. If that happens, it isn't likely she takes women's MMA down with her. The commitment is too real and there's no turning back, but just as Dana White said UFC would never promote women in the UFC, never say never.
Carmouche enters this bout in a much more advantageous position. She's widely expected to lose, but has foisted herself into an historical moment. She's earned more press, praise and raised her profile in a way no conceivable other bout at this juncture in her career could replicate. If she beats Rousey, she does the impossible, scores one of the greatest upsets in MMA history and achieves a title/signature win that will define the apex of her career forever. If she loses, well, she loses. The line to get back to the top isn't too long and her name will soon carry more weight. The world is her oyster.
Lyoto Machida vs. Dan Henderson
At stake: title shot. Stated plainly, if either of these elite light heavyweights wish to get a shot at Jon Jones' title, they better get busy. Henderson already has a hall of fame career, but would probably like to cap off what's left of it as champion or in the title hunt. Machida's career isn't quite as distinguished, but he's certainly one of MMA's elite light heavyweights and despite being throttled in his first fight with Jones, a second one isn't out of the question. Besides, it's possible the Brazilian could become a middleweight after Saturday night. And with Alexander Gustafsson capable of playing spoiler to the winner of this bout in the title shot sweepstakes, neither Henderson nor Machida can leave much to the imagination. They need to win and win decisively, thereby making the choice for UFC brass to award a title shot as automatic as possible.
Ivan Menjivar vs. Urijah Faber
At stake: not the last chance at major relevance. This bout is a little harder to figure out. It's obviously important, but deciphering it's real meaning isn't easy. I've counted out Faber's 'last chances' more times than I can remember and they never end up being as much. I can't imagine Faber will get an infinite number of opportunities to earn a UFC title, but I'd be lying if I could say with any real certainty a loss to Menjivar wipes him off the title mat. Sure, he's coming off of a loss, but so what? It's to Renan Barao. And Carlos Condit recently lost to Georges St-Pierre yet is somehow in an upcoming bout with the division's consensus top contender in Johnny Hendricks. A loss against the (interim) champ isn't as devastating in terms of setback as it used to be.
For the Salvadorean-Canadian, his position here is similar, although his reality is one with greater urgency. Where Faber is well-known and easy to promote (and therefore, his losses more forgiving), Menjivar is unassuming and wallflower-ish. A win over Faber is good not just for credibility, but visibility.
Neither fighter is at the front of the queue for a title shot, but they're never that far away either.
At stake: making a change that matters. Neer's place in the UFC is strictly utilitarian. He's there almost exclusively to serve a purpose. In this case, to test McGee as he drops a weight class while providing a measure of entertainment given the way he's naturally inclined to fight. There's really not much more to it than that for 'The Dentist'. The jury is still out on McGee, however, but he needs to not just get past Neer, but prove authoritatively that dropping to welterweight is a worthwhile exercise. Lots of fighters drop weight when they aren't getting what they feel is the most out of themselves at whatever weight class where they traditionally competed. More often that not, it doesn't solve for what problems they face. But there's hope for McGee. He's big for 170 pounds, 28 years of age and a well-schooled fighter. If he's going to make something special of himself, teeing off on Neer in his welterweight debut is the best time to do so.
Josh Koscheck vs. Robbie Lawler
At stake: entertaining at the highest MMA level. Neither of these fighters are likely to ever contend for a welterweight title, especially as long as GSP is at the top of the heap. No one is clamoring for a third fight between Koscheck and St-Pierre and while it's possible Lawler could go on a tear to get there, that seems highly unlikely given to whom and how he's lost.
That said, we are living in a new UFC era of seemingly capricious roster cuts. For fighters like Lawler and Koscheck, namely, those not in title contention, it is incumbent on them to provide organizational value add. That means winning fights first and foremost, but it doesn't only mean that. Regrettably, it means entertainment relative to their placement on whichever card space they find themselves. They're too good to Leonard Garcia themselves and as I mentioned, winning is the primary job now and forever. But finding a little bit of showmanship can go a very long way for welterweights at this juncture in their careers.