With another major MMA event comes a new set of questions: Who has the most to prove? Which fight is flying under the radar? Who's in danger of being cut? And so on. I'm pleased to have my colleague Dave Meltzer join me for the latest Five for Fighting, looking at Saturday's UFC 158, which is headlined by Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz for the UFC welterweight title.
1. Who is under the most pressure?
Dave Meltzer: Everyone has pressure during a time period when all but the top people can be cut with a bad showing. Even so, I think the answer is Georges St. Pierre. Everyone is expecting him to dominate Nick Diaz, easily take him down at will and keep him there. Because of that, he's the one guy on the show who will get little praise for a dominant win, unless he finishes Diaz. Diaz has only been finished once in the last decade, and that was a blood stoppage. St-Pierre could win a 50-45 decision and get criticized for having a boring fight. So he's in a situation where his smartest strategy to win, take Diaz off his feet and play it safe on the ground, is one he'll be criticized for when it's over. St-Pierre will only shut up critics with a finish, and that's not likely to happen. But he both has to win and has to have an exciting fight, the latter will be a fight where he abandons what on paper is his best winning strategy. Almost everyone else on the card just has to follow the smart winning strategy and has no pressure on them past getting their hand raised and keeping their job.
Dave Doyle: For Diaz, Saturday night is pretty much put-up-or-shut-up time. When he lost to Carlos Condit, he complained to Condit in the cage during the fight about his fighting style, then complained bitterly about the judging after the fight when the decision didn't go his way. He fought the Nevada Athletic Commission over his suspension. He blew off his jiu-jitsu superfight with Braulio Estima, leaving a convention center filled with paying customers in the lurch. He returned and was gifted a title shot despite the loss to Condit and his subsequent behavior, and still he manages to feel disrespected. This is the type of thing that gets tolerated as long as you're winning (and/or can sell a major pay-per-view main event). Diaz now has to prove he can back up his words against a guy with one loss since 2004 and do so while going up against possibly the most formidable home-court advantage in all of mixed martial arts to do it. That's pressure.
2. Who, besides the main eventers, has the most to lose?
Doyle: At first glance, the answer seems to be Johny Hendricks. After all, Hendricks made a lot of noise about how he should have gotten the shot at St-Pierre, and he has been promised he's next in line if he defeats Condit on Saturday. But I think you can make the case that Condit has more to lose. If Condit can stop the guy that most agree is the real No. 1 contender, then he'll have a win over Diaz, a solid effort in his loss to GSP, and a win over the anointed "next one" in his past three fights. But if he becomes the latest victim of Hendricks' big left hand? Then all of a sudden he looks like a veteran who has come up short in back-to-back fights, he gets shoved down the pecking order a bit, and the whispers start that maybe his peak has passed. If Hendricks loses, a loss to someone with Condit's credentials as a former champion is a setback, but Hendricks is still young career-wise and has time to regroup. Condit doesn't have that luxury at this stage of his journey.
Meltzer: The guy with the most to lose is obviously Hendricks. By all rights except the ultimate right, which is what business dictates, Hendricks should be facing GSP on Saturday. He was promised a title shot if he beat Josh Koscheck. Then he was promised a title shot if he beat Martin Kampmann. Both times he talked about sitting out and waiting, and both times he was talked out of it only to be put in with a dangerous opponent. This time he's promised it if he beats Carlos Condit, who put Georges St-Pierre in the most danger of any fighter in the last six years. And still, if they can convince St-Pierre to face Anderson Silva, or if Diaz wins the title in a close or controversial manner and there is demand for a rematch, Hendricks once again will be in a position to either sit out or risk his shot once again. But he's not like Diaz, in the sense that one loss will take him out of a title match.
3. What is shaping up to be fight of the night?
Meltzer: Based on styles, the two I would have said, Hendricks vs. Jake Ellenberger and Condit vs. Rory MacDonald are both not happening due to MacDonald's injuries. The main event pits two of the most talked about fighters in the sport, and between the crowd reactions and the intensity every Diaz fight has and St-Pierre's popularity, particularly in Montreal, what is a good fight for any other two fighters will be a great fight here. But a great fight is not a lock is GSP employs his safest and arguably his best winning strategy. Condit vs. Hendricks would be my first pick. Condit is dangerous from every position. Hendricks can knock you out at any time. Hendricks has the wrestling edge but Condit is a finisher on the ground.
Doyle: Had to argue with Dave's choice here. I'm particularly intrigued by the Condit-Hendricks fight. Can Condit afford to get into the spectacular sort of firefight that have marked his most exciting fights, and risk getting knocked out by Hendricks? Does Hendricks stick with his most clear-cut advantage, his wrestling, and will Condit have an answer for it? This fight has the ability to go so many different ways.
4. Most underrated fight on the card?
Doyle: Daron Cruickshank vs. John Makdessi. Frankly, I'm surprised this isn't slated to go as top bout on the FX undercard, the last fight before the PPV to try to hook impulse buyers, since it seems to have "slugfest which steals Fight of the Night" written all over it. Makdessi has shown explosive potential -- remember his spinning backfist KO of Kyle Watson at UFC 129? -- and looked sharp in defeating veteran Sam Stout last time out. Cruickshank, a kickboxer, has likewise been spectacular and is coming off his memorable head-kick KO of Henry Martinez. This one could be a barnburner.
Meltzer: For action, Makdessi vs. Cruickshank. As far as a fight nobody is talking about with two underrated fighters, Darren Elkins vs. Antonio Carvalho, although Elkins is certainly more underrated than Carvalho.
5. Who's near the top of the cut list?
Meltzer: Given how many people are going to be cut over the next few months, really, everyone who loses that isn't a top star is in some danger. I even think the loser of Mike Ricci vs. Colin Fletcher isn't safe, particularly if they get blown out, even though TUF finalists usually get a lot of leeway. The loser of Reuben Duran vs George Roop is as good as gone if they don't have a fight of the night. In the second match, T.J. Dillashaw should be safe, but Issei Tamura, should he lose, and that would be the expected outcome, is in serious jeopardy. Quinn Mulhern, even on a win streak in Strikeforce, losing a UFC debut right now isn't safe. The UFC has been very loyal to Dan Miller. They appreciate his attitude of taking a fight whenever asked and against anyone asked, even at a late notice. Everyone sympathizes with his family difficulties involving his children. But a loss to Jordan Mein would be three of four and he's not someone expected to be in title contention.
Doyle: Dave's covered most of the bases here, but I think another name worth considering is Rick Story. I know we're not yet two years removed from his back-to-back wins over Hendricks and Thiago Alves. But if Story was to lose to the unheralded Quinn Mulhern, then we'd be talking four losses in his past five fights and that's not a good recipe for anyone looking to keep their jobs in the "100 cuts" era.