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UFC 164 fight card: What's at stake?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 164's fight card isn't quite above reproach, but it is very, very good. The key consideration, though, is not whether it's good or bad. Rather, it's whether FOX exposure leads to increased pay-per-view sales.

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta famously told the press before the first FOX fight if the seven-year deal resulted in just 100,000 more UFC pay-per-view subscribers, the entire partnership would've been worth it. In the coming days, we may find out how close to that mark the UFC truly is.

There are essentially two competing theories about FOX and pay-per-view as it relates to the UFC. The first is the free content on the major network is often so good that it entices viewers to watch, but does little in the way of producing pay-per-view subscribers. After all, these fights are good, the fighters are excellent, but none are Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre stars. They're getting there, but aren't there, at least not yet. So why bother paying for them? The theory suggests casual viewers will tune in on FOX, but won't make the leap behind the paywall.

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The other theory, the more prominent of the two, suggests over time FOX exposure will lead viewers to pay-per-view buys where fans will want to follow who they've watched for free. As these fighters, particularly like champion Benson Henderson, advance their career fight after fight, their star power builds. Once they've reached a certain tipping point, enough fans will have watched them win to want to them pay to see them at this elevated stage of their career.

Where is Henderson on that continuum? We don't know, but anecdotal evidence (which is admittedly very flawed and imprecise) suggests this pay-per-view will sell ok, but not great. What does that mean for FOX and pay-per-view? It may mean it's either not the vehicle to create more pay-per-view subscribers or that Henderson, should he keep winning, will take an inordinately long time to turn into an attraction fans will pay money to see, if he converts into one at all.

The UFC will get the results from tonight's weather balloon very soon and what the data reads could be hugely indicative of which theory about FOX and pay-per-view is actually true. Neither situation is any sort of doomsday scenario for the UFC. Great ratings are great ratings, and pay-per-view sells well enough. But if FOX exposure only leads to FOX ratings, the UFC might be facing new pressure as it looks at its business model for the next 10 years. If rights fees can generate huge dollars and pay-per-view can't be buoyed by television, is an all rights-fee model in the organization's future? It's not an idle question.


Benson Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis

At stake: belts, bragging rights and bounty. What needs to be said about this bout that hasn't already been uttered, explained and exclaimed a thousand times already? The lightweight title is on the line, which brings with it untold fortunes and favors. This is also a rematch and just a hint of competitive bad blood, which makes winning the second one even more important.

What I focus more on is the chance of the division to rebuild itself a touch in the absence of B.J. Penn. I don't mean from a competitive standpoint as the talent hasn't slipped at all. I mean as a promotional powerhouse. Pettis seems much more star-friendly than Henderson, but that's neither here nor there. What catches my eye is what a potential rivalry between the two could do for the division.

Henderson and Edgar or Edgar and everyone else he faced (including Gray Maynard) never had quite the back story these two do. They never had quite the contrast in styles and neither had the potent finishing skills of Pettis. There is something particularly interesting about their rivalry and one wonders if there's enough there to lift the division back up (or at least tonight's winner) into more of a promotional juggernaut moving forward.

Frank Mir vs. Josh Barnett

At stake: a resume highlight. There's more to any fight than I can describe in the pity space of two or three words. This is one such occasion where that is particularly true. This fight feels like the winner, depending on how they win, could bounce themselves into all sorts of opportunities that otherwise wouldn't exist.

The fact is beating Frank Mir or stopping Josh Barnett, even in 2013, is a real achievement. If nothing else, a win here is a huge moment of success. When we further place into context the reality there's a dearth of contenders at heavyweight, it's not inconceivable - especially for the matriculating Barnett - title shot talk could emerge.

This one is an old fashioned grudge match between two veterans who've proven a lot and still have the ability to wreak havoc on the right night in the right moment. Here's to hoping one of them seizes the day.

Chad Mendes vs. Clay Guida

At stake: Jose Aldo title shot sweepstakes. Chad Mendes may have fallen short against Jose Aldo the first time they met (dramatically so), but he's on the cusp of another title shot. Sure, beating Cody McKenzie doesn't mean much, but stopping Darren Elkins does. And if he can look dominant against Clay Guida, despite the Greg Jackson-trained fighter's recent problems, he can do wonders for advancing his cause as the division's top contender behind Ricardo Lamas.

As for Guida, he needs to right the ship. He squeaked past Hatsu Hioki after laying an egg at lightweight. If you've ever seen Guida fight at a UFC event, there are few non-title holders who generate greater fan enthusiasm. One wonders, though, if that's starting to wane. Guida's go for broke style has given way to patience, extreme caution and ultra reactionary offense. I'm not suggesting he fight anyway other than what he feels is best, but the quickest way to turn fans sour is to fight like he has been and lose. Guida needs this fight to get back on course in the division and with the faithful who've chanted his name.

Ben Rothwell vs. Brandon Vera

At stake: UFC employment. It's been a long time since Brandon Vera has won a bout while looking impressive. Even his most recent win, a decision victory over Elliot Marshall at UFC 137, came after he was nearly submitted via armbar. I don't know if going back to heavyweight is the answer for what ails him, but it at least provides an opportunity to claim reinvention. Weight class change can often provide cover for at least one loss, so Vera has time to find some cause for continued employment.

Rothwell, by contrast, is a .500 heavyweight in the UFC. That may or may not be enough to keep him in the majors, but it's probably more precarious than he'd like. A win over Vera doesn't mean a ton, but it's enough to get back on the winning track after losing badly to Gabriel Gonzaga. Right now, that's the most important thing.

Erik Koch vs. Dustin Poirier

At stake: a place in the pecking order. Both Koch and Poirier are coming off of bad losses. Koch's was especially violent. If there was ever a time for them to prove they're more than what we last saw of them, it's right now. Unlike Koch, who has a stoppage win over Raphael Assuncao, Poirier still lacks a signature win in the division. He can chew up and spit out those just below the elite level with aplomb, but hasn't really been able to break through as a guy among the top contenders who can consistently threaten. Defeating Koch would change that for him.

Koch is still in the rebuilding stage after having his title shot slip through his fingers. Beating Poirier doesn't really put him in the front of the line, but it's a solid building block on the path back.