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Fortunes changed for five in UFC's doubleheader

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Before a three-week break between shows, the UFC ran an international doubleheader in Stockholm, Sweden, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, that seemed to be built around getting three guys ready for high-profile fights.

Two of them came through, as Rory MacDonald established himself as the probable next challenger at welterweight after the Dec. 6 title fight with Johny Hendricks defending against Robbie Lawler. Similarly, Raphael Assuncao looks to be in the same position. He's the clear guy in line for the T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz bantamweight title fight winner, a bout that at this point doesn't have a time frame.

The third, Gunnar Nelson, was the classic example of the hype train derailed. Nelson came into the UFC two years ago with the tag of a future superstar based on his credentials in jiu-jitsu, where he was a world champion at the age of 21, combined with his strong background in karate. Going into Saturday's fight with Rick Story, he was undefeated. Story was clearly the toughest competition he'd face, but he as considered to be a stepping stone on his ladder to the top ten. But it was Story who took a split decision in a fight where the biggest surprise was one judge giving Nelson the fight, since it was clear to almost everyone Story won handily.

For MacDonald and Assuncao, neither won in a manner where they got you on the edge of your seat clamoring for their title wins, like Cruz did last week. MacDonald, as is often the case, used footwork and range against Tarec Saffiedine, to create a lackluster fight, until getting the third round finish with a right and left combination. Getting the finish was a big deal, because a five-round decision at that pace would have probably still gotten him a title fight, but made nobody excited about it.

Similarly, Assuncao won on workmanlike fashion, winning every round on every judge's card, but never came close to finishing Bryan Caraway.

The kind of win Cruz had over Takeya Mizugaki enhances interest and makes a title fight bigger. Both MacDonald and Assuncao have earned their title shots through a series of wins, neither of them challenging at this point would figure to be as big as the Hendricks-Lawler and Dillashaw-Cruz fights coming up.

One of the biggest stories for later this week comes to the viewership on Saturday, all baseball related. When the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals had the longest major league playoff game in history, clocking in at well in excess of six hours, it moved Saturday's prelims from Fox Sports (FS) 1 to FS 2, greatly decreasing its potential audience.

However, with the game still going on at 10 p.m. Eastern, the main card was moved from FS 1 to FX, which is a blessing in disguise. While there was no advanced hype of the show on the station, FX is a far higher rated station than FS 1, and it's also a general interest rather than a sports station. From a promotional standpoint, the key to being on television is creating new fans, and in theory, a higher-rated station will give you more viewership.

To show FOX's commitment, when baseball finally ended, the last two fights aired both on FX and FS 1, meaning there's a strong chance the combined audience between the stations of the key fights that made contenders would be far larger than the show would have done otherwise.

The flip side of this is nothing spectacular happened during those two fights that was going to grab the attention of a lot of non-fans. Two future headliners won before more eyeballs, which is a plus. But neither fight, nor anything that aired on FX, was riveting as compared with what had taken place earlier.

The highlights from Halifax were the two Fight Pass fights, ending in 39 and 63 seconds respectively, and an exciting three-round upset by Chris Kelades over Ireland's Patrick Holohan. Kelades, a Halifax native, actually originally had a ticket to the sold out show, until being called as a late replacement five days before the show.

In the show's opener, Pedro Munhoz (12-1) grabbed a guillotine on former Oklahoma State wrestler Jerrod Sanders (14-3), and then Sanders slammed him down hard with a high-power bomb. But Munhoz held on and got the tap.

Albert Tumenov (14-2) landed a high kick over the block of 6-foot-4 Matt Dwyer (7-2), and it sounded like a shotgun had gone off in the Scotiabank Centre when he connected. Dwyer, remarkably, wasn't finished, but a few seconds later, a second kick to Dwyer's head when he was leaning down, ended his night.

While not selling out like the previous two events in Stockholm, doing 10,026 fans for a show with limited star power was an impressive showing for the day's first show. It was the better  show, one of those events more exciting than the star power would indicate that UFC has had a lot of in recent months. But for the locals, it was a bad night for the main card, because all four local favorites, Nicklas Backstrom, Ilir Latifi, Akira Corassani and Nelson, went down, the first three in the first round.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five of Saturday's stars:

RORY MACDONALD - At 18-2, the 25-year-old MacDonald is one win away from not only becoming welterweight champion, but heir to the throne of teammate Georges St-Pierre as Canada's biggest MMA star.

MacDonald in many ways had been in St-Pierre's shadow. The two had stated many times they would never fight. As much of a talking point as that issue was, MacDonald had never established himself as the top contender during GSP's reign. But if he were to win the title, it would open the door to such a match if the two would agree to it. St-Pierre, if he wants to come back, would almost surely be able to call his shot for a title shot at the belt he never lost.

The discussion is still premature. MacDonald has to win the title. St-Pierre has to want to come back and be interested in the title. And he probably would avoid it if MacDonald was champion. But if the stars align, as much as the two may not want to fight, for MacDonald's career, a win over St-Pierre in a title defense would mean far more for his career than the championship win.

RAPHAEL ASSUNCAO - For Assuncao (23-4, and 7-0 in the bantamweight division), he has a decision to make as to whether to risk his title shot by taking another fight, or sitting and waiting. The problem with waiting, besides missing a fight cycle when it comes to money, is that nothing is guaranteed. Fighters who wait can still get injured in training. The champion can still get injured. Or something could happen, like happened to both Assuncao and Alexander Gustafsson when both had their title fights.

Assuncao has seven wins in a row. Of the 500 plus fighters on the UFC active roster, only Jon Jones and Chris Weidman have longer streaks in the company. The streak includes a win over current champion Dillashaw. But he pulled out of his title fight with Renan Barao due to an injury. Dillashaw, the sub, beat Barao for the title, and the decision was made to give Barao the rematch over Assuncao. That fell apart. Then Cruz returned, and leapfrogged ahead of Assuncao for the shot.

It would been almost impossible for Assuncao to be able to get ahead of Cruz in line, given the nature of Cruz's win last week, with a 61-second finish over No. 5 contender Takeya Mizugaki, who is historically tough to finish. But the win over Caraway left the night with no debate at all over whether Cruz should get the shot.

Assuncao today can sit and wait, but there are other circumstances to consider. Barao could look incredible in his next fight. If Cruz wins, there could be more interest in Cruz vs. Barao. And if Urijah Faber gets a big win, Cruz vs. Faber is a natural match-up that would have the most interest of all. But even if Cruz wins, Assuncao would have the leg up. Barao lost his spot in line through missing weight and would probably need multiple wins to get a title shot. And Faber has had so many title fights that he's lost, that even with the potential interest Cruz vs. Faber III fight would do, Faber would probably need multiple wins before being put in that position. But the UFC always considers fan interest.

RICK STORY - Story (18-8) has had an up-and-down UFC career, dating back to 2009. The win made him 10-7 in UFC competition. Winning a main event fight over a highly-regarded prospect puts him at his strongest point career wise since 2011, when he had consecutive wins over current welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and Thiago Alves.

There is an endless supply of top welterweights he could face at this stage. He's probably not going to get a Tyron Woodley or Matt Brown just yet, but guys on the way up that would be fights that could be big wins for either side include Brandon Thatch (11-1), Stephen Thompson (10-1), Erick Silva (16-5) and Jordan Mein (29-9).

GUNNAR NELSON - The loss to Story was a step backwards for Nelson (13-1-1). At 25, one loss doesn't end one's career, but he was shown to have a style problem with a guy who can use wrestling to keep the fight mostly standing, and is aggressive with his offense.

Unfortunately for Nelson, that describes a lot of the top tier of the welterweight division. The loss is going to require him to retool his game, or he's going to be stuck just underneath the top 15. Erick Silva (16-5) is also coming off a loss, as is a guy known for exciting fights. But it's imperative in his case that he bounces back strong next time or he'll be just another guy on the roster whose world-class jiu-jitsu didn't translate into being a monster as a fighter.

MAX HOLLOWAY - Holloway (11-3), blasted out Swedish native Akira Corassani, and then claimed his win was due to a lucky punch.

At only 22, Holloway asked for a top ten or top 15 caliber opponent next. There are a slew of potential opponents, including Dennis Siver (22-9, 1 no contest), who won a great fight with Charles Rosa earlier that night. At this stage, Nik Lentz (25-6-2) and Dustin Poirier (16-4) may be a stretch but Thiago Tavares (19-5-1) could be a test. The division is filled with depth and Holloway is still years from his prime, even though he's already had ten UFC fights.

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