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What's at Stake: Tonight's Biggest Fights

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In a rare (and potentially record-setting) moment, there are three nationally-televised MMA events taking place on Saturday by three organizations with the biggest market share in the sport. The biggest of them is debuting in Mexico, another is debuting a different version of itself while the other continues as it has been.

Yet, all of the cards have problems. The UFC event is filled with regional talent who do not meet the traditional threshold of what is understood as 'UFC caliber'. The card's also been plagued by injuries. The Bellator event is doing its best to put together the kind of talent that's available, but that's relatively non-fishable water. WSOF has, as it always does, some very talented fighters and good match-ups, but is organizationally aimless.

In fairness, there's also a lot to love. The top three bouts on the UFC card are first-rate. Bellator might be leading the charge with aging veterans, but is bringing with them elite lightweights and a card engineered for maximum fun. WSOF, for all its troubles, has fights that require our attention.

I don't know if there's a larger lesson here. There probably is. If there are three MMA shows on national television on the same night, that says as many good things about interest in the sport as it does bad things about an exposure bubble existing. What we know for sure is the fallout after Saturday will take a while to sort through. This is a heavy dose we're all about to take.


UFC 180

Fabricio Werdum vs. Mark Hunt

At stake: a little slice of history. There's a narrative about Hunt heading into this fight, namely, that his 'Rocky story' of redemption from the depths of despair and defeat could culminate in UFC gold. It's not wrong, but it is exclusionary. The fact is Werdum's path to the present is also one of redemption. Perhaps the Brazilian's climb back hasn't been as steep or sudden, but it is just as real.

Werdum was cast out of the UFC after two losses, one of them bizarre and the other forceful. He moved to Strikeforce where he was fighting the likes of Mike Kyle. He eventually defeated Fedor Emelianenko, but no one expected him to and some still suggest it was a fluke. He looked poor in his last Strikeforce fight opposite Alistair Overeem, also a loss. Werdum was a respected talent, but one never expected to do more than occasionally make noise on a main card somewhere on TV.

Yet, his second UFC campaign has been spectacular, not merely for the scalps he's collected, but in the manner in which he's done it. At last, Werdum is a true mixed martial artist. His ground skills once always lead his offense, but now they're more of an insurance policy. He can strike in close and at distance, has a five-round gas tank and can wrestle to the extent it's required. He's also now at the cusp of grabbing a version of UFC title gold when he was once handed his walking papers by the very same organization.

No matter who wins this bout, it's a tale of redemption and focus. Hunt's return to greatness is an easier story to tell and in some ways, perhaps a slightly better one. It's true, though, that both fell on their own version of hard times. Both have struggled their way back. Both are ready to do something neither has yet done before. Perhaps that explains why they've been so friendly with one another during fight week. They likely see a little bit of themselves in the career of the other.

Ricardo Lamas vs. Dennis Bermudez

At stake: featherweight title queue placement. This is really a test for Bermudez. We've seen what Lamas can do against the division's best. He's an incredibly talented fighter and might get another crack at UFC gold, but it's important to see what else is out there. That's what this bout should help us decipher. If Bermudez can get past this test, one has to think he's on the shortlist for a title shot. There are others ahead of him - Conor McGregor, the winner of Frankie Edgar vs. Cub Swanson - but they're not too far out in front. This is where Bermudez can round the corner into a legitimate title challenger. Lamas only holds position by winning.

Jake Ellenberger vs. Kelvin Gastelum

At stake: being a contender. This is really it for Jake Ellenberger. He's had some spectacular wins in the UFC, but key losses against important opposition in high-profile bouts. And not just losses, but defeats where he looked like he just couldn't get into second gear. If he loses to Gastelum, one can make the case that's it for him as a contender. It's not that Gastelum is a bad fighter. Far from it. The idea, though, is that Gastelum is a rising contender himself, from The Ultimate Fighter, and represents the dawning of Ellenberger's window. If he can't beat Gastelum, he really has no hope of convincing UFC brass he can beat the division's truly elite. Should Gastelum win, however, he could easily assume the space Ellenberger has been occupying for the last few years.

Bellator 131

Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar

At stake: the ability to sell. In terms of their fighting resumes, they're largely set. They actually risk damaging them more than receiving any actual boost. Still, though, it'd be wrong to suggest there's nothing to be gained or lost here. The most curious factor about them isn't so much their ability to compete. It's not irrelevant, but also not a huge priority. There only needs to be just enough there. That 'just enough' is to keep sufficient observer interest to tune into this bout and any subsequent one under the Bellator banner. They don't have to blow the doors off anyone and much of the work to get folks to tune into tonight's contest has already been done. Yet, they have to demonstrate enough of something against one another to rate future promotion. Ortiz got that jump start when he choked out Alexander Shlemenko. He and Bonnar will both need a bit of that kind of magic to keep the train on the tracks.

Michael Chandler vs. Will Brooks

At stake: More than the title. This is an unbelievably dangerous bout for Chandler. I don't think he should've lost either the second Eddie Alvarez or first Brooks bouts, but he did. For a fighter who was and still is something of a promotional fixture, his back is as firmly against the wall as you'll find. Losing three in a row would be utterly devastating, both in terms of how he's viewed in the larger lightweight division and as any kind of promotional force worth backing. Brooks also faces risk in this contest, but isn't up against the same kind of external pressures as Chandler.


Melvin Guillard vs. Justin Gaethje

At stake: a lot less than before the weigh-ins. If there is a greater saboteur to Guillard's own career than the man himself, he or she is certainly well hidden. Guillard missed weight yesterday, thereby turning this bout with Gaethje into a non-title, three-round affair. This comes on the heels of comments that he was an A-level fighter in a B-level league, something both true and utterly beside the point. Guillard also noted in the run-up to this bout he was excited for the chance to have a title opportunity, something he hadn't had in a decade.

All of this is to say what Guillard hoped to achieve - winning a title and beating a less than visible, if very credible fighter in Gaethje - has been badly compromised. Even if he wins, the specter of missing weight in a title bout isn't going to make the UFC particularly eager to take him back. That's to say nothing of whether he'll ever get a title opportunity should he falter here.

As for Gaethje, he can earn what was always there, although he's got less time to do it. Guillard's name isn't completely mud in terms of what it can do for him in this context. Losing here, though, would also damage his credibility as the kind of talent who can challenge the division's best.