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UFC 181 fight card: What's at stake?

E. Casey Leydon, MMA Fighting

It's worth appreciating in a year of potentially inadvisable expansion and devastating injury, not every event is affected negatively. Some manage to be engineered well and have all the requisite luck to maintain the proper amount of quality. When card integrity is held in place, there's not much to complain about. Tonight's event is pretty fantastic, at least as far as the paying portion of the event is concerned. There are plenty of stakes, familiar names, killer rematches, grudge bouts and more. Perhaps best of all, this night could serve as the precursor for what should be a truly incredible January.

None of this means we'll get the type of guaranteed action fight fans can never get enough of, but there are enough ingredients in place to give us confidence to happily watch heading into the evening.


Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler

At stake: fulfilling a promise. The fact is, both fighters are trying to fulfill their destinies.

We all know Lawler's story. He's MMA's Prodigal Son. Once a fighter with all the promise in the world, he let his career go a bit astray until he decided to recover it in this most recent chapter. The question is whether he can fulfill the journey to its summit. Can he make good on the belief many have held in him? The presumption was if he trained properly and dedicated himself as a true pro, he couldn't be stopped. Is that true? We'll find out.

The story isn't too dissimilar for Hendricks. A star wrestler in an elite Division I program, it was believed Hendricks could also be whatever it was he dreamed. Still, his rise wasn't precipitous at first. He looked good in spots, but open in many others. He has only one loss*, but it came against Rick Story and was thoroughly deflating. Slowly but surely, though, his skills came together and he reached the sport's highest levels.

Still, his first fight against Lawler was exceedingly close. This is the bout to settle, once and for all (ostensibly), who is the one to rise to the occasion when they had the chance.

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Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez

At stake: referendum vote. This is a bit of a bizarre fight because the extraordinarily high stakes here weren't fully appreciated at first. The bout was made partly because of divisional needs, but also because of contract requirements, both to FOX Sports and Melendez. That latter fact somewhat overshadowed its real authenticity.

Melendez himself has stated this is likely his last shot at gold. It'll be his second in the UFC. That's an achievement in and of itself, but in a division as thick as this one, earning a third past the age of 32 is going to be hard to pull off. He's been one of the most successful and best lightweights outside of the UFC for much of his career. If we're just evaluating his wins and losses, he's yet to really solidify himself as one within it. Defeating Pettis could change that.

As for Pettis, he's apparently being hailed as the sport's best pound-for-pound fighter, an utterly indefensible statement if there ever was one. Still, he's living under that marketing, whether he likes it or not. He's also been placed on the front of a Wheaties box. Perhaps most importantly, he's been assumed to be the next big thing in the sport, but hasn't converted into one (yet) because of injuries. Getting past Melendez, especially if he can do it with his trademark lethal skills, would go a long way towards catching up with the promises everyone around Pettis keeps making about him.

Travis Browne vs. Brendan Schaub

At stake: getting back on the horse, bragging rights. There's been a lot of ugly dispute between the two parties here over one another's ability, the fight camps they train or come from and more. That's created an organic animosity they share, as much as we can tell from the outside, anyway. That means getting a win here validates some of what they have said leading up to this contest.

In more concrete terms, though, both fighters are coming off of losses. Browne's most recent defeat was a higher-stakes bout, but the fact remains neither of these heavyweights would like to drop two in a row. That fact only adds to the already hot dispute between these two.

Todd Duffee vs. Anthony Hamilton

At stake: building a resume and a name. Hamilton doesn't have much of a reputation or name currently in the UFC. Duffee, by contrast, does, but his is as up as it is down. From his muscling physique to quick KOs to his precipitous decline in the sport, no one is quite sure what to make of him at this stage. This fight could help the winner turn that corner. It won't matter much for rankings and, at least in the case of Hamilton, a loss wouldn't be so damaging, but a win could begin the process of helping UFC audiences better and more fully understand who these fighters are.

Tony Ferguson vs. Abel Trujillo

At stake: breaking on through, to the other side. That other side? The rankings. Neither is currently in the top 15 of the lightweight division. That's not necessarily the worst of all things given how utterly stacked the division actually is. Both are credible talents, but they're also knocking on the door of ascending to a more competitive, visible level. This fight should help propel the winner into that space.

Oh, and never forget: these two were placed as the main card opener of a pay-per-view because of their ability to deliver action. Ferguson takes a ton of inadvisable risks, and Trujillo is a physical force to be reckoned with. Sparks fly when those two kinds of fighters engage one another.

*Read comments for explanation.

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