I've been critical of the UFC's cards thus far in 2014. Every consumer of MMA and the UFC product have their own preferences. I am no less of one than any other hardcore fan. My taste tells me that it makes very little sense to set a standard for greatness only to abandon it, but I've gathered not every other consumer agrees.
With UFC 169, however, the criticism stops. The preliminary card isn't particularly special, but it doesn't have to be. The main card, especially given that this is the portion directly sold to fans, is downright sensational. Stated plainly, when someone asks me what I expect from and like out of the UFC product, UFC 169 is it.
I don't believe this will do particularly huge numbers on pay-per-view, but I don't think it'll do poorly either. There's real interest in this event. This is the second UFC pay-per-view in as many events featuring two title fights. Those two title fights this evening happen to feature hugely decorated champions in their prime in what should be at least moderately competitive bouts against very worthy challengers.
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There's also a heavyweight contest to round out the action, one with extraordinarily high stakes between two very public UFC competitors. The main card also features what is a de factor number one contender's bout between two bomb throwers in a division unfairly scrutinized for seemingly not offering the very kind of action both of tonight's fighters offer in abundance.
Last, but certainly not least, the card opens with a sure-fire contest primed to deliver maximum violence between two of the more offensively potent, athletic fighters in the lightweight division.
This is a card that delivers, on paper, everything it is supposed to give. UFC President Dana White says we should never judge a card before it happens. He better hope that's not true, at least not tonight. Examining events prior to them taking place is only natural and, in fact, the only rational response. People make consumer purchases based on product offerings. The fact is the closer one examines the UFC 169 main card, the easier it becomes to choose to watch or purchase it.
In short, this is what I like about and expect from high-level, professional MMA. If we're going to have an organization that offers the elite product - a product no other promoter can replicate - then that is what I expect to see. It's an impossibly tough standard to meet, I know, but it's also the very threshold the UFC created.
At stake: ultimate supremacy. There's an open question of who the best bantamweight is. Well, 'open' is a strong word, but there's an opportunity is close the coffin on the argument. Barao is the champion, yes, but Faber has had a hell of a year. He's unequivocally an improved fighter. Dominick Cruz will return eventually, which could change the equation down the road, but for now it seems unrealistic he'll quickly re-ascend to the top of the division.
The question for this bout is whether Barao can prove himself to be, however recent the division, the greatest bantamweight of all time. Sure, he's already defeated Faber, but not this Faber. And Cruz is still out there, but with no more interim title albatross around his neck, Barao could not only emerge as the division's greatest talent, but it's greatest talent ever.
Faber won't assume that mantle should he win, but we need not spell out what it could mean for a fighter with this much trouble winning in title fights to beat a man one win away from being the most successful guy to do it at that weight class.
At stake: divisional ownership. I said it on the Countdown to UFC 169 program: despite the inchoate status of the featherweight division, we already know not who is merely king, but the king of kings: Jose Aldo. It's not up for debate. He's done more than anyone could in the weight class and likely ever will, although anything is possible. The point is this: this should be his divisional swan song. Beating Lamas is not an inevitability nor a walk in the park. But should it happen, he will have completely run through every challenger that makes sense. They'll be nothing left for him to meaningfully do. His future likely lies at lightweight, but only because the best featherweights in the world couldn't stop him from moving on.
That, in fact, is the challenge for Lamas: to do something at featherweight that keeps the king from conquering new territory. A belt is on the line, sure, but it's much more than that. Aldo moving on re-shapes the division and while it doesn't tarnish the eventual champion, it doesn't confer upon it the sort of greatness that comes from taking it from Aldo. Lamas has a chance to do something no one else has done and in the process, re-write the expected future of two divisions. No big deal, right?
Frank Mir vs. Alistair Overeem
At stake: a future. A competitive, thrilling bout between these two that underscores not only what they're both good at, but that they can still execute those strengths is what's necessary if both are to remain on the UFC roster. Anything's possible, but it's not immediately clear how either Mir or Overeem justify their expense if they're not winning and not looking salvageable in defeat. There's also another notable twist. I'd submit Mir's record and resume is largely intact. A defeat here doesn't change much of what his career has meant or signified. Overeem largely is in the same position, but not quite. The move to heavyweight was supposed to be a correction for the imperfect push at light heavyweight. And for some time, the jump up in weight classes seemed promising. That is until Overeem moved to the UFC. From what was expected of him to where he finds himself in his fourth fight is an outcome few predicted. This bout could tell us whether what Overeem ran from when leaving light heavyweight was something he could ever escape in the first place.
Jon Lineker vs. Ali Bagautinov
At stake: title shot contendership. Given his problems making weight, one really isn't sure what's next for Lineker, no matter the outcome. Let's assume, however naively, Lineker will stay at flyweight. If that's the case, one has to view this bout as a title shot eliminator or the next best thing. There's no obvious top contender floating in the division. Champion Demetrious Johnson needs challenger in this, or more likely, the next quarter of 2014. Lineker and Bagautinov don't have tons of fights in the UFC's burgeoning fights, but there aren't that many available to them. For what's out there, they're relatively experienced. Both, coincidentally, have a fan-friendly style on top of their winning records. This is a no-brainer. Want a shot at the title? Win at UFC 169.
Jamie Varner vs. Abel Trujillo
At stake: a rung in the ladder. I'm trying to get better about not defining an entire fighter's career or moment by their proximity to or from the title. It's partly inevitable, but not the sum total of someone's life spent in the cage. Trujillo and Varner aren't in title discussion, but they're the sort of fighters where once an opponent gets past them, you usually have to hold them in much higher regard afterward.
Varner's not likely to recapture a title any time soon, but he is a sensational talent. So is Trujillo, but the Blackzillian hasn't faced the level of competition Varner has pushed through. This could be the coming out party for Trujillo or it's another opportunity for Varner to keep his name relevant as he dispatches one of the more menacing brutes of the division.