I've seen a tinge of bellyaching about this card from some fans, especially with the departure of Rashad Evans from the co-main event spot. Everyone is entitled to enjoy MMA on their terms, but they shouldn't confuse their predilections for what sort of business this event can and likely will potentially draw.
It's true the circumstances aren't ideal. Evans is out. The turnaround time for Ronda Rousey is very quick. Sara McMann is a highly intriguing character, but not yet ready to actualize her potential. The rest of the card has some intriguing fights, but nothing major to hang one's hat on. I'm not suggesting circumstances are perfect.
Ultimately, though, I doubt that will matter. Rousey is must-see TV, as far as MMA is concerned. Anecdotally, I can't name any other fighter more people ask me about watching than her (I'm sure experiences here vary). She is still superb at generating far-reaching media interest, and that interest has taken an interesting twist opposite McMann, who is everything Rousey is as an athlete and her perfect antipode as a person. The Olympic angle between the two, while not played to maximum or even optimal effect, has still added some measurable interest to their bout.
I am not suggesting this event will do gangbusters at the gate or Brock Lesnar-esque returns on pay-per-view. I am suggesting that for however much this events lacks in what it optimally could be, it's still quite good and will likely do quite well. I do suspect the latter pay-per-view figure will be sizable enough to be considered a success. And really, with Rousey's expanding schedule with events beyond the scope of MMA, what was the UFC supposed to do? They had to dovetail with the Sochi Olympics and use Rousey while the calendar was open. It was act now or miss out on the opportunity that did exist.
Maybe making Rousey vs. McMann now was not the perfect call, but it was the right one.
At stake: everything and then some. Noodle for a moment a future where Rousey isn't the champion on Sunday morning. Think about what kind of havoc that will cause. For starters, much of Rousey's identity isn't just as pioneer but champion. I wouldn't put it on par with trying to re-think Anderson Silva as a challenger, but it's not entirely dissimilar either.
Rousey is also slated to take time off to take part in Hollywood projects. That would make any rematch - which I'm assuming she'd rate for the sake of the division - kind of complicated. McMann would likely defend the title before facing Rousey, which means in the end Rousey could fight to reclaim her title against someone who never faced her previously. That isn't the end of the world, but in terms of the right kind of fights to create stars and further lift the division, that's less than ideal.
Still, Rousey would remain a key figure and popular attraction. A boost for McMann wouldn't be the worst thing either. But Rousey, should she prevail on Saturday night, is taking a break at the right time. She's scheduled to compete once more closer to the end of the year. In that time, the rest of the division can grow as they have room to breathe. It makes her eventual return a bit sweeter with other faces in the crowd getting a chance to stand out.
Both Rousey and McMann have already accomplished athletically the sorts of things most athletes dream about, so losing or winning here, while very important, isn't a referendum on their careers. It's hard to imagine either being viewed as some sort of fraud when this is over (although McMann is much more a development MMA talent than Rousey), so both will have a workable future. But if the upset happens, look out. It's one thing to shake up a division. It's quite another to turn it upside down.
Daniel Cormier vs. Pat Cummins
At stake: bragging rights and maybe the universe. It doesn't take a genius to note the winner here has license to do a fair amount of bragging. Some of that is probably inevitable. But wow, talk about a fight where the world is your oyster - to win or to lose.
Cummins has the daunting task of fighting Cormier on unbelievably short notice. He also could conceivably get embarrassed in a terrible defeat. But in a sense, he's already won. He's made as much of a name for himself as he can in 9 days and secured the good graces of the UFC. Win or lose, he's sticking around for the foreseeable future. And if he beats Cormier? That's about as much of a Cinderella story as you can create in the modern mixed martial arts.
Cormier, on the other hand, naturally risks a lot with this bout. Cummins is not a figure in the division. Beating him is supposed to do little. But it will do more than that. If he wins impressively, the story will be as much about Cormier's ability to handle the weight cut so effortlessly as the easy victory. He'll solidify he's the real deal at light heavyweight and, at a minimum, book himself a fight against a top contender in his next bout. In the UFC, you almost never get tune-up fights. Fighters should relish them when they come.
At stake: relevancy at the elite level. Both fighters have flirted with the highest level of the division (and Maia fought the best at middleweight), but recently came up short. Like Pyle vs. Waldburger, this is about getting back on the horse, but with far great stakes involved. Maia, if he ever wants a title shot, cannot drop two in a row even if they are close bouts. He's far too old to start that far behind the curve in a division this stacked. MacDonald has time on his side, at least relative to Maia, but questions have emerged about whether he can match the expectations placed on him. He's done very well in his UFC run, but also fallen badly short at times. This bout is essential to answering the toughest questions surrounding their careers.
At stake: the chance to turn a corner. Neither of these fighters are top welterweights (yet), but neither is ever too far out of the running. They've won nicely inside the Octagon and, at a minimum, served as good challenges for truly fighters either more capable or ready for a higher level of the division. Pyle is certainly advanced in age, but is never too far out of the running. Ditto with Waldburger. Both are also coming off of losses. This is as much about getting back on the horse now as it is fulfilling whatever the promise of their careers. The winner here has the chance to get back on track and beginning climbing to the higher summit they're capable of reaching.
At stake: proving their worth. We know Thompson is good, but we know he has liabilities as well. We know Whittaker has a lot of capability, but needs to refine his game as well. This bout will help tell us who is further along in their goal of fixing what ails them. And the opener to a pay-per-view is always the best place to do it, as the expectation is generally that fighters in those position go for broke in ways they make not were they placed in a different spot in the card. In any case, Whittaker and Thompson are talented, but questions linger about how far they can go. Winning here is important, sure, but showing the kind of skill that inspires confidence is just as critical.