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UFC 173 fight card: What's at stake?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

How do you promote Renan Barao? Why isn't he a bigger star?

More than anything else, this seems to be the talk of the MMA public ahead of the UFC's annual Memorial Day pay-per-view event. Everyone has offered a solution to the matter, none of which seem particularly plausible as root causes of indifference.

Does he need to learn English? It's true being able to connect with audiences in their lingua franca is helpful. Junior dos Santos raised eyebrows with his head-detaching uppercuts, but forced smiles for his loveable, gooberish 'aww shucks' act. Being able to do media in the language of the pay-per-view buying public doesn't hurt either. Yet, it's also true fighters have become stars in mixed martial arts without it, so it's not correct it's a requisite skill.

Is Barao handsome enough? Maybe, maybe not. It's true athletes with good looks in both genders get a little more camera time, and why not? The camera loves them. Those holding the cameras want to film them. Yet, if looks were a requirement for MMA super stardom, there wouldn't be many who would qualify for such lofty heights. This is a sport built on disfiguring one another. Good looks help, such as they exist, but are not required.

So, if these are necessary conditions of popularity, but not sufficient, what's being left undone?

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I actually like UFC President Dana White's answer, namely, time. This is largely my response as well. Time, though, isn't particularly descriptive. It's a catch-all for 'we don't really know'. In time, everything that could possibly happen typically does: things you recognize and things you don't, things that matter and things that won't. You get accustomed to someone over time, to their quirks and talents, that which you like about them as much as the opposite. Time is comfortability, familiarity and with a hugely successful record in competition, perhaps even likability. Maybe during that time, Barao himself morphs into something different than who he began as and picks up English a bit, presents himself in a more appealing way or finds a rival to brand himself against. Everything is different over time.

Time is the underwriter of gradual change, where potential eventually actualizes into hardened reality. The path is linear, but the length is indeterminate from the outset.

So how do you promote Renan Barao? You promote him every time and hope that over time he becomes something more than what he is.


Renan Barao vs. T.J. Dillashaw

At stake: creating/furthering a legacy. It's not often the case where the headlining bout is as uncomplicated in stakes as it is here. There's a title up for grabs, but that's obvious. Usually in title bouts, however, there's a bit of desperation involved. One of the competitors took forever to get a title shot and may never get it again is a common theme, albeit one not present here. I don't know what the future holds for Dillashaw, but for a fighter relatively young in a division very much in development, it seems strange to write off a potential loss here as crippling to his future. A loss doesn't do much for his legacy either, but I simply don't see this as some sort of overarching chapter. It's simply another chapter. And if he wins? It's the beginning of a brand new story.

As for Barao, he's trying to keep his Cal Ripken-esque, perfect attendance streak of human sacrifice to the gods of mixed martial arts alive. Whether this is the formative bout that pushes him over the edge into superstardom is admittedly hard to decipher, but also a suspect proposition. Barao needs a rival, a foil, someone who wide swathes of the viewing public want to see him paired up against. I have my doubts Dillashaw is that guy. But Diilashaw is also talented a win over him keeps the gods happy and keeps the Barao win streak locomotive firmly on the tracks.

Daniel Cormier vs. Dan Henderson

At stake: more than you'd imagine. A bizarre contest, but one of almost limitless potential. On the Cormier side of the equation, the path is a little more illuminated. A win likely gives the former heavyweight a chance at the winner of Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson, with many hoping Jones somehow both loses to Gustafsson yet finds a way to defend his title against Cormier. Whatever.

Be that as it may, the more interesting aspect to this affair is what it means for Henderson. Here at once is a fighter who is viewed as elite but too flawed to keep company with the sport's mutually-agreed upon royalty. Yet, looking at Henderson's resume is revelatory. He's got some of the most impressive feats in the history of combat sports, whether it's beating Fedor Emelianenko or being the first man to wear two major titles in two different weights classes at the same time. Beating Cormier adds to Henderson's arguably unrivaled resume. The reality is Henderson's had incontestable low points in his career, which keeps at distance from Mount Rushmore status. He's been shown to be mortal across weight classes, but no one rises to the occasion like Henderson either. A win at UFC 173 gives him more of the incredible accolades and unusual list of scalps he's managed to put together in his hall of fame career.

Robbie Lawler vs. Jake Ellenberger

At stake: putting Johny Hendricks on notice. I'd argue there's still an unofficial welterweight tournament going on to see who is next for champion Johny Hendricks. On one side there's Tyron Woodley vs. Rory MacDonald. On the other is this bout. The winners of those two bouts could face each other and then Hendricks depending on timeline. Or, more likely, the winner who looks the most impressive and is the easiest to sell gets Bigg Rigg next. That's why these stakes are so noteworthy. It isn't merely that one must win, a challenging enough tough task as it is. The method of the win must be dominant such that promoting the winner has to be an almost turnkey affair. This has to be hand in glove, as much as possible, anyway. The winner needs to look like someone they can push as the guy who can beat the hirsute gentleman wearing the belt, which is no automatic thing, but given the type of talent being pitted against one another, certainly doable.

Takeya Mizugaki vs. Francisco Rivera

At stake: contendership. This one is fairly straight forward. It's no grudge match. These two don't have much of a story, at least not relative to the other. There isn't a score to settle. This bout doesn't offer a signature win, although both fighters are excellent talents. Instead, this is about two top ten-ranked bantamweights looking to climb the ladder towards a future title opportunity. Neither fighter is known for being boring, but they weren't necessarily booked to produce a certain kind of aesthetic outcome. These guys are in a chase for the chance to challenge for Renan Barao's title. No more, no less.

Jamie Varner vs. James Krause

At stake: a time in the sun. I doubt either fighter would be cut after a loss here, although it's possible, especially for the up-and-down Varner. But let's be candid, shall we? These two know what time it is. They were positioned as the pay-per-view show opener either because they have a wide open style or because of how brass believes the two will match up or perhaps because (particularly like Varner) they see themselves as showmen. This tilt won't be tantamount to a Bellator heavyweight quarterfinal bout, which is uncoordinated and lumbering if powerful violence. These two are legitimately skilled fighters, but they are also fighters willing to engage their opposition's offense. They ultimately play a bit of roulette strategically. Losing on those terms isn't necessarily the precursor to pink slips and winning is excellent for further attention or riches.

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