The UFC is in a tough spot with the flyweight division. They've done just about everything they can to develop the talent and promote the division. They've helped to produce a champion who is widely considered a pound-for-pound great and lined up a limited but legitimate amount of contenders to evidence his greatness.
Yet, the guy is not - as of the time of this writing - much of a pay-per-view salesman.
In fairness to him, pay-per-view is probably dying. A slow, tortuous death, but a death nonetheless. And recent ratings for UFC Fight Night 42 suggest prolonged exposure during UFC on FOX events can lead to a fighter being a television draw if not one you can put behind a paywall. It's not clear Johnson is that either, but it's fair to wonder if he could be with a continued push.
As it stands though, there's not a lot of evidence that UFC 174 will draw a good buy rate. Demetrious Johnson is everything a combat sports or MMA fan could possibly ever want, which proves what sells is not necessarily something everything a combat sports or MMA fan could possibly ever want. Meritocracy is merely an ingredient.
It's just not clear what the alternative is except to soldier on. UFC might be shipping out far too much content, but they're also setting a precedent elite flyweight title bouts matter. Maybe they won't sell now (UFC knows this). That doesn't mean they won't sell forever. When they eventually do, UFC will at least have established a track record of giving the weight class and it's leading man all of the treatment they deserved even at a time when maybe they didn't deserve it.
At stake: probably more than just a world title. A few things stand out to me about this match. If Johnson wins, he'll solidify his place in the top pound-for-pound rankings. He might even climb a bit, too. If he hasn't already, he'd likely be crowned the best flyweight ever. If Bagautinov wins, things get a bit more interesting. He'd upset expectations, of course, but it's more than that. He'd become the first Russian UFC champion, damage Johnson's pound-for-pound placement, and continue this path we're on where it feels like no UFC champion is safe.
It hasn't always been that case. There have been years that passed where, yes, upsets happened, but titans of the division sat atop them. The guys doing that now often look unstoppable forces until such time they're stopped. UFC 173 was a perfect example, but hardly the only one. Benson Henderson lost his crown to Anthony Pettis, I scored the fight between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks for Hendricks, Anderson Silva lost twice to Chris Weidman and Alexander Gustafsson almost took Jon Jones' title from him.
Like the oddsmakers, I don't see much of a case for Bagautinov, but so what? None of us can predict the future and not many of us saw those aforementioned upsets and razor-close contests happening either. These shake-ups arguably prove we're in an era where champions aren't as dominant as they once were. Well, except for Demetrious Johnson.
At stake: reshaping impressions. There is a strain of truth to the idea that both fighters have issues turning a corner towards undisputed territory. They can both beat very elite fighters, but in those key opportunities to make a statement about their place atop the division, they've fallen short. That could happen here again to both, strangely enough. If both turn in a lackluster effort for three rounds, one fighter will win, but neither will change the narrative about their limits. The hope here is one of the two stands out from the other in a sufficient enough way that changes prevailing belief about them. In short, they'll have to do things here they don't normally do and maybe haven't ever. This one is about rising to the occasion.
At stake: stringing wins together. This one is pretty simple. Feijao hasn't put together two clean wins in a row since 2010. Bader hasn't done that since he faced Quinton Jackson in 2012. Both of these fighters are always going up and down. This is about establishing consistency. That alone isn't enough to get moving towards a title shot, but a title shot and many other spoils won't happen without consistency.
At stake: I'm not really sure. I mean that. This is a strange bout, which makes it kind of awesome. Arlovski is close to the end of his career. He's said as much himself. Schaub has had some issues climbing the ranks now and again, but isn't exactly in some sort of death spiral. He's done well of late. Sometimes UFC matchmaker Joe Silva will pair fighters up based on relative ability and availability. This seems to be one of those cases. Arlovski can turn his career around, at least a little bit, if he somehow gets past Schaub. Schaub can at least hold position or use this opportunity as a launch point to call out someone else. Neither of those sound like the world's greatest prizes, but I can't get a read on what the fallout might be. Whenever there's a strange pairing like this, strange things happen in the aftermath. It's best to take a wait and see approach here.
At stake: a chance for something more. I say this in every one of these columns, but that's because it's true. These guys are being placed here neither because they're on the cusp of a title shot nor because they're insignificant. They're somewhere in the middle, but the key is that how they match-up is supposed to kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card in a fan-friendly way. The winner doesn't get a chance to pull much more out of this win than an opportunity to earn future wins on future cards of note, but that's no small prize. These two are expected to open the show with a bang. If they do, they'll find themselves in a better spot the next time out.