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Fortunes changed for five at UFN 59

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Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
A fight promoter is always at the mercy of reality, in the sense the best laid plans can and often do blow up in a promoter's face on a regular basis.

It was very obvious from the moment it was announced what Sunday night's UFC Fight Night main event with Conor McGregor vs. Dennis Siver was supposed to be. Siver was a good, if aging, stand-up fighter who is hard to finish.

But he was going in with both a major speed and reach disadvantage. He was tailor-made to showcase McGregor, whose gift of gab combined with very real fighting skills have put him on the precipice of being the biggest money lower weight division star this sport has ever seen.

And that's where the mercy of reality is. Just as his predecessor in the role, Urijah Faber, the key part of being in that role is the ability to win the championship. Faber dominated the featherweight division for a few years, before a new generation of fighters, Jose AldoDominick Cruz and Renan Barao, blocked him from staying there.

It was less than two years ago that McGregor broke onto the UFC scene, and immediately his striking skills were evident, as was his charisma. A blown ACL stalled his ascension for a year, but he's returned with three straight TKO wins since July. He's gone from a theoretical draw to a very real one. He's already been a game changer for UFC's popularity in the Irish market, helping them secure a new television deal, and drawing huge ratings in that country when he fights.

In Boston, even going against the Patriots in the AFC championship game, McGregor was the key in drawing 13,828 fans and $1,340,000 for a Fight Night show. Most Fight Nights are expected to draw in the $500,000 and $700,000 range, but the UFC and FOX went hog wild in promoting him. The ratings were expected to be well above usual for a Fight Night, and if so, those who did see him saw him showcased perfectly as far as a guy who is going to challenge for a championship in a few months.

McGregor did his part, his exhaustive media leading into the fight, and afterwards, noted his frustration in answering the same questions from talk show hosts in the mainstream that he knew didn't really care what he said. He said it was part of the game, and the big crowd as evidence it was a necessary evil.

Given the moniker of an Irish Muhammad Ali leaves far more room for disappointment than success. And he's got a monster standing in his way in Aldo, one of the most all-around talented fighters the sport has ever seen. Aldo thus far seems to have no weaknesses. Before, the book on him was that he'd fade in the late rounds. But  in Aldo's last fight with Chad Mendes in October, after as intense and as fast-paced a five-round fight as 2014 had, he was there every step of the way with no late fade. McGregor, on the other hand, has only seen round three once in his career, and never four and five, so he's completely untested in championship rounds.

Put on the spot, McGregor said that the fight, which Dana White earmarked for May in Las Vegas, would do more buys on pay-per-view than the Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier fight two weeks ago. Unfortunately, that leaves far more room for disappointment. Jones vs. Cormier  is estimated at having done 740,000 to 820,000 buys. The featherweight record, for Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar on February 2, 2013, is closer to 330,000. That number was more due to a loaded undercard. The big stars were really Alistair Overeem, on a nearly six-year win streak and coming off a fast finish of Brock Lesnar, facing Bigfoot Silva in what was to be a tune-up for his title fight, but reality got in the way; and a major light heavyweight bout with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Rashad Evans, who had a history of being one of the company's best draws.

Aldo, on his own, has never been a draw, a regular sub-250,000 buy headliner who usually hovers closer to 200,000.

McGregor was promoted heavily by FOX as a star, including during the NFC championship game on Sunday, and came through in every setting. But talking Jones vs. Cormier numbers only sets up a disappointment because it would be a shock if he got anywhere close to that level.

Still, because of McGregor, not Aldo, this will be the biggest featherweight fight in UFC history, and there is more interest in the division than ever before. And if McGregor wins, which is a gigantic if, it will become one of UFC's marquee divisions for as long as he rules it.

White nixed the Dublin stadium talk, because there were just too many obstacles. On the plus side, if they really could sell out Croke Park, the visual would be good for the sport worldwide. Would it be worth sacrificing 25 to 30 percent on pay-per-view, which White estimated would be the case for a European show?

There were all kinds of problems. There is the added expense of making the stadium ready for a UFC show, both for the live fan experience with enough giant screens, and to make sure the cage area is protected in case of rain, where White said the company would make $2 million less drawing 91,000 fans than it would with an MGM Grand Garden Arena sellout in Las Vegas.

The other issue is the time change, which was the obstacle that did it in. After years ago doing a few pay-per-view shows in Europe,  where the shows would be live in the afternoon and it hurting numbers significantly, every UFC pay-per-view show, no matter where it's held, is going to run 8-10 p.m. Eastern with prelims on FS1, and start the pay-per-view at 10 p.m. That's the middle of the night in Dublin, and Croke Park has an 11 p.m. curfew for all events. That was a roadblock they couldn't get past, which in many ways was too bad.

A second issue coming off Sunday's show was the judging, notably the Cathal Pendred vs. Sean Spencer and Donald Cerrone vs. Benson Henderson fights. Sometimes with controversial judging, the fault is in a scoring system that has inherent flaws and that we have to live with as long as it's not changed. Other times the fault lies with the judges, a human element that will also always be part of the sport as long as there is no scoring criteria like in amateur wrestling or ji-jitsu. This falls squarely with the latter.

Pendred beat Spencer on scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 30-27, perhaps the most stunning decision announcement made by Bruce Buffer in months. A 30-27 score for Spencer would not have been bad and most would go 29-28 in his favor. A 29-28 score, giving Pendred rounds two and three, as judge David Ginsberg did, seemed possible, but that would be a very lucky score for Pendred. The third round could have gone either way. Even though Spencer took most of the second round, Pendred did get a late takedown and went for a Kimura. Pendred's corner told him they thought he stole the round at the end, which caused announcer Joe Rogan to remark that he didn't see that at all.

Rogan called it an outright robbery and White didn't disagree. Some of the audience sway could have been Rogan, who called the match like Spencer was tearing Pendred up standing and breezing to a decision, even in round three when that wasn't really happening.

But it was the round one scoring that was harder to justify. Both Doug Crosby and Eric Colon scored it for Pendred, in a round he was knocked down and in real danger of losing the fight, certainly not enough for a late takedown to overcome.

This led to comments on Twitter like that Siver could knock out McGregor in the main event and the judges would still give the fight to the Irish fighter, or that these judges would give the door a decision over Rampage Jackson (from the episode of The Ultimate Fighter where Jackson in a fit of rage destroyed the door in the gym).

Henderson vs. Cerrone was a closer call. I had Henderson winning rounds one and three, but both two and three were close. Cerrone looked flat and Henderson had the better of the standing game, but it was a close fight. Perhaps it was poetic justice, given Henderson has won more than his fair share of close fights, including a 2009 bout with Cerrone and later fights with Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson all of which saw luck firmly on his side.

Unlike Pendred vs. Spencer which was a bad call with two fighters who will be affected in the pocket book, but it's not like UFC will suddenly lose faith in Spencer because of a bad decision, Henderson vs. Cerrone greatly changes the lightweight landscape.

At the same time, it would have been a shame for Cerrone to end a six-fight win streak because he took a fight against a top level guy just 15 days after he had lost fought. He stays alive in the current title hunt, which a decision in the other direction would have taken him out of.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars from Sunday night:

CONOR MCGREGOR - Barring injury, we know the opponent and when McGregor (17-2) will step into the cage next. We know it'll be the most anticipated featherweight fight ever held in the U.S.

As much as his fellow top contenders may dislike McGregor for his barbs, particularly guys like Edgar (18-4-1), Mendes (16-2) and Ricardo Lamas (15-3), with the charges that he's never had to face a top wrestler in his climb, they have to know a win by McGregor will have great economic benefits for whoever emerges from those three.
Edgar has already earned a shot based on his blistering of Cub Swanson. He'd have had Aldo, but lost out based on the marketability card.  With Mendes vs. Lamas announced for April 4, the winner becomes a second contender in waiting if McGregor wins. If Aldo wins, that would be tougher. He has wins over all three, with two wins over Mendes. And Aldo will go into the McGregor fight as the favorite.

DONALD CERRONE - White indicated that Cerrone's (27-6, 1 no contest) probable next opponent would be Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0), who is expected to be ready to fight in May, coming off major knee surgery.

Both are viable right now for title shots, with Cerrone having a seven-fight win streak and popularity and drawing power is also taken into account, and Nurmagomedov having the unblemished record. The difference is current champion Anthony Pettis finished Cerrone in the first round two years ago, and top contender Rafael dos Anjos beat Cerrone later in 2013.

The other choice, with Pettis facing dos Anjos on March 14, is to not do Cerrone vs. Nurmagomedov. Doing that fight delays the lightweight title time line in 2015 by a few months. You could pick either Cerrone or Nurmagomedov. On paper, with Cerrone's losses, and Nurmagomedov's unbeaten record that includes a win over dos Anjos, he clearly deserves it more. But Cerrone is better known and more popular.

The earliest Cerrone vs. Nurmagomedov happens is May, meaning the second title fight of the year fits in August through October provided there are no serious injuries. You can move that time frame up two months going with either guy. It also leaves two viable contenders waiting for a shot instead of one.

Unless Edson Barboza goes on a tear, or dos Anjos wins, as deep as lightweight is in quality fighters, as long as Pettis is champion, it's going to be tough for guys like Henderson or Gilbert Melendez to get title shots.

BENSON HENDERSON - Even if Henderson (21-5) would have beaten Cerrone, his position in the title chase was not strong. If he had gotten the win, it would have made no sense to put him in with Nurmagomedov next, since both dos Anjos and Pettis each beat Henderson solidly in the first round in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

With the loss, his most likely direction would be either with Barboza (15-2), provided Barboza gets past Michael Johnson on Feb. 22, or Eddie Alvarez (25-4). Henderson vs. Barboza could be a make-or-break fight for either man's career at this point. Henderson needs a win badly now. Barboza has never had a signature win, and Henderson is still a big enough name to propel him into the upper echelon.

Henderson was originally to face Alvarez on Sunday before Alvarez got ill in camp. The UFC could also do Alvarez vs. Melendez, something talked about for years when they were Bellator and Strikeforce champions.

GLEISON TIBAU - Every time Tibau comes to the ring, the 1970 song "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath blares in the background.

At first, it was just another entrance song from another era. Now, it's fitting. Tibau (40-10) is really a strong 31-year-old journeyman lightweight. He's never been close to title consideration yet he has records that put him in the same league as the sport's all-time greats.

He's now tied for third place, with Anderson Silva, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, on the all-time list of most UFC wins with 16, behind only Georges St-Pierre (19) and Matt Hughes (18).

He's behind only Tito Ortiz (27) and Hughes (25) in most UFC fights with 24. Barring an injury, he'll officially be UFC's Iron Man in about a year, and it's possible could even at some point be the winningest fighter in company history.

He's won five of six, but he's still nowhere near title consideration, even though he does have a 2011 win over dos Anjos.
Tibau's split decision win was deserved and seemed pretty clear, but it was scary going to the cards against an Irish fighter in Boston right after the Spencer vs. Pendred fight.

Tibau's next direction could be with Tony Ferguson (17-3), or perhaps the winner of the just announced April 4 fight with Bobby Green (23-6) vs. Jorge Masvidal (28-8). But even with his records, those fights still keep him firmly entrenched in the pack.

LORENZ LARKIN - When Larkin burst on the national scene in 2011, in Strikeforce, as a light heavyweight with flashy Muay Thai, he immediately looked like someone to keep an eye on. He moved to middleweight when he couldn't handle the wrestling of King Mo Lawal. Then he went 2-4 in that division and he became a guy who looked like he had promise to a guy who may have been cut had UFC not expanded to a 550 or so fighter roster.

His move to 170 came with little fanfare. But his hand and foot speed against a solid veteran in John Howard made him one of the most impressive fighters on the show. Plus, on July 14, 2012, he defeated current welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, when both fighters were in Strikeforce.

Welterweight is filled with not just good fighters, but exciting ones. Larkin, at 28, is going to need to prove that somehow it's the weight class that's the difference and there are plenty of guys who can be the next test.

Three names that fit the bill, both as far as looking like a great opponent on paper, and to see if he's real in the division, are Erick Silva (17-5) and the winner of the Feb. 14 fight in Broomfield, Colo., between Brandon Thatch (11-1) and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson (10-1).