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UFC 194 fight card: What's at stake?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There's lots of talk about how the UFC has had a great 2015 and that's true. There've been a number of missteps, of course. The Reebok apparel deal is a rolling calamity, for example. There have also been a number of unforeseen setbacks like Jon Jones' misconduct or surprising drug test failures of marquee attractions or antitrust lawsuits from former fighters.

Those complications matter in the overall picture, but they shouldn't obstruct the very discernable larger view. Call it the year of ambition. Call it the year the UFC peacocked. Call it the year they simply got lucky, if you wish. Whatever the moniker or label, 2015 represents a year the UFC reengaged their own imagination, impulse and drive and matched it with their unparalleled machine.

It's not that UFC is only now trying to test their limits. Their willingness to discover the boundaries of their abilities is actually a constant in their business practices. The key differentiator now is the turn inward. Rather than a previous unrelenting focus on extreme brand visibility, the emphasis has shifted to yes, casting a wide net, but more importantly, product curation.

The UFC has never been known for poor quality, but their ear for criticism has improved. Their understanding of what drives fan interest, fighter star power and brand loyalty has gotten better. Most importantly, their willingness to not only meet those expectations but exceed them has grown. And with that growth in willingness, a concurrent capability has emerged.

UFC 194 represents any number of things, like the growth of MMA internationally or the rise of sub-lightweight divisions as box office attractions. For me, however, the emphasis is different. Saturday's pay-per-view events represents evidence the UFC has simply gotten better as a promoter. Much of the conversation about the Ultimate Fighting Championship focuses on its size or might. Scale is important and has been a dominant feature of their identity of late, but a nimble touch is hard to do at scale. 2015 and UFC 194 are proof that the UFC has gotten the juggling act between the expanse of its empire and the nuanced polish required for quality control.

The UFC being in every climb and place isn't valuable if the common standard of excellence is lost along the way. If there is anything that this year shows - punctuated by UFC 194 - it's that, finally, the UFC takes this fact as seriously as they do their flag planting.

Star-divide

Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor

At stake: not quite everything, but close. This fight has been so thoroughly examined that it becomes tough to know what to add. So, let's just try to soberly evaluate what's going on here.

First, it's the most lucrative and important fight in the division's history. The best the weight class has to offer meets it's potential next king and certainly it's greatest attraction. Such a scenario would not even be possible if featherweight didn't have an outrageously dominant champion and implacable contender.

Second, the bout is the culmination of McGregor's ambitious run to the title. That's not meant to be an obvious statement. Perhaps the most exciting time in a fighter's career is their first run to the title. This is the moment when the limits of imagination do not exist. We simply don't know just how good a fighter is and we can't help but wonder where it all begins and ends. Once more is known, it's often not nearly as fun, if for no other reason than so few are ever so superior to their peers that they can make sustained title defenses.

Third, it's not really a referendum on Aldo. If he loses Saturday, it's not great for his career, but he's already proved he could hold sustained dominance over the division. That's the only proof of greatness in mixed martial arts. Many fighters can temporarily rise to the occasion. Few can hold an entire weight class under their thumb for years on end. Win or lose, Aldo's run is already historic. What would make a win over McGregor special is not just being the victor in their rivalry, but beating an opponent purported to be unlike any other Aldo has faced.

This is the biggest fight of the year and one of the biggest you're likely to ever see. It has everything to offer: grudge settling, championship stakes, elite skill, huge money, impassioned fan bases and maximum exposure. These fights are so few and far between. Enjoy it while you can.

Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold

At stake: proof of who they believe themselves to be. Sure, the title is on the line. That means, to an extent, legacy is, too. But there's another aspect to this fight that is worth noting. Even if bloodied and bruised, the winner is trying to prove to the world that the person they see themselves as is just as they see it.

Weidman's validation is still in limbo, actually. The questions surrounding just how good he actually is never comfortably were answered with the two victories over Anderson Silva. What seemed like definitive proof of peerless middleweight skill was muddied when Rockhold did far worse to Lyoto Machida than what Weidman ever accomplished (and reasons for that are under debate).

Rockhold has proven to be a prodigious talent, but the kind that can win and carry UFC gold? Few outside of American Kickboxing Academy can say with any confidence or certainty. The fact remains a win against Weidman doesn't just award Rockhold the belt, but the satisfactory evidence he is the special kind of fighter that he imagines himself to be.

Ronaldo Souza vs. Yoel Romero

At stake: title shot with no time to spare. It's hard to imagine how the winner here wouldn't be slotted in for a title shot, controversy or some sort of other obstruction notwithstanding. A clean victory here gives the dominant fighter what should be a fully open road to a bout with the division's champion. In that sense, the bout isn't uniquely remarkable.

What is worth mentioning, however, is the age of both Jacare and Romero. The Brazilian is 36 and the Cuban 38. They are both athletic wonders and have stretched their window of being elite competitors as a result of these natural gifts. Still, time for major achievement in the sport is not on their side. It is difficult to mount a campaign that results in a title shot. Even McGregor had to go through six UFC fights before getting a shot at the real title and some say he was rocketed to the front. Hardly.

There are fortuitous circumstances where fighters get title shots without having to do much. Alexander Gustafsson received one despite being knocked out in the first round of his previous bout. Generally speaking, however, they are few and far between. And when an athlete is knocking on the door of 40, the chances to actualize one's career become fewer - quite literally - by the minute.

Demian Maia vs. Gunnar NelsonMax Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens

At stake: a move up the contendership ladder. The positions among the fighters between the two fights are not identical, but there is a basic, overlapping trait: no one is on the verge of a title shot, but no one is that far away either. This is about either entering the top five space in their respective divisions or perhaps even higher. This is part of the building blocks to something to truly great, if any of them are to ever achieve it.

This is also an opportunity for the victor to flex their technical muscles a touch. Winning is clearly the most important priority in a bout with stakes this high and winning with a little flamboyant confidence never hurts. But more than that, to inspire continued confidence in the fan base and management, they have to demonstrate the kind of technical and physical ability that lets one's imagination run. In other words, not only did they have the ability to win here or perhaps even look good doing it, but performed so ably that any person could imagine them reaching even greater heights with that sort of acumen.