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UFC 184 fight card: What's at stake?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There's been a lot of talk this week about what the male analogue is Rousey vs. Zingano. I'm not entirely sure what the right answer would be, but we can easily eliminate any major heavyweight boxing title fight from the 20th century as an option. In fact, not enough has happened yet to call this an all-time classic even in women's MMA. This could end up being a bit of a dud. These competitors need to establish something between themselves for this to break new ground.  There has to be a meaningful rivalry based on competitive results. That's true for this women's bantamweight division. It's even truer for the women's side of the sport, generally.

But this is an important weekend in the sport. It's as much an acknowledgement of the laudable growth of the women's side of the game as it is a reminder of its still semi-uncertain existence. For all of Ronda Rousey's ability to generate enthusiasm, attention and willing competitors, the roots required to bear future fruit are still in a partly perilous state.

Invicta, the all-women's MMA promotion, has serviced the UFC. They've acted as a de facto non-profit whose job was to build an architecture for women, so divisions could form, contenders could be created and champions crowned. They've done that with two weight classes, which they allowed the UFC to strip mine for their own purposes. This is largely a good thing for MMA, as the UFC is likely the only organization who can meaningfully tend to a division that needs nurturing and sunlight.

This also, however, underscores the larger reality about the women's game. They've come far enough to have a women's bantamweight division and a Ronda Rousey leading the charge at the front of it, but not far enough to bloom an entire separate industry and economy of women's fighting beyond it. Sure, there's the strawweight division, but that remains a work in progress. There's talk of bringing in an atomweight division, but it's just that, talk. Bellator is trying to kick start the featherweight division, but results thus far have been deeply underwhelming.

This weekend provides a chance to build something new in the women's game. If Cat Zingano can pull off something special, she'll help write a new chapter in the women's side of the game. Or maybe Rousey wins and UFC finds a way to finally make the Cyborg bout happen. Either way, though, the precise read on what this weekend means we should be celebrating what we have, what's been grown and what's been made possible. It's also a read that requires us to be mindful of how precarious and relatively small everything still is.

This voyage is real, but the oceans are vast. They're also imbalanced. Steady as she goes.

Star-divide

Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano

At stake: all of that which matters. The biggest fights are often the most straight forward when trying to evaluate the stakes. The title is up for grabs, of course. This would also mark the biggest win of Zingano's career, if she can manage it. Should Zingano win, she'd make history and potentially set off the most high-profile women's MMA rivalry between two competitors who have actually fought one another. Even if she can't, she can make the fight difficult enough to make it Rousey's best win. This is all highly presumptuous, but possible given a few twists of fate.

Or Rousey does what she normally does and the UFC finds a way to make the Cyborg fight happen. Either of those outcomes don't change the sport of women's MMA necessarily, but they do expand the horizon of what's possible from the promotional side of things for the women's side of the game. They set new limits about what those women have accomplished, which in an ancillary way, helps the division.

There's lots of ways to examine the possibilities here. That doesn't mean we should overstate the implications of victory and defeat, but it doesn't take much to happen for the UFC to still produce something even more meaningful from the result. And if the unlikely happens? Well, now you're cooking with gas.

Raquel Pennington vs. Holly Holm

At stake: setting up a potential future title shot. This would apply more to Holm given the name value she carries, but we never want to be overly exclusionary. Still, that's the essential purpose of this contest. Holm is a name the UFC can sell opposite Rousey (or Zingano) perhaps later this year or early 2016. She still needs to time to work on her skills and competition at this level, which is what the Pennington fight provides. Pennington is a good first test for Holm, but just that, a test that's designed to not be too tough to pass. It's the foundational building block upon which a future title shot can be built.


Jake Ellenberger vs. Josh Koscheck

At stake: a UFC future. This is more so an issue for Koscheck, who is 37 to Ellenberger's 29 years of age. Ellenberger, however fairly, is still ranked within the top 15 of the division. That said, both have lost three straight. Not merely three consecutive fights, but losses wherein they were both stopped handily by surging opposition. Perhaps it was all aberrant, but they were made to look as if they didn't belong. This fight is about stopping the bleeding, at least with a win. A dominant showing could extend more favorably into future oppotunities. A loss, particularly for Koscheck, could spell the end of his UFC and MMA career.

Alan Jouban vs. Richard Walsh

At stake: the chance to make a splash. Both fighters have had some surprising or fun or otherwise moderately noteworthy moments in their careers to date, but haven't (yet) accomplished much more than that. Jouban has a bit more of the spotlight, but neither can claim to have done much to merit any measure more of attention than they currently receive. This fight is about changing that. This contest marks the first time both fighters will have fought on a pay-per-view, to say nothing of the fact that they're doing so on the main card. This is a business where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. With a stage like this, put on a strong performance, make a few post-fight requests and you never know what might happen.

Tony Ferguson vs. Gleison Tibau

At stake: breaking into the top 15. Tibau has tenure. Ferguson has ability, but neither is currently able to credibly claim they deserve to be ranked among the division's elite. While nothing is guaranteed since neither is ranked in the top 15, it is still very possible a commanding victory in this contest could change those fortunes. Let's also not forget they've been selected and paired to make sure the first bout on the pay-per-view portion of the event is an action contest. Living up to that pressure will likely affect Ferguson - the less risk averse of the two - who, coincidentally, is likelier to break into the top 15 of the two with a win.