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UFC 187 fight card: What's at stake?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If there are UFC customers upset or otherwise dismayed at the absence of Jon Jones or Khabib Nurmagomedov from this card, they are well within their rights to be so. And if there's anything fans are entitled to do, it's act as a de facto quality control service by providing consumer feedback in the form of pay-per-view sales...or lack thereof. None of this behavior is out of bounds.

However, the UFC deserves a bit of a break here. Jones' malfeasance got him removed from the card. Nurmagomedov's aggro training forced John Makdessi to step in. Neither of these problems are the UFC's fault. More to the point, when injuries or other unforeseen circumstances reduce card quality, we expect the UFC to make a genuine effort at makings substitutions as good as possible while ensuring the rest of the card is palatable. Stack the cards, we say, so in the event of change there's still a lot to like.

That's precisely what's happened here. In a world of too many cards, too many injuries and too many substitutions, the UFC has nevertheless managed to put together a card that withstood athlete misbehavior and the ongoing injury epidemic. If that's not a test of quality, nothing is. We can't ask for the UFC to be perfect or to benefit from unreal luck. What we can ask, however, is that they put together a product that meets the common standard of excellence even when things don't go right. If they deserve criticism when they fail to do so, they equally merit praise when it happens.

Star-divide

Anthony Johnson vs. Daniel Cormier

At stake: proof that second chances are real. All of the talk about this fight centers on the absence of Jon Jones. That's understandable, but forces a turn away from a surprising new narrative that emerges: this fight is about the fulfillment of second career chances. The most interesting part is that no matter who wins, the narrative becomes real.

It's actually more of a last chance for Cormier, but it is his second crack at UFC gold. After failing to earn the achievements he desired in college and the international freestyle wrestling circuit, he turned to MMA for athletic pursuits. He fell short against Jones in January, but gets another chance to right the ship. Maybe it won't mean the same thing because it's not Jones who he is defeating, but his name will still be forever be listed as one of men who earned a UFC title during their careers. If there's an asterisk there, it's a small one.

For Johnson, this is what his years-long reformation project has been all about: finding the right camp, the right weight division, the right attitude and the right focus. Everything seems to be aligned, putting him in the best position yet to actualize his dreams. He doesn't get the chance to prove how real his turnaround is either since he's not fighting Jones, but like Cormier, we'll see how much that matters if his name is ultimately preceded by 'UFC light heavyweight champion'. That designation has a way of changing people's perspectives about its meaning and value very quickly.

Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort

At stake: a TRT referendum. There's obviously quite a bit up for grabs here, not least of which is the UFC middleweight title. For Belfort to capture it would mean he put himself along with very short company of those who've won two UFC titles in two different weight classes. It'd also likely signal that whatever the legitimate medical need of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), the performance-enhancing benefits would all be worth it. His capturing of the title wouldn't be on the back of TRT, but his run to it certainly would. If he wins tonight, who could argue that despite a tarnished reputation, use of TRT wasn't worth it? That may be an ugly truth to accept, but not all facts are pretty.

For Weidman, he's made this about a grudge match where he's the enforcer cracking down on drug abusers. I'm not sure that's the appropriate position for a champion to be taking, but it's one he's adopted for the purposes of this fight. He's made this fight a testament to real meritocracy, a contest where he believes Belfort has no chance. He's trying to turn this fight into a measurement of hard-earned authentic ability. That also means he wants to dish out a cruel finish befitting a person who, in his mind, is a fraud waiting to be exposed and deserving of extra punishment. There's a seething anger underlying Weidman's efforts, all of tied to a perceived chance at payback for taking what was never theirs to begin with.

Donald Cerrone vs. John Makdessi

At stake: a title shot or reputation solidification. Should Cerrone win, I expect him to get a title shot, if for no other reason than he's marketable, well liked by the fan base and at the front of the queue in a process of contender elimination. If he somehow loses to Makdessi, however, he'll solidify some of the sneaking suspicions about him that he's the guy who beats all the other guys except The Guy. Even earning a title shot won't necessarily fix that, but a loss to Makdessi makes it mostly official.

Travis Browne vs. Andrei Arlovski

At stake: a return to the top 5. This one is fairly straightforward. Both fighters have had their downs, but of recent, a fair amount of real ups. They both hover outside of the top 5, which means the winner here is all but guaranteed to move into that position. What happens after that is anyone's guess, but this turnaround would be particularly impressive for someone like Arlovski, a fighter who was all but forgotten after losing to Anthony Johnson in World Series of Fighting.

Joseph Benavidez vs. John Moraga

At stake: real flyweight title implications. You'd be hard pressed to give either guy a fight with the champ after a win here. After all, both have already lost to Demetrious Johnson, and rather spectacularly so. Still, the title has to be defended and that means it needs contenders, wherever they can be found. Chances are the winner of John Dodson vs. Zach Makovsky is more likely to get the next crack, but it'd be foolish to assume both of these fighters are simply wasting their time on a bridge to nowhere. They're still not fully out of the hunt.

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