What does the UFC hope to get out of tonight's event? UFC President Dana White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta always publicly state they want each of their events and the subsequent results to play out organically. Whatever cards they're dealt, that's the hand they'll play. Clearly nothing is rigged, but the UFC has the advantage of stacking the deck on some level. They sign the fighters and they create the match-ups.
In their third outing on FOX, UFC has clearly created a card designed to deliver on what the first two UFC on FOX events lacked: action. To do that, they've substituted out a strong measure of star power (by casual fan standards) for fighters who deliver on aggressive offense. In terms of star attractions, this card was booked as something more than a UFC on FX event, but less than a typical pay-per-view.
The first outing on FOX was special for its historical gravity and the battle of the heavyweight championship. Still, the action lasted all of 64 seconds. The second outing didn't put as much up for grabs, but expanded the fight card to three bouts. The action was definitely better (certainly longer), but still didn't have the 'wow' moments most of the MMA initiated are accustomed to witnessing. It's true this third outing on FOX is an attempt to set up future pay-per-view bouts and attractions. But one of the most important considerations is representing MMA on network television as faithfully as it actually can be when it's fun and exciting. I tend to believe engineering for action in MMA is often a fool's errand, but there's admittedly good reason to believe if nothing else, tonight's fights will deliver on those terms.
All of this, though, is discussion about what's riding on tonight's card. What about the actual fights themselves? A card's importance and value is partly a function of the importance of each particular fight. With that, let's take a closer look at the bouts on the main card to see what's truly at stake at the Izod Center tonight.
At stake: stepping out of the shadows. A lot rides on this fight for Miller. He won't get a title shot if he wins - nor should he - but obviously a win over a competitor like Diaz is huge. Still, Miller seems like a candidate who will have the ability to float at the top of this division for some time. How high? No one knows for sure, but he's so talented and such a ferocious competitor he'll seemingly be in fights of significance for the foreseeable future. And if he's going to eventually contend for a title, he's going to have to win beyond tonight's contest.
The real focus is on Diaz. With his brother on ice and locked in a legal battle with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the younger Diaz has a monstrous opportunity this evening. A win not only earns him a title shot, but it finally puts him past the tipping point where his identity is no longer viewed as a facsimile of his older, more famous brother's. A convincing win against Miller and eventual title shot foists the younger Diaz in a position where he isn't compared to Nick or what Nick's done or how Nick fights. Yes, their fighting styles are similar and their brotherly bond is tight. Nate Diaz won't be able to ever fully escape how his brother's life, career and style define his own.
It's also certainly not the worst fate to have one's career and abilities compared to Nick Diaz, but it's also probably not exactly fair either. Nate isn't Nick and he deserves to have his story told without it being a function of what Nick has or hasn't done. Nate merits his own spotlight for his own achievements in his own fights against opponents that were solely his. Nick Diaz is arguably the most important influence in Nate's very participation and success in MMA, but that doesn't demand we only consider Nate's existence and achievements through that prism. He's his own man on his own path. A win tonight pushes him along on that trajectory more than any other to date.
Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks
At stake: fulfilling the promise of potential. The world has been waiting for Hendricks to arrive. The question is whether this is his coming out party as the welterweight division's next big standout. Koscheck's career obviously matters, too, but he's not on a contendership track at the moment. The real eyes of the fight world tonight are on his opponent.
A two-time (nearly three) Division I NCAA wrestling champion out of Oklahoma State and absolute villain in collegiate wrestling, Hendricks' maturation into full-fledged welterweight contender has been a very slow simmer and something of an uncertainty. Many expected him, perhaps unfairly, to have a much more rapid ascension in MMA. As reality set it he wasn't going to steamroll his fellow welterweights, many insiders were unsure of whether Hendricks would ever even reach the point he has today. He's defeated everyone he was expected to, squeaked by the ultra-tough Mike Pierce and defeated perennial number two contender Jon Fitch. The problem, though, is that he beat Fitch in a way that doesn't tell us anything other than Hendricks has potent power punching (something we already saw in his win against Amir Sadollah). If he's really got the stuff to compete at the upper echelon of the division, he'll need to show it over the course of a round or two.
Some have focused on the fact this is the first time two NCAA national champions have faced one another, but that's more a historical footnote or piece of trivia. The real issue is whether or not Hendricks can hang with the elite of the division. If he can, he'll get a title shot against whoever the UFC welterweight champion is at that time. If Hendricks is going to make a name for himself in the fight game, tonight is the night to do it.
Rousimar Palhares vs. Alan Belcher
At stake: limbs and signature wins. In any fight with Palhares, life may not be at risk as such, but limb certainly is. Let's acknowledge that right up front. You don't win a silver medal at ADCC (losing only to Andre Galvao on points) by heel hooking your opposition without a) being a serious grappling talent and b) having a particular subset of skills that even world-class black belts find difficulty handling. In the MMA context, a bout with Palhares is as close to playing Russian Roulette with ACLs and MCLs as one can possibly get.
The more important consideration for this bout, however, is what a win here means for either Belcher or Palhares. In short, this would be something of a signature win for either combatant. A win here does more for either fighter than any previous win they've had in the UFC. Palhares has nice wins over Dan Miller and Jeremy Horn, but fell short against Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt. Belcher has good wins over Denis Kang and Patrick Cote, but fell short against Yoshihiro Akiyama, Jason Day and Kendall Grove.
Perhaps most importantly, a win here unequivocally pushes the winner into the middleweight top ten. This is a fight that could serve as an inflection point for either fighter's contendership status. I know we are all focused on the absurdity and chaos that could ensue here, but this is a bout with serious upside for the winner.
At stake: cognitive functioning. I've talked to Barry multiple times and while I'm certain he'd love to work his way up to a UFC heavyweight title shot, I'm also fairly certain he believes that's probably a remote possibility. I'm also reasonably confident he's at peace with that. What he wants to do is fight for a living. There are some terms under which he'd like to fight, namely, for decent pay and against tough opposition. Given his penchant for the knockout and his previous statements virtually everyone in the UFC heavyweight division is either scary or huge or much bigger than him, I'd call him satisfied.
A win over Johnson certainly moves him up the ladder, but not in any hugely meaningful way. Barry is 4-4 in his UFC career. His role, by and large, is to serve as something of a litmus test for UFC heavyweight division entrants while fighting with a very fan-friendly style typically against other fighters with fan-friendly styles. Johnson is arguably in the same predicament. These fighters deserve to be in the UFC heavyweight division, but this bout is mostly about two rams butting heads on a hill top. It's action for action's sake and as long as we understand this bout on those terms, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.