With the launch of Fox Sports 1, there is both great expectations and no expectations at all. The launch of the channel is an important moment in sports media and television broadcast history, but with any experiment this new and large-scale, no one really knows what to expect. Some efforts will work. Others will fail miserably. Benchmarks for success will take time to establish. All the UFC and the channel can do is put their best foot forward at the moment of take off.
Generally speaking, they’ve done that here. The main event is bizarre and something of a non-sequitur, but the fight card itself is highly commendable. No one knows how the evening can go, but all the UFC can do is put talented fighters in bouts of consequence and hope they produce what fans, television execs and other interested parties are looking for. There’s only so much engineering allowed. Much of the success is luck. In terms of what the UFC can control, they’ve done a very commendable job.
There is going to be river of sane and inane questions about this fight card, television channel, partnership and more after Saturday. What will the ratings be? Was the broadcast quality up to par? Is the UFC going to be able to be a programming lynchpin for the channel in the days, weeks and months ahead? The answer is ‘who knows?’. It’s almost ‘who cares?’. The effort has long been underway and the relevant parties have done (basically) everything they could ahead of the station’s launch. Everything that’s left is in the hands of fate.
Mauricio Rua vs. Chael Sonnen
At stake: looking too old to make fans care. There really isn’t much more to this bout other than the risk both fighters run in demonstrating the corrosive effects of age on athletic ability and performance. Sure, an impressive victory or respectable defeat can later be sold to the public as evidence of viability. If either fighter is able to shine, the UFC would gladly leverage whatever enthusiasm that generated. But the reality is neither fighter is in their prime. Shogun is fighting through what should be and partly are debilitating injuries. While it’s hard to look good against Jon Jones, Sonnen appears to be noticeably slower than he was just a few years ago.
With Sonnen headed to middleweight win, lose or draw on Saturday, the biggest risk this fight poses is that the loser (and even the victor) will look ineffectual enough to dampen interest in their future fights. It’s highly unlikely either will ever contend for a title again (at least on meritorious grounds), but there’s still room for them to do what they’re doing on this card: headline. That is unless they look like sluggish, old facsimiles of their former selves. Given how they’ve appeared recently, that is not an idle concern.
Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne
At stake: heavyweight contendership. This fight has the most intriguing stakes of them all. Overeem is facing the possibility of being labeled as one of the UFC’s most spectacular busts. From the elevated levels of T:E post-Brock Lesnar to being savagely dispatched by the talented-if-limited Antonio Silva, Overeem’s ride has been anything but smooth. A loss to Browne would almost certainly cement his place as one of the most sought after acquisitions whose UFC run went disastrously bad. Yet, there is still hope and belief in the Dutch heavyweight. Browne isn’t necessarily the division’s biggest potential scalp, but a win – particularly a punishing one many believe Overeem is capable of delivering – gets him back on track. In a weight class where one or two wins are enough to earn title shots, getting past Browne could be hugely rewarding.
As for the Greg Jackson product, he has less to lose here. There’s long been some hope for his career, but he’s yet to turn in a victory over an opponent where he demonstrated he had turned a corner and was ready for the division’s elite. Overeem, for better or worse, is still regarded by most to be one of MMA’s elite heavyweights. Browne would be earning the signature victory of his career and likely catapulting his profile or image if he can defy the odds Saturday. A loss, however, could once and for all position Browne as a fighter not capable of tangling with top-tier talent.
Urijah Faber vs. Yuri Alcantara
At stake: the Renan Barao-Dominick Cruz sweepstakes. Everyone knows it: Urijah Faber is never far away from a title shot and for very good reasons. He’s marketable, there’s a rivalry between he and Cruz and most importantly, he’s arguably better than just about any other bantamweight (other than Barao). Whatever his shortcomings against the division’s two best, he’s never run over by them and always manages to keep winning long enough to hang around when the opportunity arises.
That’s why this Alcantara fight is interesting. The Brazilian didn’t look great against Hacran Dias, but he also has one of the most underrated resumes in all of the UFC. Should Faber emerge victorious, there’s plenty of reasons to offer him a title shot at some point in the near future. And because Faber is in that position, Alcantara can leap frog the California Kid if the bout goes his way. Because Alcantara isn’t the fan favorite Faber is, he may have to cobble together more wins to claim any title shot. That’s especially true if he’s asked to compete in the U.S. over his home country. The key consideration here is that despite the gap in popularity, both fighters have almost just as much to gain.
Matt Brown vs. Mike Pyle
At stake: keeping the momentum alive. Both Brown and Pyle are on the best streaks of their careers. While we can’t ever be sure, it seems reasonable to conclude neither is likely to replicate the success they’ve had with a similar run should either lose. That’s precisely what makes their current predicaments unique. We cannot chalk them up to luck, but we must also recognize what makes them special is how difficult they are to produce. Once they’ve been stopped, reproducing them is going to prove exceedingly difficult. That’s even more true given the relatively late age of both competitors.
The reality is a win over either fighter won’t lead to a title shot, but it could produce a subsequent bout the most important of their career. Both fighters have faced top-ranked opponents, but neither can claim to have done so as equals at the stage of their meeting with the kind of resume they can now boast.
It’s hard to say precisely what a win could lead to, but one can basically be certain it will mean facing a top-10 ranked opponent (maybe even top 5). It will mean placement near the top of the card. It will also be something relatively transcendent for their careers. Both fighters have struggled at the top and by hook or by crook, seem to have righted the ship. This is their time to make the most of their MMA career. And that means for one, that dream likely dies on Saturday. For the other, they can continue the amazing push to greener and greener pastures, having finally earned the placement, respect and adoration that has been very hard to come by.
Uriah Hall vs. John Howard
At stake: the path to dreams deferred. There’s obviously a strong hope for Hall despite him falling short against Kevin Gastelum. What UFC brass are likely hoping for Hall is the ability to rebound and, if possible, trout out his trademark display of dazzling violence. For a wide array of reasons, Hall becoming a legitimate contender would be hugely beneficial to the organization. But even with a victory over Howard, those days are still very far away. For the time being, he needs to win, but as aforementioned, he can punch his ticket to bigger shows, better card placement and more meaningful opponents if he’s able to utilize his Cirque du Soleil-esque array of strikes.
While I’m certain Howard wants to make the most of his UFC return and therefore win long enough to stay, he’s in a relatively advantageous position. There might be some hometown pressures given the show is in Boston. He is also likely expecting a lot out of himself. Fairly or not, however, few expect him to win. Not only can he reassert himself with a win, but doing so against an opponent some suggest could float atop the division would be the ultimate (no pun intended) in MMA victories.
Joe Lauzon vs. Michael Johnson
At stake: respectable card placement, if not employment. Lauzon’s job isn’t in jeopardy and it could take more than a loss here to move him into a status where he’s hovering between main and preliminary card placement. Still, a loss to Johnson would represent Lauzon’s worst defeat. Johnson is more than a credible fighter, but Lauzon has arguably never lost in the UFC to a fighter whose accomplishments and record are as mixed as the Blackzillian’s. Yet, Johnson’s position is not safe. Obviously defeating Lauzon would be a major coup for the Floridian, but a loss is not something he’ll be able to write off as a day that simply wasn’t his. A loss would be his third in a row and while not necessarily a death sentence for UFC employment, he certainly wouldn’t be serving his long or short-term interests with the organization.