Jeremy Lambert: The UFC returns to FOX this Saturday with the most high profile card since their debut on the network a little over a year ago. Not only is the lightweight title on the line in the main event, but two former champions and legends in the sport take on two up and comers and possible future title contenders on the undercard.
In the headline bout, lightweight champion Ben Henderson looks to defend his belt against Nate Diaz in a fight that promises to be fireworks. In the co-main event, “Shogun” Rua and Alexander Gustafsson look to take the next (and possible final) step towards a light heavyweight title shot. Finally, BJ Penn returns from his one year retirement to take on Rory MacDonald, who has been labeled as the next George’s St. Pierre.
With a title fight, two former FOX headliners, and a legitimate PPV draw on the card, expectations are high this weekend for all parties involved.
Samer Kadi: A year into their relationship, the UFC and FOX have yet to find that homerun show that leaves the world buzzing in its aftermath. They kicked off their partnership in the grandest fashion possible with one of the biggest heavyweight title fights in UFC history. Unfortunately, despite the immense hype leading into it, the bout lasted a mere 64 seconds. The next three shows failed to produce anything significantly memorable, for one reason or another.
That however, could well change this weekend, as MMA’s most exciting division will be on display in all its glory when Ben Henderson defends his lightweight title against Nate Diaz in a bout with enormous potential. The pre-fight hype was never going to eclipse that of the UFC’s first outing on FOX, as the heavyweight title possesses a unique allure, but by the time Bruce Buffer announces the fight outcome, the UFC and FOX could well have finally landed that elusive gem.
The real challenge however, is bringing eye-balls, as there is little doubt the action is going to deliver. In fact, this is a rare occasion where such a statement can be made with a measure of confidence. Judging by their history, both Henderson and Diaz are seemingly incapable of a lackluster showing. Their games match up so well against each other that no matter where the action transpires, excitement is all but guaranteed.
Jeremy Lambert: If the UFC wanted to showcase all aspects of the sport, they couldn’t have picked a better fit than Diaz vs. Henderson. While Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg tried to sell us on Mauricio Rua vs. Brandon Vera displaying all aspects, that was just them getting caught up in the moment and ignoring the fact that neither guy displayed much defense (whether it be grappling, striking, or takedown) nor cardio.
Henderson and Diaz will likely be a back and forth battle for 25-minutes as both fighters are well rounded, push the pace, never stop working, and are extremely difficult to finish. Diaz is a volume puncher with questionable takedown defense but a jiu-jitsu ace who is great at locking up submissions once he grabs a hold of something. Henderson is the more diverse striker with relentless wrestling but has a tendency to get caught in bad positions. No matter where this fight goes, expect action. On the feet, Diaz will throw 100 punches per round and stalk The champion, while Henderson will use movement and likely a lot of kicks. On the ground, Diaz will constantly be looking for submissions while Henderson will try and thwart his attempts while also looking to do damage of his own with strikes. Even in the clinch, which is often criticized by casual viewers as being a stalemate position where nothing happens, both fighters should be busy as Diaz constantly throws punches and knees to the body while Henderson will being throwing knees of his own while also trying to secure a takedown.
This fight not only has the potential to be a fight of the year candidate, but it has the potential to boost the winner into stardom. It’s no secret that the lightweight division has struggled to draw ever since BJ Penn lost the title. This fight will attract a very large audience and if they put on the memorable fight that we’re all expecting, it could convert those casual fans into PPV buying fans the next time the lightweight title is on the line.
Samer Kadi: For a year now, it seemed as though the UFC was struggling to find the perfect formula for the FOX shows. They finally seemed to have nailed it: title fights in some of the company’s less marketable divisions, showcasing two of the most exciting talents in the sport in hopes of the winner emerging as a star, fights with title implications (Shogun and Gustafson), as well as one with arguably the most promising rising prospect in all of MMA.
In fact, as mouth-watering as Henderson vs. Diaz is, it is supported by two enthralling contests in their own right. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s knees may have turned him into a mere shadow of the fighter who once terrorized the PRIDE 205 lbs. division and KO’d his way into UFC gold, but he remains one of the sport’s most compelling in-cage figures. In Alexander Gustafson, Rua is faced with one of the division’s most highly touted up-and-comers –- if Gustafson could still be labeled as such.
At this stage of his career, Rua will need all the experience he can muster in order to overcome his own physical shortcomings in light of the multiple knee reconstructions. As unlikely as it is, Rua needs to make a few adjustments to his style, as his movement has hindered significantly, and he is no longer as fast or explosive moving forward –- an element that is absolutely vital to his trademark aggressive approach. For the first round or so, Rua will be more dangerous than anything the Swede has ever come up against, but it will only be a matter of time before the same cardio issues rear their ugly head.
For the UFC, a Gustafson victory is in their best interest, as selling a rematch between Rua and Jones is a tall order. Meanwhile, whether justified or not, Gustafson has been singled out by many as someone who could potential cause the seemingly unstoppable light heavyweight champion trouble, and is one of the very few fresh challengers in the division.
Jeremy Lambert: The third fight on the card might be the most intriguing of them all as it pairs BJ Penn against Rory MacDonald in a welterweight clash.
Penn has always been one of the sport’s most polarizing figures. When it comes to talent, there are few who can match him, but he’s often been criticized as being lazy in his training camps or surrounding himself with too many yes men. He retired October of last year after a loss to Nick Diaz, but felt the need to return as people kept leaving his name off the list of all-time greats. Greatness fuels Penn, who might be a victim of his own high expectations, but one has to wonder if he can reach the top of the mountain once again.
MacDonald doesn’t have the past accomplishments of Penn, but if you ask anyone, they’ll tell him winning a title in the future is just a matter of when and not if. Often compared to welterweight champion and training partner Georges St. Pierre, the expectations couldn’t be higher for the 23-year-old. Now he has a chance to make a statement against a legend in the sport in front of a national audience.
Like Rua against Gustafsson, Penn will be extremely dangerous for the first round or so. His boxing is sharp enough and he has the power to drop MacDonald on the feet and either pound him out with punches or lock on a submission. After that though, Penn starts to fade, especially against guys that make him work hard. MacDonald will make Penn work, maybe not with his striking, but with his wrestling. As long as MacDonald is rocked and woozy after the first round, he should be able to overpower Penn, get takedowns, and use his violent ground and pound to rough up “The Prodigy.”
This fight is a win-win for the UFC. A MacDonald win officially solidifies him in the division and lets him move into a title eliminator fight while also giving him a signature victory on his record. A Penn wins re-establishes him in the sport and while it’s nearly impossible to sell a third fight between GSP and Penn, I’m sure BJ would have no problem fighting Anderson Silva at a catchweight.
Samer Kadi: My colleague’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a Penn-Silva fight aside, the UFC has a lot to win from this card, and is left with a handful of options depending on the different possible outcomes. Accordingly, Zuffa needs a strong showing in order to play off the possible momentum they will gather on the heels of this card.
FOX were said to be displeased with the lack of significant star power on the UFC on FOX III card –- which was reflected by their lack of dedicated promotion for the event — and while the subsequent show featured the likes of Rua and Machida, it was hardly the “PPV quality” cards FOX were hoping for. There seemed to be a conflict between the UFC’s vision for the FOX shows and that of the FOX executives. This card seems to be the one where they finally found middle ground: A PPV caliber card with recognizable names, but not one that features some of the company’s top PPV draws.
The marketing campaign was hardly as all out as that of the first two shows, but it definitely seems more aggressive. Hopefully, it manages to attract an audience –- this card deserves it.
Jeremy Lambert: The great thing about this card, besides the fact that it’s stacked like UFC 73, is that it’s taking place in the middle of football season. The Road to the Octagon show followed the early NFL game this past Sunday and Dana White even made a cameo during the NFL pre-game show. Not only that but FOX has dubbed this week “FOX Fight Week” to culminate with this Saturday’s event.
Expectations are high for UFC on FOX 5. The UFC has put together a PPV worthy card and FOX has promoted it as such. While this won’t make or break the long-term deal between the two, it will certainly tell us where the UFC stands among casual sports fans.