This is not meant as disrespect towards Che Mills. I'm sure he's a dedicated athlete and a fine fighter. But millions will tune into his bout Saturday night in Atlanta, the semi-main event of the evening no less, and ask themselves and their buddies a single, pertinent question.
Who the hell is Che Mills?
Less important than who Mills is, although for the record he's a British striker with solid standup and a limited ground game, is what he represents. For years, the UFC has thrown its prospects straight into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim on their own merits. No more.
Mills is a creature thought to be extinct in the modern UFC—an opponent.
An opponent isn't the same thing as a tomato can, but there's no doubt that diminutive is being tossed towards Mills right and left on MMA message boards the world over. No, an opponent is a different sort of fighter altogether.
He's solid and dangerous and could conceivably even win the fight. But that's not why he's there. The opponent is usually a legitimate fighter picked out from the crowd to allow the star to shine. He will have a weakness that can be exposed. If the going gets tough, this can be used against him, a real-life Konami cheat code of sorts.
For Mills, that's the ground game. Tap "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, A, B, A" and Mills will find himself in world of hurt, at the star's mercy.
Here, the star is Rory MacDonald. Just 22 years old, the Canadian prospect has all the potential in the world. The UFC rushed him a bit early in his career and Carlos Condit took advantage. This time, they want to do it right. His potential is too vast to do anything else. His coach, Firas Zahabi, believes he could be the next Georges St-Pierre, and Zihabi knows a little bit about that—he's been Georges' lead trainer for years.
For the UFC, this is smart business. It's important to build fighters into stars, marketable commodities who can sell tickets and pay-per-views. That doesn't happen organically by winning some and losing some on the undercard. A star is born when a fighter wins, often and impressively.
That's what this fight is. A high-profile opportunity for MacDonald to work some magic and win in impressive fashion. That will allow him, down the road, to step into the main event without anyone asking that awful question—who the hell is Rory MacDonald?