A UFC pay-per-view main card embodies a proving ground that only a minute percentage of mixed martial artists will ever stand on.
There is no greater star-building apparatus in the sport, no place more well-equipped to sate the lofty aspirations of ambitious competitors.
The UFC pay-per-view card, however, is not a one-way street. As generously as it gives, it mercilessly takes; though a landscape brimming with opportunity, it is one rife with pitfalls ready to send the hopeful, wide-eyed man who entered out as a crushed husk of his former self.
Fundamentally, UFC pay-per-view cards afford the opportunity to win—and the opportunity to lose. Whether a fighter leaves with a grand feeling of achievement or a debilitating sense of loss is ultimately determined by two variables: outcome and stake.
As they always are, these elements will be at play this Saturday night at UFC 152, vaulting certain individuals up, pulling the rug out from underneath others.
Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, for instance, will battle to become the promotion's first ever flyweight champion—a considerable bounty to win, a devastating loss should the prize elude either fighter.
Michael Bisping and Brian Stann will fight to separate themselves from the middleweight muddle, each man hoping to assert himself as the next man in line to contest for Anderson Silva's title.
Only one, though, will achieve this end. The other will fall hard and fall fast.
Both of these fights are characterized by high stakes and considerable intrigue, but neither feature the fighter who has more on the line than all others. That man can be found participating in the night's feature attraction, Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort.
What sets this bout apart is that Jones and Belfort are playing the exact same game, yet the stakes for each man could hardly be more different.
Belfort risks little at UFC 152, entering a fight where victory means a UFC title and recognition for dethroning a champion hitherto believed invulnerable. A loss does little besides reestablish the Phenom at the forefront of the middleweight-title picture, his new-found reputation for taking on all comers firmly intact.
Jones, on the other hand, has little to gain...and everything to lose.
A losing outcome signifies the loss of a title for Jones, removal from the pound-for-pound rankings and a shattered aura of invincibility. It also validates every one of his critics who have relentlessly lambasted him for his handling of the UFC 151-turned-152 debacle.
A loss infers that Jones has not earned the right to choose his opponents, that he is more concerned with his self-image than his actual fighting career and that his body of work is more ordinary than he and his supporters project it to be.
At least, that is how his detractors will view a loss. And since, in the eyes of most MMA observers, public perception largely defines reality, it is unfortunate for Bones that his detractors comprise the majority of MMA fans.
The sheer devastation attached to a defeat means Jones has more to lose than any fellow UFC 152 participant. When we factor in that his stake garners him essentially no winnings, the negative consequences of a loss only multiplies.
Realistically, what does a win over Belfort do for Jones?
Since answering my own rhetorical questions is a favorite pastime of mine, I will tell you: beating Belfort puts another tick in Jones' win column.
That's about it.
This is a fight he is suppose to not only win but dominate. If even for one fleeting moment Jones allows Belfort to make the outcome of the contest uncertain, an eventual Jones win will seem underwhelming. Conversely, all a thorough destruction of Belfort will do is earn a begrudging nod from thousands of disenchanted fans.
With so much to lose and so little to gain, Jones' wager is a fool's bet. Yet, given the position he has backed himself into, these are the only stakes that will get him into the game. For now.
While it may not definitively be a lose-lose situation, at best Jones walks away from this fight even—especially with an arena full of jeering fans intent on spoiling the victory.
The sole consolation Jones can take from this situation is that—though his win can only produce a negligible gain—it is far better than the type of loss some other fighters will inevitably experience in Toronto this Saturday night.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Remember that Jones' potential loss is exponentially greater than what the rest of the fighters on the card can muster combined. And, despite the odds stacked against Belfort, we still have a fight to fight, an outcome to generate.
And someone will have a debt to pay.