The Stakes Are High for the Major Players at UFC on Fox 7

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor IApril 19, 2013

Jan 12, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Daniel Comier (black shorts) enters the ring before taking on Dion Staring (not shown) in their Strikeforce MMA Heavyweight bout at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's UFC on FOX event—and most UFC events for that matter—are akin to a casino floor on any given day of the week: Everyone there is gambling, but they're playing for different stakes.

Some are sitting at low-dollar tables while others are playing for minimums that are more than most people would ever think of risking in their lifetime. While all the fighters competing this weekend have something on the line, the stakes are very different, depending on which pair of fighters you're focusing in on.

With the UFC lightweight title on the line in the main event between Benson Henderson and former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, there is an obvious amount of risk and reward involved. The winner wakes up on Sunday as the 155-pound champion and the loser shuffles back into the line of future contenders in a weight class that has become one of the deepest under the UFC banner.

In a handful of the other bouts featured at UFC on Fox 7, the stakes become a bit more complex. In these fights, a win will open the door to greater options where a loss will have a drastic impact on the immediate futures for the fighters involved.

Here is a look at three tilts this weekend in San Jose where there is plenty on the line.

Frank Mir vs. Daniel Cormier

A war of words between Mir and Cormier helped build a buzz around their heavyweight collision on Saturday, but it is the potential outcomes for both fighters that will ultimately make this fight appealing.

The 34-year-old Cormier will be making his highly anticipated UFC debut on Saturday. After storming through the Strikeforce Challengers Series and then stepping in as an alternate to win the promotion's Heavyweight Grand Prix, "D.C." put himself in a position to not only get to the sport's biggest stage but to step directly into the heavyweight division's upper tier in the process.

The Louisiana native's debut will come with a solid amount of expectation attached. A victory over Mir would validate Cormier as one of the top heavyweight fighters in the world and allow him to control the next step of his career. With friend and AKA teammate Cain Velasquez currently holding the heavyweight strap, Cormier has hinted he would potentially drop down to light heavyweight to face champion Jon Jones should he be successful in San Jose. 

On the other hand, a loss to Mir would throw these options into the scrap pile. If Cormier comes out flat in his Octagon debut and is defeated by the former two-time champion, the loss wouldn't push him out of the top 10 rankings, but it would certainly serve to derail the momentum he's built.

The circumstances surrounding the fight are a bit more drastic for Frank Mir. For the past seven years the Las Vegas native has kept himself on the radar of the heavyweight title picture—with Mir never being one or two wins away from another championship opportunity. That could all change after Saturday night.

With a loss to Junior dos Santos in his most recent outing, a second consecutive setback to Cormier would put Mir farther away from a title shot than he has ever been since entering the UFC. That being said, a win over Cormier would put him right back in the heat of the title race and it becomes easy to see why this fight is so risky from his perspective.

Another interesting note comes in Mir switching his training camp to Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque. The change is Mir's way of re-inventing himself and keeping pace with a sport that is constantly evolving. A win on Saturday night makes it clear that Mir still belongs with the best heavyweights in the world, but a loss to Cormier will make that a heavy question to answer.


Chad Mendes vs. Darren Elkins

Over the past year, the featherweight division has become one of the hottest weight classes in the UFC. While Jose Aldo has continued to reign over his 145-pound peers, a handful of fighters have been scrapping their way towards contention, all looking for the next shot at the Brazilian phenom.

Two fighters that are looking to take the next step in the divisional title race will square-off on Saturday night when Chad Mendes steps in against Darren Elkins. Both have proven their mettle in the featherweight division and their clash at UFC on Fox 7 will determine whose name stays "in the mix" and who gets pushed to the back of the line.

It is a fight neither can afford to lose—and it's not only for the reason listed above. There is a unique circumstance surrounding the bout between Mendes and Elkins, one that basically comes down to name recognition.

Where fans are somewhat familiar with Mendes—Elkins is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The 28-year-old Indiana-native has collected five consecutive wins over solid competition but has failed to garner any traction with the UFC fan base. When Clay Guida dropped out of the bout with the Sacramento-based fighter, it became the perfect opportunity for Elkins to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone.

A victory over Mendes not only launches Elkins into the title race, but gives him a victory over a fighter fans recognize. Not taking anything away from Steven Siler, Antonio Carvalho or Zhang Tiequan—but Mendes is in much different league as far as name value goes.

At the same time, a loss to the former No. 1 contender would wipe out nearly two years of progress for Elkins, and undoubtedly send him back to the other side of relevance at 145-pounds. While it may seem unfair to send a guy to the back of the line after one high-profile loss, the reality of the mixed martial arts business can be a cruel world, and this is the price one pays for a lack of name recognition.

Big fights provide big opportunity, but also carry a tremendous amount of risk at the same time.

Things aren't much different for Mendes. While the Team Alpha Male staple may have the advantage in the profile visibility department, "Money" is still struggling for respect in the bigger picture. The 27-year-old has been a force in the featherweight division since his days in the WEC, and the only loss of his career has come against pound-for-pound great Jose Aldo at UFC 142.

With the only loss on his record coming against a dominant champion the likes of Aldo—and having won two consecutive bouts since—it seems odd that Mendes isn't drawing more attention as a potential title contender. But for as strange as it sounds, that doesn't make it any less true.

Ricardo Lamas and Cub Swanson putting on impressive runs has drawn solid attention to the division. When former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar dropped down to face the young Brazilian champion at UFC 156, more eyes were brought to the division than ever before. The biggest problem where Mendes is concerned, is that none of the previously mentioned factors for the increased visibility to the featherweight division had anything to do with him—a condition he has to change on Saturday night.

There is no doubt the 27-year-old Californian is one of the top 145-pound fighters on the planet, but Mendes has to remind UFC fans why he matters in the title race. While a win over Elkins will not catapult him into the lead for the next title shot, it would certainly set him up for a high-profile showdown in his outing.

On the other hand, a loss to a relative unknown like Elkins would be disastrous. 


Matt Brown vs. Jordan Mein

In 2012, there were few stories in the mixed martial arts community better than what Matt Brown accomplished. The former The Ultimate Fighter alum bounced back from a rough streak which put him on the brink of unemployment, to winning four consecutive fights in a calendar year.

He capped off this impressive run with a brutal knockout of veteran Mike Swick at UFC on Fox 5 in December and the victory put the 32-year-old Ohio native in position to take a step up in competition. "The Immortal" was originally slated to face British Slugger Dan Hardy on this weekend's card but a heart condition ultimately pulled "The Outlaw" from the bout and Jordan Mein stepped in to fill the void.

While his opponent has changed, the bout still holds a tremendous amount of sway as to what will come next for Brown. A victory in San Jose would take him from the middle tier of the division and solidify his place in the top 10 of one of the deepest weight classes in the UFC. It is a position Brown has been on a mission to reach and with his bout against Mein coming this weekend, he is only one step away from making it a reality.

On the flip side, a loss to the young Canadian prospect would push that dream back a few steps. And with the competition level in the welterweight division continuing to increase, a setback of any nature will be a difficult hurdle to overcome. 

In terms of risk and reward, there is little downside to the bout for Jordan Mein. The 23-year-old made an impressive debut when he starched veteran Dan Miller last month at UFC 158 and "Young Gun" is wasting no time getting back into the Octagon for another go. The fight with Brown will come just north of a month since Mein defeated the New Jersey native and stepping up on short notice to take the fight has created a tremendous opportunity for the surging prospect.

A victory over Brown would put Mein on the fast track in the welterweight division. While a win in San Jose wouldn't put Mein in the division's upper tier, it would allow him to bypass the bulk of the fighters hovering in the middle level of the weight class and set up a high-profile opponent for his next outing.

Defeating Brown would also give Mein the "Chris Leben in 2010" vibe where "The Crippler" defeated Yoshihiro Akiyama and Aaron Simpson three weeks apart. 

Should Mein lose to Brown at UFC on Fox 7, there shouldn't be too much of a fallout. Taking fights on short notice is always a risky affair, and with Mein being a prospect, the critique after losing to a fighter on the verge of top-10 status would most likely be thin. This makes the bout with Brown all the more appealing where Mein is concerned and bouts typically take on a different light when one of the participants has little or nothing to lose.


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