The Stakes Are High for the Major Players at UFC 168

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The Stakes Are High for the Major Players at UFC 168
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

There have been plenty of high-profile cards this year but none bigger than UFC 168.

The UFC's annual end-of-the-year event is stacked from top to bottom with action-packed tilts and features interesting matchups from all corners of the roster. While a handful of bouts will register on the "can't miss" list for the hardcore fighting faithful, there are three fights on the lineup that jack the temperature gauge across a multitude of radars.

Undoubtedly the most poignant of which is the long-awaited rematch between former middleweight king Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman—the surging upstart who dethroned him back in July at UFC 162. The bout is being billed as the "biggest fight in UFC history" and it very well could be just that.

There has never been a fighter to compete inside the Octagon who has been able to do what "The Spider" has done. The Brazilian wrecking machine shattered records and left a trail of elite-level competition crumbled in his wake as he dominated the 185-pound division for over seven years.

That said, Weidman succeeded where the previous 16 men had failed and defeated Silva in spectacular fashion via second-round knockout in their first meeting. Nevertheless, despite the Ray Long-trained fighter's brilliant accomplishment, questions still remain.

Was the victory the result of the undefeated New Yorker's perseverance or the pound-for-pound great's punishment for fighting carelessly? Five months have passed since the first fight and the talk around the MMA world has hovered more on Silva's comeback than the beginning of Weidman's title reign. Those circumstances undoubtedly have the Long Island native heated and on a mission to prove his win at UFC 162 was no fluke, just the same as the fighter regarded as the "greatest mixed martial artist of all-time" is out to show that it was.

Those questions will be answered on Saturday night, but what makes UFC 168 such a huge event are the other matters that will be settled as well. Where the main event will certainly receive the lion's share of attention, the heat coming from the co-main event between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate is palpable. There is no love lost between the women's bantamweight champion and her rival and their feud will add another storied chapter this weekend in Las Vegas.

Rousey—easily one of MMA's fastest rising stars—has cut like a buzzsaw through every opponent she has faced, and Tate's name has already been entered once on that list. The two women first met back in 2012 under the Strikeforce banner, with "Rowdy" submitting Tate with her signature armbar to get her first taste of championship gold. 

While the rivalry simmered a bit in the aftermath of their first fight, things reignited in a big way in 2013 as both women were slotted in opposing coaching roles on the 18th installment of The Ultimate Fighter. Rousey threw her middle fingers up and cursed Tate, while "Cupcake's" ability to keep her cool won her newfound support from the MMA fanbase. 

They will step into the Octagon at UFC 168 with each looking to prove a point. Rousey will be looking to make a clear statement that Tate is not on her level and the former Strikeforce bantamweight champion is eager to shock the world by proving Rousey is beatable.

If those two fights weren't enough to satisfy the hunger of fight fans, former champion Josh Barnett and prospect turned contender Travis Browne will step in for some heavyweight ruckus. The title race in the heavyweight fold is heating up, and this battle of big men will absolutely play a factor in who stays in the hunt and who gets reshuffled into the divisional deck.

With fights of this caliber, there is certainly plenty on the line for the major players at UFC 168. Let's take a look at what's at stake.

 

Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman

With the most-anticipated fight of the year coming this weekend in the rematch between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman, the major storylines are pretty clear—and they have been since the fight was announced.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The 38-year-old middleweight legend was finally brought back to Earth with a perfectly timed left hand by Weidman, a strike that brought his seven-year reign as 185-pound king to an end. Where Silva seemed relieved the pressure of living up to expectation was finally off him in the immediate aftermath of the loss, his demeanor has been the exact opposite on the road to the rematch. He appears to be genuinely fired up to step back in against Weidman, and that is a good thing for his legacy.

Where a second loss to Weidman won't erase the history-making run that made him recognized as the "greatest fighter of all-time," it certainly would serve to knock him from the perch of being the best at the current time. If Weidman defeats him again this Saturday, Silva would float back somewhere into the divisional upper tier behind Vitor Belfort, a man he obliterated via front-kick knockout at UFC 126 in 2011.

In the same light, a second consecutive loss to the New York native would push "The Spider" to the sidelines during a time when light heavyweight king Jon Jones is making his ascension. Silva's first loss already created a shift in the conversation of the current pound-for-pound best, and another loss would put another divot on what was once a nearly flawless resume.

On the other hand, should Silva regain his title at UFC 168, there is a good chance his loss to Weidman back in July will be remembered more for how he was defeated. An unpredictable showman, Silva is known for his mid-fight antics and was definitely caught in his first go around with Weidman. If the Brazilian sniper can turn the tables and return the favor in the rematch, he'll add another big chapter to his legacy.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Where there is an interesting amount of pressure on the former champion, it pales in comparison to what is hovering over the current belt holder heading into Saturday night. Defeating Silva was absolutely the high point of Weidman's young career, and it was strange to see the post-fight talk focus more on what Silva was caught doing, more than what Weidman actually accomplished. The Long Island native did what the 16 other men before him failed to do, and did it in brutal fashion as he knocked out the pound-for-pound great.

That said, the circumstances which affected the first fight can all be erased in the rematch at UFC 168. If Weidman can come out and take it to Silva in any fashion and get the win, he will finally get the respect that should have come after their first meeting. He certainly has the tools to put together a strong championship run, and a second victory over Silva will put that title reign well on its way.

On the other hand, should Weidman come up short against Silva, the speculation that surrounds their first fight will become overwhelming. The dialogue of his first win being a fluke will take an even harder turn in that direction, and a crowning moment will be tarnished.

 

Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate

The trajectory of Ronda Rousey's career in MMA has been nothing short of remarkable. The former Olympic judoka blitzed her way onto the scene and dished out vicious armbars like they were party favors. In addition to her submission prowess, the Californian also displayed a gift of gab, which all combined like a firestorm of promotional fireworks and caught the attention of UFC president Dana White.

While signing with the UFC was her springboard moment to her achieving superstar status, the 27-year-old's profile took a huge bump when she defeated Miesha Tate under the Strikeforce banner in 2012. "Rowdy" claimed championship gold and her transition from the best female 135-pound fighter in the world to movie star and magazine cover girl began thereafter.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In the 21 months that have passed since she defeated Tate in Columbus, Ohio, Rousey's star has only grown brighter. She became the first woman to claim victory inside Octagon and headline a pay-per-view card when she defeated Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 back in February then went on to film roles in Hollywood action franchises The Expendables 3 and Fast and the Furious 7. It is safe to say her life is moving at break-neck speed, but wrapped up in all of that hard-earned chaos, she has a UFC women's bantamweight title to defend.

That is what she will be looking to do when she steps in against Tate at UFC 168. There is no love lost between the two women and their rivalry is well-documented. Yet, outside of a title and the pride that will be on the line, there isn't a ton at stake for the current champion. Should Rousey do what she's favored to do and beat Tate again, she'll carry on with her rocket trajectory into stardom. And if she loses, the only thing it shows is that she's beatable.

The only other WMMA fighter where a comparison can be made is Gina Carano, and after she was taken apart by Cris "Cyborg" Santos, the former Strikeforce champion went off to make movies. With an elevated status far beyond what Carano accomplished, Rousey's stock in those additional departments won't suffer. That said, she is an intense competitor and a loss to Tate would would cause a larger hit in the pride category than it would her stock on the MMA landscape.

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Things aren't as cut and dried on Tate's side of the table. With her earlier loss to the current champion and a setback in her first showing under the UFC banner against Cat Zingano at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, the stakes are high for "Cupcake" coming into Las Vegas. The Washington native is eager to reclaim her spot as the top female 135-pound fighter in the world, and Rousey is currently in possession of everything Tate wants out of her MMA career.

Tate will have to defeat Rousey at UFC 168 if she wants to see those dreams come to fruition any time in the near future, and if she is successful on Saturday night, she will undoubtedly shock the world. Nevertheless, should Tate come up short once again against Rousey, she will find herself in a bleak position where the title is concerned.

It is rare enough to see someone get two title shots in two years, but the UFC has never been remotely quick to grant a third. If Tate loses to Rousey this weekend, it is safe to say a third shot at her title will be slow to come, if ever, and especially if the former bronze medal winner is still holding the gold.

 

Josh Barnett vs. Travis Browne

The heavyweight division under the UFC banner has been a work in progress for the past few years. While things appeared to be shaping up in 2013—with a definitive close to the trilogy between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos—that momentum got put on hold in a big way in the final quarter of the year.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The reigning heavyweight champion and AKA staple announced he will be sidelined for a good portion of 2014 with shoulder surgery that will throw the balance in the divisional upper tier out of whack. Current No. 1 contender Fabricio Werdum was supposed to get his title shot in the early portion of the new year, but with Velasquez on the sidelines, the Brazilian grappling ace will likely have to take another fight.

That's where the heavyweight tilt at UFC 168 between Josh Barnett and Travis Browne comes into the picture. Both fighters are attempting to make their way towards a championship opportunity and the winner will certainly take a step closer to contention, while the loser will take a substantial step backward. 

"The Warmaster" made his long-awaited return to the Octagon at UFC 164 back in August when he faced fellow former champion Frank Mir. The result was a one-sided beating in Barnett's favor as he smashed the Las Vegas native via first-round stoppage. The victory in Milwaukee was his 10th win in his last 11 outings and immediately put him toward the top of the ladder on the divisional hierarchy. That said, the 36-year-old is most likely operating on shaky ground.

The savvy veteran's volatile relationship with UFC president Dana White is no secret and a loss could very well bump Barnett out of the title picture for the foreseeable future. When several failed post-fight drug tests are included in that equation, it creates the feeling that Barnett is still a few impressive performances away from getting another shot at UFC gold. If he defeats Browne on Saturday night, his case for a title run would only become that much stronger.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

While it is a fight of similar circumstance for Browne, his stakes are a bit different. "Hapa" has been one of the most highly touted prospects to come up the heavyweight ranks in some time, and he is now on the cusp of becoming a certified title contender. Where the 31-year-old was on the verge of breaking through last year, a brutal first-round knockout to Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva at UFC on FX 5 put a stop to any momentum he had built.

Nevertheless, the rangy striker bounced back strong and collected two consecutive victories over top-level competition. He earned back-to-back first-round knockouts over Gabriel Gonzaga and Alistair Overeem respectively, with his victory over the former Strikeforce champion taking his status to new heights.

The former K-1 champion had Browne in all sorts of trouble during the opening minutes of their tilt at Fight Night 26 back in August, before the Hawaiian weathered the storm and scored a highlight-reel front-kick knockout to take the win. But where defeating a fighter with the aura and resume of Overeem certainly boosted his stock, it will take another big win over another big name to make the jump into title contention.

Should Browne defeat Barnett at UFC 168, he will find himself within striking distance of a title opportunity. While it is not clear at this time what Werdum will do if Velasquez can't return until late 2014, a matchup between Browne and the Kings MMA fighter would certainly make sense.

On the other hand, if Browne is derailed, the hype and buzz he has built will take some damage. Where the loss to Silva was a setback, a hamstring injury suffered in the early goings took some edge off the loss. But should the Jackon's MMA fighter come up short against Barnett on Saturday night, he will likely be pushed back closer to the prospect line and be a few positions removed from contender status.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. 

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