Imagine this unlikely scenario—a week before the Super Bowl the entire roster of the Seattle Seahawks comes down with Legionnaires' disease. The NFC champions, without a doubt, will be medically unable to perform. In short, it's a national emergency.
What would NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell do? Would he ask the San Francisco 49ers to step into the breach, replacing their archrivals in the most important game of the season?
Would he delay the game several months, waiting for the Seahawks to regain their bearings?
Or, in a brilliant fit of inspiration, would he ask the Seahawks franchise to bring in a random collection of Arena League players, misfits and Vince Young to take it to the AFC champion Denver Broncos?
What if, in a series of movie montage brilliance, the guys off the street gave the professionals, led by Peyton Manning, a run for their money? What if they won?
It would be the biggest sports story ever. Rocky, Rudy and Buster Douglas would all immediately take a backseat to this game, the biggest upset in the history of modern athletics. But would it be good for business?
Maybe at first, caught up in the feel-good moment. But what then? Eventually an insidious and nagging doubt would set in. Why bother watching the regular season, some fans might ask? After all, if literally anyone can win, what makes even the best teams and players exceptional?
Professional athletics works because we buy into the notion that the athletes are special, a different breed than you or I. An upset of the kind I just described would throw all of that into doubt. In time, the feel-good moment of the year would have an immeasurable effect on the entire sport—most of it negative.
It's a scenario that can almost immediately be dismissed. It's unthinkable. A guy off the street, even a very good college player who didn't make it in the league, couldn't possibly come in and beat the best in the world. Everything we know about sports tells us that loudly and very clearly.
Only, no one remembered to tell UFC President Dana White. When "Suga" Rashad Evans went down with a knee injury just six days before his fight, White wasn't able to postpone the fight or find a suitable last-minute replacement to take on the very tough Daniel Cormier, ranked fourth at heavyweight.
After all, no competent and sane UFC heavyweight or light heavyweight would want to take on Cormier with less than a month's notice. He's one of the most skilled fighters in the world, combining disciplined and multi-faceted striking with the kind of wrestling that twice put him on the U.S. Olympic team.
That's not a package you want to open on Christmas morning without a lot of time to think about it and get ready. So there were no reasonable UFC takers.
That's when the calls went out. Eventually one found its way to a coffee shop in Dana Point, California. It was there that Dana White found Pat Cummins, Cormier's next opponent. Cummins, mind you, wasn't sitting down to enjoy a hot beverage. He was serving them.
A fighter on the cusp of the pound-for-pound rankings, a fighter who is not competing for the heavyweight title simply because his teammate owns it, a fighter who has beaten Josh Barnett, Frank Mir and Roy Nelson in recent memory is fighting a coffee shop barista.
Yes, Cummins was a good amateur. Yes, he has impressed training partners as he's tried to make his way in the sport. Yes, he has a bit of fighting experience. He's 4-0, his wins stockpiled on the backs of opponents with a combined career record of 10-20-1.
No, he doesn't have a chance. Or shouldn't.
BestFightOdds.com shows Cormier as an overwhelming favorite. At -1300, it's thought he is an almost certain lock.
It's a word that nags.
That's not the same as certainty. That's not a lock. Anything can happen. And what if it does?
What if Pat Cummins, walking from the coffee shop to the cage, a twisted analogue to "Tank" Abbott, the old-school legend who made a similar walk from the bar, manages to upset Daniel Cormier, a man seemingly destined to fight Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title?
It's hard to take the idea of an Arena League team competing with an NFL franchise seriously. No one would pay to watch Serena Williams play someone off the street. The very idea of either outsider competing with the best in the world is preposterous.
What does it say about mixed martial arts as a sport that White and the UFC are selling the MMA equivalent? For years we've justified the existence of what was once called "human cockfighting" by emphasizing its sporting nature. The UFC is just another professional sports league, the argument goes, the athletes as impressive and skilled as their counterparts in traditional stick-and-ball sports.
If it's true, if Cummins can beat Cormier, what then? Cormier's one of the UFC's 20 best fighters. A man off the street as good as one of MMA's best? The years of hard work and sacrifice all gone, victim to the vagaries of chance and MMA's "anything can happen" creed?
And then there are the unintended consequences. The UFC has spent two decades establishing itself as MMA's premium brand. It's a given that their fighters are superior to the competition's. But, if Cummins can upend Cormier, doesn't that position become a bit muddled? The moment an obscure fighter with no UFC pedigree beats a top star is the exact moment Bellator has a legitimate opening to claim one of their fighters is the best in the world. The slope here, it is slippery.
It's an upset that would strike right at the heart of this enterprise. If Pat Cummins beats Daniel Cormier, is this a sport or at all? Or were the critics right all along—and MMA is nothing but a spectacle, an unpredictable buffet of violence, an orgy of the unspeakable, a street fight hiding in plain view?