The UFC's perplexing start to 2017 takes yet another head-scratching turn Saturday, when No. 4 featherweight Cub Swanson takes on the unranked and relatively unknown Artem Lobov in the main event of Fight Night 108.
Even in a year so far typified by mystery-grab bag matchmaking, this one feels notably random.
Swanson vs. Lobov would be right at home as the featured prelim on a Fight Pass internet stream or the curtain-jerker of a UFC pay-per-view. Making it the marquee attraction on this weekend's six-fight main card at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, on the other hand, is strange by any metric.
And people are taking notice:
So, what exactly is the UFC out to accomplish here?
It's kind of a mystery, to be honest.
Swanson at least should be well-known to fight fans by now.
The 33-year-old Team Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter already has a decade under his belt competing at the sport's highest level. He's 9-2 in the Octagon dating back to the start of 2012, is riding a three-fight win-streak and most recently comes off a victory over hot prospect Dooho Choi after a Fight of the Year candidate brawl in December 2016.
Swanson is a likable, all-action striker whose nickname, full slate of tattoos and Killer Cub merchandise line could all add up to make him a modest little promotional piece in the UFC's current 145-pound puzzle.
This will be the third time Swanson has headlined a UFC event, though the first time since 2014 and arguably the first time he's been the obvious A-side. His first two gigs with top billing were opposite former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and longtime contender Jeremy Stephens, respectively.
Lobov doesn't fit that mold at all, which makes him the more puzzling part of this main event tandem.
The 30-year-old Russian is to date best known for finishing as the runner-up in The Ultimate Fighter Season 20 lightweight tournament and for training alongside Conor McGregor at the Dublin gym run by John Kavanagh.
After Lobov defeated Teruto Ishihara via unanimous decision in November 2016, McGregor leaped over the Octagon fence to congratulate him inside the cage. Their celebration provided the highest-profile moment of Lobov's somewhat under-the-radar UFC career to this point.
The victory over the colorful Ishihara was also Lobov's best Octagon win and boosted him two in a row. Still, it's unclear how he managed to tumble into a main event bout opposite Swanson.
It's easy to speculate—or perhaps "kvetch" is a better word—that Lobov's association with McGregor netted him this opportunity. The booking would also make more sense if it felt as though Lobov was a hot up-and-comer the UFC wanted to build into a star.
Unfortunately for him, it doesn't seem like either of those things explain what's going on here.
Lobov is just 2-2 in the UFC ,and his overall MMA record has remained patently mediocre during his near seven-year career. He's just 13-12-1 (one no-contest), though he fought his share of tough competition in multiple weight classes early in his fighting life.
Also, Lobov is currently going off as nearly a 5-1 underdog against Swanson, according to OddsShark.
That all makes it seem like the most likely scenario is that this fight was set up as a showcase for Swanson and that Lobov is here for the express purpose of playing foil.
For his part, Swanson seems content to act as the seasoned veteran, scolding the less experienced fighter for not knowing how to behave on the big stage.
Swanson has said this week he doesn't think Lobov would even be in the UFC without McGregor's influence. Then he cracked off this gem during a recent appearance on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, via MMA Fighting's Chuck Mindenhall:
He's trying to be somebody—like a lot of these young guys are trying to be somebody that they're not—and he's trying to talk crap. You know, he called me a b*tch and he said I had no balls. I feel like those two things aren't true statements. If feel like if you're going to call me out on something, call me out on something that's true, but those aren't true. To me it's just ridiculous, and I'd like to make an example out of him.
Matchmakers attempting to raise Swanson's profile within the featherweight rat race makes a certain amount of sense. Perhaps he's even being groomed to be the next No. 1 contender after champion Jose Aldo and interim champ Max Holloway unify the titles at UFC 212 in June.
For as long as Swanson has been kicking around as one of the best featherweights in the world, it's impossible to say he doesn't deserve it.
But it would also be kind of strange that the UFC would just now start trying to promote the guy. Where was that kind of attention during the first six years of his career with the company?
And does it really help him if he beats Lobov on Saturday?
Even by the standards of the still developing WME-IMG era, this fight flies in the face of the UFC's conventional wisdom, which has always been to give fans the best, most competitive matches.
Perhaps it's indicative of a new matchmaking direction, where contenders are built through advantageous matchups and careful curation.
Or perhaps the UFC just needed a fight to fill this date and, as a rocky start to 2017 bleeds into a springtime slump, nothing better was available.