Mixed martial arts is as much about entertainment as it is competition, which makes marketability a key factor when the UFC awards a title shot.
Stipe Miocic, currently No. 5 in Sherdog.com’s heavyweight rankings, faces Andrei Arlovski in a pivotal bout in the UFC 195 co-main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday. With Alistair Overeem exploring free agency and Junior dos Santos coming off a knockout loss, the Miocic-Arlovski winner would seem to have at least a decent chance of solidifying his place as the No. 1 contender in waiting.
Then again, Miocic is still building his profile within the Las Vegas-based promotion, which is partly why he said he was passed recently bypassed in favor of Cain Velasquez for a heavyweight title shot.
“[The UFC brass] go off popularity and what the fans want,” Miocic told Submission Radio in September. “Apparently the fans didn't want to see me fight. ... I need to get more popular."
Velasquez will rematch Fabricio Werdum for the heavyweight strap at UFC 196 on Feb. 6. What happens next in the division is anyone’s guess, but a lot depends on how Saturday’s co-headliner goes down. What is clear is that Miocic cares about winning fights, not popularity contests.
“Obviously I don’t care,” Miocic said during a recent media call. “I mean, I understand it’s business, man. So, I mean, it’s about the money. And maybe one day I’ll get more fans, which is fine. But, the fans are what makes the sport. But I’m not worried about being famous. I’m just worried about [Saturday] against Andrei.”
Facing Arlovski, a former champion who remains among the most recognizable heavyweights in the sport today, could improve things on the popularity front. Miocic was originally supposed to square off against Ben Rothwell at UFC Fight Night Dublin in October, but the Ohioan was forced to pull out of the contest due to injury. If the new booking is a better setup, Miocic isn’t admitting it.
“I think Ben’s pretty tough himself. He’s ranked seventh in the world, especially in that weight division when you wear small gloves anything can happen,” Miocic said. “Unfortunately I had to pull out on a fight, which I never did that before and it was heartbreaking, but I told them I could come back in January and then they gave me Arlovski. So I’m happy, can’t complain.”
Velasquez was given a rematch against Werdum despite not being especially competitive in their first meeting at UFC 188, which Werdum won via third-round guillotine choke. Some believed the altitude of Mexico City was to blame for Velasquez’s poor conditioning in the bout, as the American Kickboxing Academy product is generally renowned for his stamina in the Octagon. Velasquez’s track record as a two-time former champion also might have made it easier for the promotion to give him an immediate rematch.
“He’s been a champ for a while. What are you going to do? He wasn’t like a champ for a like a few months, he’s a champ for a while and beat some tough guys,” Miocic said. “It’s nothing I can be mad about; it was their decision.”
On that same note, Miocic can’t offer any predictions on what a victory over Arlovski -- emphatic or otherwise -- will do for his title hopes. The Strong Style Fight Team representative has won four of his last five UFC appearances, including a lopsided beatdown of Mark Hunt on May 10. His lone defeat was a back-and-forth slugfest with dos Santos at UFC on Fox 13.
“It’s not my decision. I would love that for that to happen and get that shot,” Miocic said. “But right now all I care about is this Saturday. Andrei is coming in with a bang and so am I.”