Opinion: High Stakes in the Shadow of UFC 200

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.


UFC 200 is big. It was big at conception, but now, a little less than a month away, it’s bigger than ever. A total of nine current or former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders will be fighting, alongside two former champions from other major organizations. Three more former title contenders and two “Ultimate Fighter” winners are also on the card. Of course, the core of the event lies in the three championship bouts it boasts, and the return of Brock Lesnar has been so widely covered that I need not say anything else about it. Yes, UFC 200 is big indeed. So large is its shadow that if you weren’t aware of the high-stakes headliner at UFC Fight Night “MacDonald vs. Thompson” on Saturday in Canada, I wouldn’t blame you.

It’s important whenever the two top-ranked fighters in a division square off, but the significance of the Stephen Thompson-Rory MacDonald main event extends beyond their rankings. Both have a lot riding on this performance, in very different ways.

The man they call “Wonderboy” has a more traditional storyline here. After going 1-1 in his first two UFC fights in 2012, he has reeled off six straight victories with four finishes. In his last bout, he completely outclassed former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks in three and a half minutes. Prior to that, Hendricks had only lost twice in the previous five years, and both times were controversially close split decisions in championship fights against Georges St. Pierre and Robbie Lawler. The man who pushed the greatest welterweight of all-time to the brink for 25 minutes was dusted in 211 seconds. It was a stunning coming-out party for Thompson, his most spectacular win against his highest-profile opponent.

Against MacDonald, Thompson will face an even more imposing challenge. For starters, MacDonald is his physical equal. It will be only the second time Thompson will fight someone in the UFC without having the height or reach advantage. The first and only other time that happened was against Matt Brown, the only man who has handed Thompson a loss. To compound the pressure, Thompson is just now cracking the elite of the division at 33 years of age. With how tight it is at the top at 170 pounds, a loss, especially a bad one, could be a major setback for his title hopes. It would place MacDonald ahead of him -- though that would be a big maybe for reasons we’ll soon get into -- and would also likely put Demian Maia, Carlos Condit and potentially Neil Magny ahead of or on par with him in the title-shot queue; and let’s not kid ourselves: With the way Lawler tends to fight, an immediate rematch with Tyron Woodley is a distinct possibility, win or lose at UFC 201. It would be overly dramatic to say that a loss would put the nail in the coffin of a Thompson title shot, but it would be a demoralizing setback after three and a half years worth of momentum, especially with only a few more years left in his physical prime.

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MacDonald has an added incentive to win here, since this is the last fight on his current UFC contract. After losing to Lawler at UFC 189 in July in an all-time caliber fight, MacDonald has publicly stated that he feels he is worth more money than what his contract supplies. He made $59,000 for his fight against Lawler -- not including his $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus -- and had to sit out the remainder of the year due to the injuries he suffered from the physicality of the fight. It was a spectacular fight to watch, and MacDonald was right to try and leverage it into a more lucrative contract. Yet as of now, he and the UFC have not come to amicable terms. Should MacDonald win and choose to walk, he would be the highest-ranked fighter to test out free agency thus far, which is probably why he was matched up with one of the most dangerous fighters in the division. In this way, the stakes are not just high for MacDonald personally; he will be representing every fighter -- past, present and future -- who deserves to get paid more.

On the one hand, it’s easy to understand where MacDonald is coming from. While he is still young, he got a glimpse of the long-term tolls fighting takes on your body, courtesy of Lawler. Plus, with his first child due in July, financial stability is an even more immediate concern. The UFC may be the greatest competitive organization in combat sports right now, but if MacDonald can make more money elsewhere, why wouldn’t he? Leaving the UFC is particularly reasonable if MacDonald is able to secure enough sponsors to earn more than $10,000 per fight, which is how much he gets from Reebok for having 12 fights in the UFC.

On the other hand, you can’t exactly blame the UFC for playing a slow hand. It’s a tired sentiment at this point, but the UFC is a private business. It’s supposed to want to get as much out of the fighters as it can while paying as little as it can; that’s how profit works. It is perfectly rational in that context to wait and see how this fight concludes. If MacDonald puts on another great performance, the UFC can choose to meet his offer. If not, it can let him pack his bags and leave the promotion with a loss; and it would do so with another welterweight contender in Thompson to take his spot. Like it or not, the UFC is playing it smart.

There will be a lot riding on the line at the TD Place in Ottawa, Ontario. At least, for us at home and in the stands, the stakes will only make it better entertainment.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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