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To a certain way of thinking, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some absolutely feel more important than others, for any number of reasons. In some cases, the elevated stakes are easy to define. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series between two hopefuls who know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. In other cases, the sense of heightened drama comes from factors that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being the first title challenger from one’s country, the pressure of being in the first main event of a new broadcast deal, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.
In this column, the first in a new series, we will highlight some of the fights that carry that kind of tension for one or both participants. Here are three fighters from UFC 259 who are under extra pressure to stand and deliver.
Jan Blachowicz: Silence the Doubters
Well…duh, right? A title fight is the very definition of a situation where the high stakes are obvious to all. So why, out of the six title fight participants on Saturday’s card, is Blachowicz the only one featured here? Put simply, the 38-year-old Pole is one of the most criminally underrated fighters — let alone champions — in recent memory. Consider that Blachowicz has been the betting underdog in eight of his last 10 fights, a span during which he has gone 8-2. He was an underdog against Devin Clark. Against Nikita Krylov. He was worse than a 2-to-1 underdog against Luke Rockhold, who was coming off a brutal knockout loss and moving up a weight class. It’s partly due to inconsistent performances in his early Ultimate Fighting Championship run after joining from KSW, but well over six years later, we still can’t seem to reconcile the idea that this guy is a very, very good fighter.
It is for that reason that Blachowicz, frankly, has more to prove — and more to lose — this weekend than his foe, Israel Adesanya. Champ vs. champ superfights are generally more of a win-win proposition for the lighter fighter moving up, since their belt is not on the line and…well, they’re smaller. Optics matter. “The Last Stylebender” has played that to the bone by revealing that he plans to weigh in well below the light heavyweight limit. However, the dynamic runs deeper than “nobody likes to root for Goliath.” (After all, Adesanya will be the taller man, with greater reach.) The fact is that the worst-case scenario is far kinder to Adesanya than to Blachowicz. If Adesanya loses, even if he loses badly, he remains the middleweight champion, and he’s still a dazzling, generational talent who simply bit off more than he could chew. Conversely, if Blachowicz loses, even in close fight, to many fans he will become a historical footnote: the pretty-good fighter who was lucky enough to go on a hot streak right when Jon Jones was fixing to move to heavyweight. It would be a grossly unfair narrative, but it’s right there, pending the outcome of Saturday’s main event.
Dominick Cruz: No More Excuses
In a perfect world, one with “Star Trek” sickbays capable of repairing the human body in seconds with invisible rays, Cruz would be the greatest men’s bantamweight of all time and there might not even be a very close second. That he is still in the conversation despite his laundry list of surgeries and years-long layoffs is testament to his talent, work ethic and intelligence. “The Dominator” is, in my opinion, the greatest injury what-if fighter of the modern era. While even the great Cain Velasquez lost a couple of fights in his prime, nobody beat a healthy Cruz for nearly a decade, and most of those who tried could barely lay a finger on him. All of this is simply to say that, for most of his career, Cruz has had the benefit of the doubt. He has been the bantamweight king in absentia, with the doctor’s notes — and the scars — to show us, and a free pass to the front of the contenders’ line whenever he came back.
Those days are over. Cruz is now 35, an age at which many bantamweights, even those without cadaver tendons in their knees, are losing a step. For a fighter as dependent on speed and movement as Cruz, that would have been problematic even if he had been active this whole time. His last two fights represent the only losing streak of his career, but more worryingly, he looked out of sorts against Henry Cejudo last May. His trademark footwork was in evidence, but slower and less fluid. That is a matter of conjecture, but it is a matter of fact that Cruz’s opponent this Saturday, Casey Kenney, does not appear in Sherdog’s official rankings, nor those of the UFC itself. It will be the first time Cruz has faced an unranked opponent in over a decade, including his entire Octagon career, and he is not even the favorite.
Cruz’s last win was at UFC 199 in June of 2016. For perspective, at that time, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey had each just suffered their first UFC losses and Eddie Alvarez was about six weeks away from wresting the lightweight title from Rafael dos Anjos. There is an entire generation of MMA fans that knows Cruz best as a commentator, and even I, who have been a fan for almost 20 years, keep forgetting that he has a back tattoo, because I’m so used to seeing him in a suit. Win or lose, this is probably not Cruz’s last chance in the UFC, but if he believes he has anything to offer today’s bantamweight Top 15, this may well be his last shot at proving it.
Islam Makhachev: No Pressure, Just Be Khabib
There are unreasonably lofty expectations, and then there’s the mantle that fans, media and oddsmakers seem so eager to foist onto Makhachev. Yes, there are obvious parallels to his longtime teammate, recently retired lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov: both Dagestanis by way of American Kickboxing Academy, similar tall yet burly physiques for the division, relentless takedown artists with suffocating top games, even the same “#4 guard all over” grooming choices. However, for Makhachev to return from an 18-month layoff as a nearly 4-to-1 favorite over a fighter as hot as Drew Dober is setting a high bar. The odds seem to imply, “If Makhachev is the real deal, he should run this guy over,” when in reality Makhachev might well be the real deal even if he loses to Dober this weekend. Don’t write him off if he loses, or even if he looks rusty in a relatively prosaic win, and conversely, don’t lose sight of the fact that Dober is one of the most impressively improved fighters in the UFC over the last year or two.
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