Duffy/ illustration

In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is
true that every fight matters, some feel more important, 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, where two
hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can
win impressively. In other cases, a fight feels especially
important for reasons that are harder to quantify, but no less
real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being a pioneer in MMA from
one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really
hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.

This weekend’s
UFC on ESPN 24
lost its headliner and best fight when T.J.
was injured in training a week ago, then lost one of
its two most recognizable names when Diego
was released by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The promotion
patched the holes in the boat with available materials, putting
together a flyweight main event featuring two ranked strawweights,
and keeping Donald
on the card by replacing Sanchez with Alex Morono.
Despite the shakeups — or in some cases because of them — there is
no shortage of fighters at “UFC Vegas 26” under a little extra
pressure to stand and deliver.

Rodriguez is 3-1-2 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but a decent
argument can be made that she should be 6-0 (and therefore 16-0
overall). Her pair of majority draws against Randa
and Cynthia
and her split decision loss to Carla
were all close, contentious affairs that were scored in
her favor by a majority of media observers. Her most recent win,
a second-round knockout of Amanda
, was contentious as well, but in the other direction, as
she had been getting the worse of things until a gaffe by referee
changed the whole tenor of the fight. Nonetheless, the
Ribas win represented the best victory of Rodriguez’s career to
date, and catapulted the 34-year-old Brazilian into Sherdog’s
strawweight Top 10.

By comparison, Rodriguez’s opponent in Saturday’s makeshift main
event, Michelle
, has greater name value than Ribas but would appear to
be in a worse place competitively, and Rodriguez is a comfortable
2-to-1 favorite. In other words, “The Karate Hottie” appears to be
a good next step for Rodriguez on her way to possible title
contention. However, Waterson is in fact a sneaky trap fight, and
woe betide Rodriguez if she looks past it in any way. However you
scored the Markos, Calvillo and Esparza fights, what all three had
in common is that Rodriguez had problems staying off the canvas,
despite Markos not being known for her offensive wrestling and
despite Esparza being one of the smallest fighters in the division.
Waterson is another undersized strawweight, but despite her
nickname, a big part of her surprising success in the UFC has been
her effective wrestling and willingness to lean on it. If Waterson
is able to negotiate Rodriguez’s superior reach and get her hands
on the taller woman with any regularity, it’s anyone’s fight, and
an upset would be a major blow to Rodriguez’s aspirations.

Prove You Didn’t Jump the Line, Gregor

Is Gillespie’s UFC career over if he loses to Diego
on Saturday? Barring something freakish, almost
certainly not. However, “The Gift” took a very fast track to his
first Top 10 opponent, thanks to his college wrestling credentials
and his undefeated MMA record. It turned out to be too much too
soon, as Kevin Lee
picked up a highlight-reel knockout in the first round of their
fight at UFC 244. It’s 18 months later, and the UFC has not given
Gillespie a soft bounce-back fight. Quite the opposite, in fact:
Ferreira is another Top 10 fighter who arguably presents a worse
stylistic matchup for Gillespie than Lee did.

One bad loss, like Gillespie suffered against Lee, is a speed bump,
and plenty of future champions hit one on their way up. Two losses
in a row, especially if Ferreira defeats Gillespie convincingly,
would be an indication that he is not ready for ranked opposition.
That’s fine, but he would need to win his way back up via the
ladder he more or less skipped the first time around, and at 34,
that would be a huge setback. In effect, Gillespie is at a
career-defining crossroads this weekend. Despite the ridiculous
depth of the UFC lightweight division, there is actually a bit of a
need for fresh faces in title contention, but that window of
opportunity will not be open for long. Gillespie can ill afford a
slip right now.

Opportunity Knocks, Alex
…Better Open Up This Time

In some ways, Morono is playing with house money this weekend.
Stepping up on just a few days’ notice to appear in his first
co-main event, against a living legend and one of the UFC’s most
recognizable stars in Donald
, the ratio of risk to reward appears slanted in favor
of the 30-year-old Texan. He gets a fight with unprecedented
visibility, a winnable matchup and — though fighters don’t think
this way — the built-in “yeah, but” asterisk of the late-notice
opponent, should he lose. All that on top of an unexpected paycheck
sounds like a very good deal indeed for “The Great White.”

And it is, but there’s another narrative at work. Morono is a more
than respectable 7-4 with one no contest since joining the UFC, but
finds himself stuck in the monster logjam that is the No. 25-50
range of one of the promotion’s deepest and most cutthroat
divisions. For fighters to break out of that jam into even the
fringes of contention can sometimes take a six- or seven-fight
winning streak; just ask someone like Vicente
or Belal
. One thing that can help a welterweight rise above the
noise is a win over a big-name opponent. Morono had a shot last
December, in the form of a matchup with former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champ
. Morono came up short that night, as “Showtime” found
himself in trouble in the first round, but rallied to sweep the
second and third. In stepping up to face “Cowboy,” Morono once
again has the chance to elevate his profile with the average fan.
He needs to take advantage, because in the UFC 170-pound division,
it’s rare enough for opportunity to knock once, let alone