UFC Fight Night 43, the UFC’s debut in New Zealand, came and went with remarkable subtlety this weekend. Inevitably overshadowed by its San Antonio successor, UFC Fight Night 44, which was headlined by a main event for featherweight title contendership a mere few hours later, the mellow anticipation for UFC Fight Night 43 bore a stark contrast to the intensity of the Haka that preceded James Te Huna’s entrance.

In spite of this lacking lead-in, the card itself contained several intriguing narratives that showcased the promotion’s depth as it continues to host more events. Part of a wider plan to decentralize fight content from the premium providers of pay-per-view, this Fight Pass event embraced a rich array of storylines that enabled emotional investment in each fight.

New Zealand’s prodigal son, Robert Whittaker, returned to his homeland to face the American threat of Mike Rhodes. Charles Oliveira submitted Hatsu Hioki in a technical clash of seasoned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts. Jared Rosholt, a 27-year-old heavyweight prospect, snapped 36-year-old Soa Palelei’s 11-fight winning streak in a grueling battle of the new guard and the old. In the context of its position on the card, the main event saved the most intriguing story for last—two men with careers in jeopardy, desperate to taste victory.

Played out through interviews, promo packages and media articles, up until the pre-fight vignette projected on screens throughout the Auckland Vector Arena, the feature bout between James Te Huna and Nate Marquardt embraced a unique storyline that set it apart from other MMA headliners of the modern UFC era. Never before had two fighters with consecutive losing streaks been profiled so highly. As evidenced on Saturday, though, the intensity of the fight and the roar of the Vector Arena’s 8,089 capacity crowd reflected its dividends.

For a product that is providing a wealth of new content as it expands exponentially across borders, countries and continents, there is a special place for this storyline at the highest level, as long as people will buy the tickets.

Relatable Pressure

One man’s dreaded losing streak came to an end when Marquardt returned to the winner’s column for the first time since July 2012 against the native fan-favorite, Te Huna.

Riding an adrenaline high supplemented by the traditional war dance of his ancestors, Te Huna favored explosive power over technique in the main event before Marquardt, maintaining calm composure, reversed the resident of Sydney, Australia, and brought him to the ground. Marquardt softened Te Huna with strikes from the guard and quickly secured an armbar from a kimura transition as Te Huna tried to push through a mount escape. In one round, the flurry was over. Marquardt earned a submission victory for the first time since Feb. 2, 2008. That’s 2,338 days and 13 fights ago, for those keeping track.

The intensity and brevity of the fight spoke to the desperation of both men. With their backs against the proverbial wall, the danger of extending a two-fight losing streak prompted a twinge of empathy not often felt in MMA. While not every viewer and fan of MMA has felt the embrace of success at the highest level, the experience of feeling vulnerable under the weight of expectation is a more widely relatable experience. As a narrative aid, the promotion of Te Huna vs. Marquardt endeared us to these competitors, triggering an empathy that arises from the knowledge that no man is perfect.

Deviation from the Main Event Norm

The main-event dynamic of two fighters striving to secure a victory and evade the three-fight losing streak that typically spells the end of a talent’s UFC career made a refreshing change from the traditional main-event concept of two superhuman forces colliding on their paths to being the division’s greatest fighter.

Since the days of Frank Gotch vs. Georg Hackenschmidt and Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, up until Floyd Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton, winners have dominated the main event scene in combat sports, and rightfully so. In 2014, however, the drastically changed broadcasting landscape and denser event calendar, summarized by this weekend’s dual UFC events, is prone to oversaturation if the same variation of “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” is constantly recycled. When the exceptional becomes the norm, it is harder to embrace two fighters with winning streaks for their achievements in a sport where outcomes are decided by the slimmest of margins.

Even with the addition of Fox broadcasting and the creation of Fight Pass as self-sustaining marketing platforms, phenomenal competitors like Demetrious Johnson, who is firmly in the conversation for pound-for-pound greats, have arguably not attracted the interest that their outstanding credentials should warrant. Meanwhile, other fighters like Chuck Liddell, Chael Sonnen and Nick Diaz, who possess an intangible charismatic x-factor, continue to draw more viewers and pay-per-view buyers. Through the lens of a marketer, this observation is a testament to the sport’s complexity, where stories sell and simply winning is not always enough.

At UFC Fight Night 43, the Te Huna vs. Marquardt hype was inflated by the aesthetic of over 8,000 fans in attendance getting behind their native brother at a pivotal moment in his career. Embracing the storyline for its value, the UFC deviated from the rigid format of walkout entrances to provide a live entertainment spectacle. A troupe of New Zealanders performed the Haka, a ceremonial demonstration of All-Black warrior culture, which naturally endeared itself to Te Huna’s return “home” and the physicality of mixed martial arts.

Last Roll of the Dice

The Te Huna vs. Marquardt bout added another rare dimension to its form as both men, in acts of desperation, changed weight classes with respective moves to middleweight. Typically undersized at 205 pounds, Te Huna sought to capitalize on his size and frame at 185 pounds, while Marquardt returned to the division where he earned his last victory—over Dan Miller in March 2011—in the UFC.

It was surprising this angle wasn’t highlighted in the pre-bout promotion, as it reflected the commitment of Te Huna and Marquardt to turn their careers around and return to their winning ways. Both fighters were willing to put their body through significant change as preparation for one final roll of the dice before stepping into three-fight-skid territory.

For Marquardt, the risk paid off. Extra strength and muscle mass looked to catalyze his confidence in the grappling exchanges with Te Huna. Once Nate “The Great” secured the tap and vindicated his return to 185 pounds, the sheer relief on his face shone bright in the post-fight interview. It made for entertaining viewing and a lingering curiosity for what comes next for the former Pancrase fighter.

For Te Huna, the future remains uncertain. His advantageous physical qualities at a lower weight class failed to translate to success, but, in Marquardt, he faced a former Strikeforce champion. Possibly burdened by the weight of expectation, main-eventing a card on the UFC’s debut in New Zealand, Te Huna deserves another chance.

Conclusion

Although the UFC is unlikely to publicly hang a competitor’s career on the outcome of a fight, the promotion may have stumbled onto a new main-event dynamic that breeds variety and intrigue among the promotion’s secondary fight cards. Giving talent the opportunity to vindicate themselves on a bigger stage exposes the audience to an alternative side of that competitor while his or her back is against the wall, fostering a greater emotional investment in the process as the sport’s growth continues to perpetuate its emotional complexity.