Let there be ringtones: why the UFC needs a better backup fight plan


Max Holloway and Yair Rodriguez are officially on the books. Last Thursday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced the enticing featherweight showdown as the main event on its July 17 card in Last Vegas.

After the immediate fan excitement subsided, the very real thought that the fight might somehow disintegrate led to the classic and contemporary cries of “Put it in bubble wrap!”. Obviously, this is a nice turn of phrase that people at MMA now use to refer to the often intersecting circumstances of certain fights, leading to their disbandment due to injury, failed drug testing. drug or more recently, COVID-19. That said, is there anything the UFC can realistically do to protect its July 17th headliner?

I would say it does, and we don’t need to look any further than another nugget of news from last week. A day after Holloway-Rodriguez’s announcement, UFC President Dana White revealed that the company is actively looking for a potential “backup fighter” for the main event of UFC 264, the Rubber Match. expected between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, scheduled for July 10. Given that UFC 264 could surpass the previous McGregor-Poirier 2 fight at UFC 257 – which made around 1.6 million pay-per-view purchases – as the highest-grossing card this year, the promotion would be obviously wise to protect against any potential disaster.

“I’m currently looking for someone to be the backup on this card,” White told Bleacher Report. “Nobody jumps. No one broke down my door.

Now, for you to believe that White’s rhetoric that “nobody jumps” in such a talented, lightweight division and his classic “nobody knocks my door” slap is irrelevant. What’s important here is that it shows the UFC’s willingness to take precautionary measures when there is a lot at stake in a particular fight. While Holloway-Rodriguez isn’t an a-la-carte headliner – or a pay-per-view fight at all – the fight still holds special significance that warrants similar arrangements.

Photo by Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC

While Holloway-Rodriguez probably won’t determine champion Alexander Volkanovski’s next challenger – after all, Holloway has lost twice to him already – he still comes at a critical juncture for two popular and exciting matches in the featherweight division. Former champion Holloway, as he rebounded well in January with an emphatic decision verdict over Calvin Kattar, is still 2-3 in his last five fights. Even though he is still only 29 years old, a loss to Rodriguez would place the “blessed” Hawaiian at a real professional crossroads.

On the flip side, by the time this fight does happen – hopefully of course – it will be Rodriguez’s first fight in 21 months. At the end of 2018, “El Pantera” rose high after his consensus “Fight of the year” and “Knockout of the year” with his nudge on Chan Sung Jung. Since then, things have gone from disappointing to nightmarish for Rodriguez. First off, it was his aborted 15-second headliner against Jeremy Stephens that ended with a glance; even though he did beat Stephens by hand in the do-over, it felt hollow. Then it was an ankle injury that dashed hopes for a sought-after clash with rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov. After that, last December, he was suspended for six months by USADA for failing to reveal his whereabouts and not being available for drug testing. Fans have been clamoring to see him back in the cage, but a loss here could put him in the mud and mud of the featherweight division for some time.

Suffice to say that it is a fight that is worth protecting for both fighters, even if, God forbid, one of them falls out of the fight. A late injury or illness forcing its outright cancellation wouldn’t be the end of the world, but would be another stark sign of the times for the UFC. After all, while it’s a potential wellness story to see former UFC Champion Miesha Tate come back from an almost five-year absence, does anyone want to see her title against? Marion Reneau?

Fights like Holloway-Rodriguez deserve protection, even if they’re not McGregor-style fights that are going to do huge business. They are still an integral part of the company and the natural progression of its divisions. And frankly, it’s strange that the UFC hasn’t used the idea of ​​backup fighters more regularly, given the history of the UFC over the past 20 years.

UFC 94 Georges St-Pierre vs. BJ Penn 2

Photo by Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images

The first time the UFC went public with its use of the backup plan was for UFC 94 in January 2009, before a welterweight contest between Dong Hyun Kim and Karo Parisyan. Due to Parisyan’s myriad of issues – weight, painkiller use, personal drama – the UFC had Rick Story on deck just in case something went wrong before the fight. Things turned out as planned, although Parisyan’s original share decision was ultimately changed to a No Contest due to a surprise surprise, which tested positive for pain relievers he had not disclosed.

Still, while the concept and the UFC’s willingness to have an explicit rescue fighter in targeted situations isn’t new, it’s too rarely used. A key part of this is that most fights that involve substitutions face these changes weeks in advance and have given the UFC ample time to find substitutes. However, there is no argument that it is better for everyone involved to have a designated ringtone in these situations, giving the substitute a better honest chance to prepare and be in great shape. Plus, with tighter medical precautions and the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen more ultra-late fight reshuffles and cancellations than ever before, and it could help alleviate those issues.

The UFC’s struggles with late replacements, however, go back much longer. From the moment Zuffa took over the promotion in January 2001, he sought to build the business around then-light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. The company spent more than a year continuing a fight between Ortiz and Vitor Belfort, only to have it collapsed several times. In the unfortunate UFC 33, the first attempt to organize the fight, they were lucky enough to have Vladimir Matyushenko step in on short notice for Kevin Randleman, who was replacing Belfort. The fight left a lot to be desired, to say the least. At UFC 36, they weren’t so lucky and had to take out a defense from Ortiz altogether. If they had had a rock-solid submarine in the circle of the bridge, who knows how things might have turned out?

If anything, the final straw should have come three years ago when the main event of UFC 223 between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson for the lightweight title tumbled into chaos during the fight week after. Ferguson’s knee injury, which led to scrambling and promotion across the lineup. of possibilities to save the headliner, before being saved by everyone’s perpetual Al Iaquinta discontent. At this point, it should have been clear that it would be a cautious step forward that when a major fight – or a fight of some real consequence – is in play, it is always wise to have a fighter waiting behind the scenes. .

Of course, the emergency combat plan is not an infallible panacea; after all, a rescue fighter can get hurt too. That said, the only tangible downside for the company is that it is forced to pay three fighters for a single fight, which, honestly, isn’t even a problem to consider for a company that has made around $ 900 million. income dollars in each of the last two. years. Throwing a rescue fighter somewhere between $ 250,000 and $ 500,000 just to stay ready is hardly a constraint, especially when you consider the potential saving grace if something goes wrong. A quarter to half a million dollars to keep a headlining fight relatively safe and avoid its outright cancellation is a paltry sum compared to the alternative.

As the old saying goes, it’s better to have something and not need it rather than need something and not have it. It’s time for the UFC to take this maxim to heart.

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