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As the enormous shadow wrought by the hooliganism of UFC 229 slowly begins to disperse, the MMA community has this week been rocked by a fusillade of announcements regarding its next major pay-per-view showing at UFC 230. The event marks the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s tertiary showing at the storied Madison Square Garden arena in New York City, and the changes unveiled on Tuesday once again place the event at the center of much-maligned headliner pitting Antonina Shevchenko against Sijara Eubanks for the vacant 125-pound title is now off, with “The Bullet’” set to fight her original opponent in former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 231 in December, and “Sarj” being relegated to a prelim-rematch with cult favorite Roxanne Modafferi. The “People’s Main Event” in Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier has also been scrapped; an undisclosed injury to “The Diamond” named the culprit. A ray of sunshine accompanies the clouds in the news that heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier will defend his title against No. 2-ranked Derrick Lewis, though the fact that “DC” will ostensibly be competing with a broken hand, and “The Black Beast” will enter the Octagon having absorbed 121 significant strikes four weeks earlier courtesy of Alexander Volkov, will likely give educated fans some pause before they rush out to pre-order the pay-per-view.
Did the UFC make the right call by green-lighting an otherwise compelling fight in less-than-ideal circumstances? It’s a question that requires us to assess what we prioritize in our consumption of sports entertainment, and to interrogate the long-term consequences of treating the “best athletes in the world” as if they were participants in an elaborate game of musical chairs.
I would be lying if I said that the DC-Lewis announcement didn’t make the UFC 230 card significantly more enticing -- doubly so in light of the Diaz-Poirier casualty. A heavyweight title fight in Madison Square Garden, especially one pitting two black athletes at the apex of the sport against each other, is a rare and exciting proposition, and in an industry as unpredictable as the fight game sometimes you have to take what you can get. Sure, the promos will feel a little rushed, and there is a legitimate question whether the UFC would have made the move if it weren’t for Lewis’ viral post-victory speech at UFC 229. But when the alternative was a flyweight championship tilt featuring a fighter with only three professional victories in as many years, you could be forgiven for reacting with relief at the new headliner.
But then again, maybe that’s the problem: the fact that we’re booking a date and then working backwards, expecting athletes to accommodate the UFC’s event schedule rather than the other way around. Cormier-Lewis is an exciting fight no matter what weekend the two meet in the Octagon. But given that the challenger literally just told us that he wasn’t looking for a five-round bout due to his less-than-stellar gas tank, and the champion’s original plan was to rehab his hand and return in the first quarter of 2019, it’s unlikely we’ll see either perform at the peak of their abilities.
In light of those details, would it really have been that scandalous for the UFC to downgrade UFC 230 into a fight-night card anchored by co-headliners Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman? To rebook Cormier and Lewis when they’re both healthy, or stick with the original -- albeit problematic -- plan of pitting “DC” opposite the returning Brock Lesnar early next year? To take the pedal off the accelerator for one second and look at the bigger picture?
Questions of this nature aren’t confined to UFC 230, but the unending acts of deck-shuffling do make it a perfect vehicle for assessing the implications of the organisation’s freewheeling approach to its product.
With a bloated event calendar featuring over forty fight cards a year, the promotion has increasingly struggled to deliver on a consistent basis, needlessly diluting the quality of its showings as part of an ill-conceived over-saturation strategy. More and more, the organization has had to scramble to find late-replacement headliners, or abandon a long-game promotional strategy in favor of a short-term fix. Super-fights are booked without giving thought to the divisions left in limbo; interim championships are awarded and then dissolved; title-fights are booked based on availability and economic impact, with merit, and the ability of fighters to make their contracted weight or pass a drug test, being little more than afterthoughts; fighter goodwill and fan interest are constantly under siege.
In the past two years alone, this short-termism has affected a full half of the UFC’s 12 championship lineages. A paper champion in Robert Whittaker rules the middleweight division because the company thought a high-selling one-night stand with Georges St. Pierre was worth the sacrifice of the 185-pound title’s legitimacy. An interim welterweight title was needlessly created to put on the UFC 225 poster only to be dissolved three months later when the real champion, Tyron Woodley, was ready to make his return. The inaugural titleholders in the women’s featherweight and women’s flyweight divisions were both hastily crowned and hastily stripped, and leading into UFC 229 there were three different versions of the lightweight title floating around the T-Mobile Arena. In December, Daniel Cormier will be stripped of his light heavyweight title to make way for a championship rematch between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafson at UFC 232, and If Max Holloway bows out of his featherweight title defense next month at UFC 231, he will reportedly suffer the same fate.
All of these examples are in some way connected to the UFC’s cart-before-horse strategy, and whilst Cormier-Lewis at least makes sense in some respects, the way it’s being rolled out is apt to squander much of what the contest could offer if it were done the right way.
If there were an appropriate time for the UFC to reset and get its bearings, now would be that time. Coming off what is reportedly the most financially successful night in the company’s history in UFC 229, and set to transition to the home of sports on the ESPN network in just three short months, cancelling a few events wouldn’t be the end of the world. Sure it would be a bad look, and the organization would take a hit economically, but if it means 2019 starts right -- with the organization getting its ducks in a row early, with solid back-up plans, and a clear commitment to championship lineage and sensible, meritocratic matchmaking -- then I’d bet it would pay off in the long term.
But then again, who am I kidding?