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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has spent nearly two decades over two ownership groups untangling red tape, bad ideas and politically vested interests towards one goal: the UFC inside Madison Square Garden. Seven years in a row, buttressed by the Fertitta brothers' money and political clout, bills legalizing mixed martial arts in New York passed the state's Senate, but never made it beyond the State Assembly until this past March 22, when it finally passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo put pen to paper a few weeks later.
And that was supposed to be that. While there were large preparations and logistical struggles forthcoming for the New York State Athletic Commission as the office began to regulate the sport, no one ever expected the UFC's Nov. 12 date at MSG to get pushed back once it was on the books. However, the UFC's milestone moment is now mired in a new kind of controversy and it's not due to political forces external to MMA. No, this time, the call is coming from inside the house.
Here is a synopsis our present situation: UFC 205 has five official fights and though Tyron Woodley has said outright that he is defending his welterweight title against Stephen Thompson on the card and while MMAJunkie reported last week that Chris Weidman-Yoel Romero was a go for the event, the UFC hasn't confirmed either bout just yet. Regardless, Zuffa has to announce the headlining particulars quickly: the promotion has a press conference this coming Tuesday at the MSG Theater to the promote the event with the stars of the event and also, tickets go on sale Friday, Sept. 30.
So, imagine for a moment that these five confirmed and two very-likely fights form the nucleus of UFC 205. That's a highly respectable pay-per-view, but is it what you expected for the company's first dramatic staging inside Madison Square Garden? Probably not, and here's where things get every sticky.
Just as it became a talking point when many fans came away disappointed with UFC 200 this past July, MSG is another moment highlighting the UFC's problem with over-promising. For years, UFC 205 was hyped as an inevitable cork-popping party, a moment that would symbolically represent how far Dana White, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III brought this cagefighting outfit and a fight card commensurate with that sort of achievement is what was always teased. People always imagined Jon Jones in a major headlining fight, Chris Weidman defending or challenging for the UFC middleweight title and a card full of talent from both the city and state, who would get to revel in being a part of this sport's history.
So far, UFC 205 is a far cry from that. I won't blame the company for “Jonny Bones” not being around to headline, and yes, New York's Gian Villante was scheduled to face Marcos Rogerio de Lima until he pulled out due to injury, but in our seven-match hypothetical slate so far, we've got two New Yorkers: Baldwin's Chris Weidman and Niagara Falls' Rashad Evans. Not that Frankie Edgar at MSG doesn't feel righteous, but there's no Aljamain Sterling, Al Iaquinta, Ryan LaFlare, Dennis Bermudez, Tamdan McCrory, Uriah Hall. That's the fantasy everyone held for UFC 205, for years.
What trumps that fantasy, however, is that the company doesn't need a UFC 205 card replete with New Yorkers to draw a massive $8-10 million gate. If there has ever been a “If you build it, they will come” promotional moment for the UFC, this is it. Traditionally, Zuffa has always peaked early when entering new markets, with business cooling off over annual trips in the next two to three years, their efforts in California and Ohio being the most visible examples. But, those initial events tend to be hot and again, this is the UFC at MSG. You may feel that the UFC owes it to fans or particular fighters to be a part of this card, but Zuffa is already in position to make tons of dollars on ticket sales, regardless.
That said, eight-figure gates are lovely, but at this moment in time, the UFC is still a PPV product. Here is where the UFC 205 drama has really picked up. While the allure of the first UFC at MSG may draw an easy, lucrative gate, folks at home aren't going to buy a PPV just to see what the Octagon looks like inside of the Garden. A card headlined by Woodley-Thompson, even with cameos from Weidman, Edgar, Evans and Donald Cerrone, likely isn't more than 400,000 buys. The UFC plan was to make it a title doubleheader, with Eddie Alvarez defending his lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov. At that point, you hope fans feel sated regardless of if Jon Jones is there or how many native New Yorkers are on the bill; no matter what your initial fantasies of UFC 205 were, that's a line-up that approximates a milestone celebration.
Not if you're Alvarez, apparently. For the last week, we've had a social media standoff, as Dana White publicly reiterated that the UFC was pushing for Alvarez-Nurmagomedov, while Alvarez brushed off the claims in favor of calling out Conor McGregor for Nov. 12. Unsurprisingly, “The Notorious” one was highly receptive to the idea of a lightweight title fight at Madison Square Garden.
On Wednesday, after the White-Alvarez-Nurmagomedov-McGregor social media fatal four-way match played out, White went on “UFC Tonight” and said that McGregor was unavailable due to a leg injury. Almost instantly, Ariel Helwani reported that McGregor was healthy, training and wanted the fight. You can add it to your list of times Dana White panicked and potentially lied poorly, a trait that McGregor seems to bring out of him better than anyone.
It's the oversized, hormone-injected cherry on the top of the MMA melodrama sundae and it's a situation the UFC has helped to bring upon itself. McGregor wasn't joking when he said he'd change fighters' lives and make it “red panty night” for them and since the UFC has given its biggest star so much leeway with the direction of his career, every newly-minted champion is either going to try to get a date with McGregor or try to replicate his tactics in another weight range.
White quickly tried to shift the narrative post-lie, saying Alvarez's deadline to fight at 205 had more or less passed, and Alvarez-Nurmagomedov was going to be repurposed as UFC 206's headliner come Dec. 10 in Toronto. Like I said before though, the presser isn't until Tuesday and tickets don't go on sale until Sept. 30; the UFC can be what on whatever fight-making schedule it wants to be.
The UFC acquiescing to McGregor's previous demands has created a world where there's a contendership logjam at 145 and 155 pounds, while divisions like 170 and 185 have exploded on their own, creating a similar backlog of viable title threats waiting for their day in court. To its credit, Zuffa's flexibility with McGregor may make 2016 its biggest year ever on PPV and has led to bazillions of dollars, but now, perhaps spurred on by the impending new WME-IMG ownership, the UFC is trying to take the reins back and the backbone of its product has always been, at least theoretically, promoting its divisional champions against top contenders. The more often they abandon that structure, even if it may be potentially lucrative, they make it harder the next time they need to tell a champion or a superstar who, when and where they're fighting.
It's why when Woodley, never a Dana White favorite, stood up to lobby for admittedly far-fetched bouts with Georges St. Pierre and Nick Diaz, the UFC tried to squelch his narrative as fast as possible. Even after Woodley decided to take the Thompson challenge, his own promoter still felt like twisting the knife in and trying to let him know who was boss:
@UFCFightPass wow really? Show what I did 2 Koscheck, Condit, Kim, Lawler, Daley, Hieron. The disrespect! Also tell about the TRT exemption— Tyron T-Wood Woodley (@TWooodley) September 21, 2016
If the UFC 205 line-up remains as is, with no Alvarez title fight, headlined by Woodley-Thompson, it won't be a PPV blockbuster, but it'll do a big gate and still get major media attention. Just know that McGregor's leg is fine and if the UFC Fight Pass Twitter account suddenly sends out a tweet promoting Donald Cerrone beating up Eddie Alvarez, it's only because the UFC took a look around and startled itself by seeing how much power the inmates now have in its asylum.