Dan Henderson’s knee injury led to the cancellation of UFC 151. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
On Aug. 23, 2012, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s injury woes went from consistent, card-altering annoyance to full-blown catastrophe in the span of one historic, 32-minute conference call.
Prior to that late summer day, the Las Vegas-based promotion had held 214 events, starting with UFC 1 “The Beginning” on Nov. 12, 1993 in Denver and ending with UFC 150 -- also in the Mile High City -- nearly two weeks earlier. During that 7,152 day period, the UFC never had to cancel an event. Once a venue was booked and a fight card was filled, nothing -- not weather, not withdrawal, not lack of interest -- could stop the Zuffa train from rolling along as scheduled.
That all changed in August, when UFC President Dana White announced that his organization would not be heading to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Sept. 1 as originally planned. Thanks to a torn medial collateral ligament in Dan Henderson’s right knee and Jon Jones’ unwillingness to face an opportunistic Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice, UFC 151 was left without a suitable main event, as the co-feature pitting Jake Ellenberger against Jay Hieron was deemed unfit for headliner status.
“This is probably one of my all-time lows as being president of the UFC,” White said. “For the first time in 11 years, we’re going to cancel an event. This Saturday’s fight at Mandalay Bay is being canceled. Dan Henderson tried to train, he continued to work and saw a doctor, but there was nothing we could do to save that fight.
“Chael Sonnen stepped up and accepted the fight with Jon Jones last night. As of 8 p.m. last night, we thought we had a fight fans would love to see. Then at about 9 p.m., the one thing I never thought would happen in a million years happened,” he added. “Jon Jones said, ‘I won’t fight Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice.’ That has never happened in the history of the UFC, a guy who is a champion and a guy who is supposed to be one of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound, refuses to fight.”
In any other time, the cancellation of an entire fight card would easily be the top story of a calendar year. However, 2012 was not any other year. Temporarily lost amid White’s diatribe directed at Jones and trainer Greg Jackson was the fact that a Henderson knee injury triggered a chain reaction that ultimately led to UFC 151 becoming little more than a numerical placeholder in the promotion’s timeline of events.
If “Hendo” had been more fortunate in training camp, would White have bestowed the title of “sport killer” upon Jackson? Maybe not, although White has been at odds with Jackson on more than one occasion. If Josh Koscheck, Ellenberger’s original opponent at UFC 151, not injured his back, would a bout between Koscheck and Ellenberger have been deemed a worthy replacement main event? That question will remain unanswered.
What we do know is that injuries dominated the MMA headlines prior to the cancellation of UFC 151, and they continued to remain an issue through UFC 155, the final event of 2012. Bout cancellations became nearly as commonplace as bout agreements, and the list of matches lost could easily stock one star-studded card, if not more.
With that in mind, injuries are the runaway winner for Sherdog.com’s 2012 “Story of the Year” honors. Without the ailments, mishaps and accidents that plagued fighters, fans and promoters alike for the past 365 days, it is possible that the MMA landscape would look entirely different heading into 2013.
The year got off to a relatively smooth start, until bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz tore his anterior-cruciate ligament while training for a third meeting with Urijah Faber at UFC 148. Making matters worse was that the injury occurred during Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the only iteration of the show to air live since it began in 2005. The canceled bout between the rival coaches overshadowed anything else that happened on the program.
“[I’m] bummed people. [Thanks for] the support as I battle this, big sorry to all the fans out there! I will recover [and] I will [be] back [to] put on a show!” Cruz wrote on his Twitter account in May.
“The Dominator” will not be putting on a show for anyone anytime soon, however, as the champion underwent a second knee surgery in December after his body rejected the cadaver’s ACL he originally received. That complication means interim titlist Renan “Barao” Pegado will be defending his crown against Michael McDonald in February instead of waiting for Cruz to return as he first intended.
Pegado captured the belt by beating Faber at UFC 149 -- an event that captured the organization’s year-long injury issues in a nutshell. Mauricio Rua, Thiago Alves, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Siyar Bahadurzada, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Michael Bisping, Thiago Silva, Erik Koch and Jose Aldo were all expected to compete in Calgary, Alberta, Canada at one time or another. The promotion did its best to fill in the blanks when needed, but when all was said and done, UFC 149 ended up being one of the year’s least memorable events.
“We broke the gate record here tonight and I’m embarrassed by it,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “The undercard delivered, they were awesome; the main card did not. I felt like I was at UFC 33 again. When we [first] announced the card at the press conference, we announced Jose Aldo. That’s what we announced, and that was when tickets went on sale. Then we built a card that people were happy about, and every guy got injured. It is what it is.”
Bad luck continued to follow Aldo. His bout with Koch was rescheduled for UFC 153, but “New Breed” withdrew from the contest in August. Aldo was instead paired with Frankie Edgar, who was making his featherweight debut after an impressive run at 155 pounds. It appeared that this time an injury would yield a more attractive alternative matchup than the original -- at least until the 145-pound king hurt his foot in a motorcycle accident a little more than a month before UFC 153.
“I tried everything until the last second to be inside the Octagon, but it didn’t happen,” Aldo told Sherdog.com. “Hopefully the UFC keeps this opponent and postpones this meeting, because I really want to face him.”
No problem there. At that point, UFC officials were well-versed in the art of postponing and reshuffling fights, and the Brazilian is now set to meet Edgar at UFC 156, health willing. Meanwhile, Anderson Silva and Stephan Bonnar played the role of company men, stepping in to fill the void on the Oct. 13 card that Aldo’s absence had created. While Silva earned a laughably one-sided victory in Rio de Janeiro, it sure beat the alternative: another canceled event.
When UFC 151 was scrapped, it was supposed to be an unprecedented occurrence. About a month later, it became run-of-the-mill when Zuffa-owned promotion Strikeforce canceled its Sept. 29 card in Sacramento, Calif. This time the culprit was Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, who injured his shoulder during training camp. Without “El Nino” as the featured attraction, premium network Showtime said “no thanks” to the rest of the card, presumably deciding that reruns of “Real Steel” were more attractive than live sports programming.
“When Showtime informed us that it would not be airing the event, we made the difficult decision to cancel Saturday’s card in Sacramento,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker stated in a release. “Without a television partner, we simply could not move forward with this event.”
More ailments made sure Strikeforce would not move forward with its Nov. 3 offering, either. On Jan. 12, the California-based promotion will have its last hurrah in Oklahoma City before closing up shop for good. Two title bouts have already been removed from the bill due to injury.
To truly and comprehensively cover how many events and fighters have been affected by the 2012 injury bug would be a formidable task. The reality is that there are no simple answers that can address the UFC’s -- and MMA’s -- injury epidemic.
Is the Zuffa fighter insurance policy to blame? If so, should more fighters compete at far less than 100 percent, as many did before said policy was implemented? Or should fighters simply tone down the intensity of their camps and play it safe to stay healthy?
“It’s hard to put that on the fighters,” Melendez told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “You can’t just spar light and go out there and perform like crap.”
Perhaps market saturation is to blame instead. The UFC’s seven-year deal with Fox calls for live sports content across a variety of networks. As a result, breaks between events are scarce. Thanks to social media and the information age, bouts are rarely kept secret. That, in turn, leads to that much more disappointment when they fail to come to fruition.
“One of the reasons I think we hear about so many injuries is because there are so many fights and so many cards,” FightMedicine.net’s Dr. Jonathan Gelber said during a recent interview on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Rewind” show. “It used to be when Zuffa first was putting out the UFC in the earlier days you had maybe three or four cards a year. Now you have three or four cards a month. There’s that many more guys training.
“There’s that many more guys getting injured and there’s that much more news we’re hearing about it,” he added. “And because the cards aren’t as stacked as they used to be, all you have to do is look at the Henderson-Jon Jones debacle to see how one main event being canceled can affect an entire card. I think there always were injuries. It’s just that there’s more people out there, more cards, and more injuries are a natural result of that.”
Gelber has a point. The sport is bigger than it has ever been, with more athletes competing. One can only hope that the year gone by is an aberration and not a sign of things to come. As it stands, 2013 already looks promising, with six title bouts on the horizon in the first quarter of the year alone. By now, seasoned fight fans should be wise enough to heed the fine print: Card Subject to Change.