Dustin Poirier decided to err on the side of caution and the side of history. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
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It’s disappointing and even a tad nauseating that Dustin Poirier isn’t going to fight Joseph Duffy on Saturday in Ireland, but the MMA community by and large seems to agree that Poirier made the prudent, professional decision in not accepting a new opponent on less than a week’s notice. In a sport where “This UFC card needs to be saved!” is a common narrative, it’s refreshing to witness MMA as a whole co-sign on Poirier’s difficult decision. That being said, to be surprised by Poirier’s decision or its general acceptance is to forget what year we’re in and where the Ultimate Fighting Championship is at as a promotion.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’m hard-pressed to believe that Poirier’s choice would be as well-received if this was a pay-per-view card and he were a UFC champion or star of note. Poirier is not Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor or Jon Jones -- the sorts of polarizing athletes whose crucial decisions create real drama and backlash. This is a UFC Fight Pass card, headlined by two offensively gifted lightweight prospects in Dublin; Poirier’s call to not fight is not without consequences, but it’s not exactly going to stir up a sports talk hornet’s nest; and given the scope and size of the card, it’s not as though the UFC is going to back up the Brinks truck to Poirier’s door to reconstitute an event of this scale.
The notion of “card saving” in MMA is almost entirely embedded in the history of the Zuffa-era UFC, but it’s also a concept largely rooted in the past. We are three years past the UFC 151 meltdown, where Dan Henderson got hurt and Jones balked at fighting Chael Sonnen on a week’s notice. The only cards that would ever need “saving” in the current constellation of UFC events are PPVs and perhaps live Fox cards; and as the promotion moves toward stacking larger, strategically chosen tentpole events to spike buy rate numbers, the amount of cards that would ever require “saving” shrinks. This is not to say there are not desperate, bare bones UFC cards, but rather there are a very select few events Zuffa would worry about giving emergency treatment to. If it’s a Fight Pass or Fox Sports 1 card, the tickets to the venue are already sold and any broadcast residuals are already headed to the bank account. There simply isn’t much to be gained from saving the “life” of a card like Poirier-Duffy.
After all, if every card was created equal and a Fight Pass event mattered as much, the UFC would have made a balls-to-the-wall, hyper-concerted effort to replace Stipe Miocic after he fell out of his bout with Ben Rothwell over a week ago. Instead, the promotion couldn’t get Rothwell an opponent, the fight was pulled and Miocic was put into a UFC 195 bout with Andrei Arlovski -- a de facto title eliminator. While we should also consider the enormous task of finding a credible heavyweight on two weeks’ notice, it’s even more noteworthy to ponder the geographical dilemma. In 2015, the UFC is an international big-top circus, and most fighters are much more wary of a late-notice fight flying some stretch around the globe, especially if it’s non-compulsory. Any international UFC card that falls apart is going to be more difficult to rebuild, especially on short notice, and that’s without considering that many of the UFC’s international locales, like Brazil and Australia, require visas. This isn’t 2005; Joe Silva and Sean Shelby will have more questions for your manager than “Do they have their medicals done and do they want to go to Las Vegas?”
And what of the cards that do matter, the cards that Zuffa will try to raise from the dead? Trying to play superhero still might be a fool’s errand. We’re talking about mere days in Poirier’s case, but Chad Mendes had nearly three weeks to prepare for McGregor after stepping in for Jose Aldo at UFC 189. Sure, ingratiating yourself to Zuffa via company loyalty and being the “team player” who is willing to step into a marquee fight has paid historical dividends to the likes of Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Forrest Griffin and others. However, you ask anyone with a clue, Mendes included, if that was the right decision and you’re likely to get a negative answer.
Poirier says the only replacement opponent offered to him was Norman Parke. Stylistically, that is a preferable fight for Poirier. Parke is decently well-rounded southpaw with high-output boxing, but Poirier is the far more dynamic property with real fight-finishing ability. It’s a fight in which Poirier would be favored on short notice, even if he wasn’t training for a bout already. To my mind, that makes it all the more commendable that he passed on the contest. Discretion is the better part of valor for a fighter like Poirier, who is finally coming into his own back at 155 pounds and, more importantly, has historically hit stumbling blocks in his World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC tenures whenever he started to put together a few wins.
Poirier is 26 years old, but he has been fighting professionally since he was a teenager. I watched this man collapse and sob in his mother’s arms in a hotel elevator bay in Fairfax, Va., after losing his 2012 “Fight of the Year” to Chan Sung Jung. Poirier grew up wanting to be a fighter, and for his whole adult life, he has been. Fighters like Liddell and Hughes, who exemplify undying fealty to the UFC, came of age in an MMA era in which there was less money at stake and the sport was still generally a clandestine pursuit. By the time “The Ultimate Fighter” era took hold and they started making more serious cash, guys like that felt like they were playing with house money.
Fighters that comprise the subsequent generation -- guys like Poirier and, to a more notably youthful extent, a fighter like Sage Northcutt -- have spent the majority of their lives dreaming about being a UFC champion. UFC champions don’t spend training camps doing barn roofing jobs or show up to the Octagon with torn ACLs any more, like Hughes and Liddell. A loss in the UFC now is more deleterious to your career than at any time in history; even with the company hacking down the roster by 50 fighters this week, it is still bigger than ever and any setback drops you further back in an ever-expanding line of contenders. Years ago, by win four or five of Jon Fitch’s eight-fight winning streak in the UFC, the MMA populace was screaming for him to get a title shot. Today, that whole damn eight-fight winning streak might barely get you onto a main card. The career impact of an average win in the UFC has been drastically diluted, but unfortunately, the going rate for a loss has only gotten costlier.
The UFC 151 debacle and Jones’ decision to not fight Sonnen on a week’s notice is a bellwether moment in mixed martial arts, but it is a curious example nonetheless because of the competitive difference between the two. When Sonnen eventually did fight Jones, the extent of his offense was somehow forcing Jones to accidentally de-glove his metatarsal bones. If they had fought on a week’s notice, “Jonny Bones” likely would have trashed Sonnen regardless. Fortunately, there are pieces of MMA history that do inform of us of how quickly everything can crash and burn in the “card saving” scenario.
Four years ago in Pittsburgh, on the same card in which Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry offered their violent gong show for the ages, Rick Story was soundly defeated via unanimous decision by mop-topped high school Spanish teacher Charlie Brenneman. The original co-headliner for the event was set to be Anthony Johnson-Nate Marquardt, but Johnson suffered a rotator cuff injury three weeks out, leaving Story to step in. Not only did Story step into the bout on short notice, but when Marquardt wasn't cleared to fight on weigh-in day -- effectively, the first spark in the testosterone replacement therapy firestorm in MMA -- Story then accepted a replacement bout on a day’s notice with Brenneman. “The Spaniard” had been training to fight T.J. Grant before the Canadian pulled out due to illness a week prior.
It was a stylistic switch that seemed to suit Story: Brenneman was a fairly one-dimensional wrestler with good top-position grappling and a suspect chin, while Story was and still is a physical brute, with tough wrestling and heavy punching. With the bout retooled, Story opened as a -300 favorite approximately, but within 24 hours, he had been bet on so heavily that he was over -600 on some books. When they entered the cage, Brenneman outwrestled Story for the first 10 minutes, won 29-28 scorecards and threw his six-fight UFC winning streak out the window.
It took Story over three damn years to record back-to-back wins in the UFC, including a 3-5 stretch that began with the Brenneman fight and ended with his March 2014 loss to Kelvin Gastelum. Story is not a bad fighter by any means; he’s a fairly competitive fighter in a frighteningly deep weight class, which is more or less the same predicament in which Poirier found himself. Poirier- Duffy was a serviceable main event for a UFC Fight Pass card in Dublin, and it’s a shame we can’t enjoy it, at least not yet. The very run-up to this ill-fated card reminds us that MMA is governed by cruel gods and that things fall apart in a hurry, so it’s only sensible that Poirier would come down, not just on the side of caution but of history.
“Card saving” isn’t entirely antiquated, but it is 2015 and not every UFC card warrants saving. No doubt about it, sometime soon, a fighter will dare to play savior for a UFC event, but when he or she does so, it will likely be for a pay-per-view or network television card; it will probably involve a title shot or a similarly high-stakes affair; and it will be a calculated gamble with a potential reward commensurate with the ever-crippling impact of a loss in the Octagon. It almost certainly will not be anyone tripping over themselves to potentially lose to Parke, streaming live on your computer screen.