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It has been an unusual year in almost every respect, and the world of mixed martial arts is no exception. COVID-19 has shut down promotions, scrapped countless fights and largely removed fans from the equation. That’s the case of course from a live-event standpoint, as fighters now compete in front of small contingents of corners, officials, promoters and media members. It’s also the case when it comes to the cards being put forward.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship managed to return from close to a two-month hiatus in May, it started on a frenzied pace that was unprecedented in MMA history. There was but one goal: fulfill those television contracts. The UFC did not want to lose any of its ESPN money, so it has been cranking out shows at a fevered pace. The quality of the cards hasn’t mattered. The promotion doesn’t need to fill 10,000-seat arenas, and it’s willing to run unmarketable pay-per-views with guaranteed revenues from ESPN on that front. As fights fall through, the promotion simply scrambles to make others.
There can be no breaks, no matter how weak a card gets. COVID-19 already took away too many shows earlier in the year. There can be no rescheduled pay-per-views. There’s no place to move them and no guarantee anyone will be ready by then anyway. The UFC is of course trying to make the best cards it can under the circumstances, and it has put on plenty of high-quality fights given the circumstances, but these cards must take place, whether they are ready or not. We’ve been averaging a card a week since the UFC returned, and the torrent will continue for three more weeks.
We’ve seen unlikely first-time UFC headliners like Aleksandar Rakic, Dan Ige, Augusto Sakai and Angela Hill. Not to be outdone, Felicia Spencer and Alex Perez have main evented pay-per-views, Spencer with a 2-1 UFC record and Perez with one previous main card bout to his credit. It feels like things are only getting more desperate as we move to the final weeks of the year. UFC on ESPN 18 lost its Curtis Blaydes-Derrick Lewis main event the day before. The main event for UFC on ESPN 19 this Saturday went from Jack Hermansson-Darren Till to Hermansson-Kevin Holland to Hermansson-Marvin Vettori.
The next pay-per-view will be the second in a row to be headlined by a title defense in the flyweight division—a weight class that has never been able to gain traction among fans. The original idea was that the talented and dangerous Deiveson Figueiredo would face better-known bantamweight star Cody Garbrandt in a fight that could boost the Brazilian’s notoriety. When Garbrandt had to withdraw, the flyweight headliners continued on despite the lack of a hook to entice the broader fan base to tune in and discover Figueiredo. Now, Figueiredo-Brandon Moreno will take place on three weeks’ notice after title fights in three other divisions fell through.
If there are additional pullouts in the next couple weeks, which certainly wouldn’t be shocking with COVID-19 cases surging, there’s little the UFC can do. It’s running out of middleweights who can be swapped in to fight Hermansson and champions who can be contacted about UFC 256. At this point, the matchmakers can only grit their teeth and hope for the best. Luckily for them, however, the light is coming at the end of the tunnel. If the UFC can just get through these last three cards, its 2020 obligations will be fulfilled. Executives, fighters and fans can take a month’s breather, regroup and return in 2021, when there won’t be the same artificial crunch created by the pandemic-mandated break.
It’s difficult to imagine 2021 won’t be a better year in the world of MMA. With vaccines starting to become available, there’s a good chance fans will return at some point. It could come as soon as UFC 257 in January, when the biggest superstar in the sport, Conor McGregor, will reenter the Octagon. Fighters and their training camps will have experience and knowledge about how to more safely prepare for the remainder of the pandemic.
The UFC itself won’t have to operate at such a breakneck pace in 2021, which made it much harder to fill openings that popped up. It also won’t have to devote the same time and resources to simply figuring out where to run, having found alternate homes at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas and Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. That should make it easier to plan ahead and line up fights with enough notice for the fighters to properly and safely prepare.
The situation will likely get brighter outside the UFC, as well. The Professional Fighters League will return after an extended hiatus. One Championship and Rizin Fighting Federation should have access to foreign stars who haven’t been able to make it to Asia. Bellator MMA, like the UFC, has found a regular home at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut until it is safe to travel again. Lower-level MMA organizations more heavily reliant on live gates will benefit more than the biggest organizations whenever they can run at higher capacity. It has been a brutal stretch for everyone in MMA and for the UFC, in particular, as it has planned 44 shows—this includes Dana White’s Contender Series—in 33 weeks. The good news for everyone involved: In just a few weeks, that run will be complete, and we can look forward to a more promising 2021 for MMA.
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