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UFC Manila cancellation a stark reminder of weak card fragility

BJ Penn is seen during a UFC fight against Frankie Edgar at the TD Garden on Saturday, August 28, 2010 in Boston, MA. Edgar retained his UFC lightweight title via unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
(AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Many of us in the States would have been waking up to an early-morning UFC Fight Night event taking place over in the Philippines Saturday, but it wasn’t meant to be. For the third time in the promotion’s history, an event was cancelled.

Was it cancelled because business dealings went sour? No. Was it cancelled because of some natural disaster completely out of the UFC’s hands? No. UFC Fight Night 97 was cancelled because a single fighter was injured.

On the surface, it sounds preposterous. And in a sense, it is. One fighter gets injured, so a card stacked with eleven fights from top to bottom has to be thrown out entirely? UFC seems to think so, but only due to circumstances which the UFC set up for itself to fail in this fashion.

For all intents and purposes, UFC Fight Night 97 was a one-fight card. Yes, there were 11 fights in total, but only a single fight on the card could be construed as anything resembling a main event-worthy contest. That honor went to the matchup between top-five featherweight Ricardo Lamas and the returning legend and Hall of Famer B.J. Penn.

Except, less than two weeks to fight night, Penn had to pull out due to an injury. Less than 24 hours later, the Oct. 15 Manila event was officially cancelled. A replacement seemingly could not be found to face Lamas, because surely UFC would have opted for a late replacement fighter rather than going through what is undoubtedly a hectic mess of cancelling a major event altogether and dealing with its aftermath coming from a hundred different angles at once.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided except that UFC continues still to plan and book events that are so fragile, its existence hinges on the health of a single fighter.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened. UFC 151 and UFC 177 are voids in the PPV event lineage — cancelled events which fell apart for the exact same reason the Manila event did. The main event fights in both cases lost a fighter — Dan Henderson falling out of his scheduled light heavyweight title fight with Jon Jones and Jose Aldo falling out of his featherweight title defense against Chad Mendes — and it caused the whole card to be cancelled.

It almost happened again too between then and now. A lot of people may not remember, but what we recognize as UFC 196 today is a completely different event than it was originally intended. Today, we remember UFC 196 as the night Nate Diaz upset Conor McGregor in a PPV blockbuster event. But once upon a time, UFC 196 was supposed to feature the rematch between then-champ Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez. Velasquez pulled out due to injury less than two weeks before fight night, and even though UFC replaced him with Stipe Miocic, Werdum pulled out shortly after with his own injuries.

The heavyweight title fight was cancelled, but instead of cancelling the event altogether, UFC downgraded the card to air on FS1. Today we remember it as UFC Fight Night 82 when Stephen Thompson blasted through Johny Hendricks.

It’s not as if injuries in MMA are some rare occurrence either. If anyone knows that, it is the UFC. Try finding a UFC event that did not feature at least one fight being altered due to an injury at some point for the last several years. I dare you.

It does not help that UFC has consistently been putting on more and more fight cards with each passing year; almost to the point where more than a one-week break between events is rare, and sometimes no break at all. By default, fight cards are going to be diluted. But that is another matter altogether.

Not to mention, with the recent UFC sale, the new owners have put themselves in quite a financial hole. Given the $4.2 billion price tag and the amount which was borrowed to meet those numbers, the new owners face a high yearly goal of revenue that must be reached simply to break even, let alone make a profit. And with such a motivating factor, we are almost undoubtedly not going to see any decrease in the amount of events put on; perhaps even an increase in 2017.

Ultimately, a set of circumstances have been created which do not brighten the future with regards to the UFC’s test of luck time and time again on that tightrope walk. Not only does the UFC continue to flirt with fragile fight cards too reliant on a single fight, but all the signs seem to point to a future filled with more risk taking, rather than less.

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