How much does a favor in the fight business weigh? Can you change it into cash? Or tuck it away for a rainy day?
Can you eat that favor? Or does it have an expiration date stamped on it - especially when it comes from the UFC?
The way the MMA business works, more often than not, at least one fighter on a scheduled card is forced off due to an injury that is too severe to ignore. Most times, a replacement fighter will be found and the re-configured match will go on. The usual pattern for replacement fighters is that they get a follow-up fight somewhere down the line as a "thank you for the favor" match - even if they lose. That type of quid pro quo keeps the replacement fighters willing to step up and take tough matches or endure difficult weight cuts to make the show go on right.
Sometimes, a fighter will get injured in an inconvenient time to find a proper replacement and the bout gets postponed or scrapped entirely. It looked like the injury to Pascal Krauss, just 14 days before the bout against Gunnar Nelson was scheduled to occur (and 13 days before the weigh-in), was one of those inconvenient ones. However, Joe Silva and the talent scouts at Zuffa Headquarters found not one, but two fighters that were willing to accept the fight.
Rich Attonito was approached to be the replacement for Krauss. However, after a day of back and forth regarding the ability to make the 170 pound limit or a proposed 175 pound limit, Attonito was out of the UFC entirely and DaMarques Johnson was in. Johnson was one month and change removed from a KO loss to Mike Swick on August 4th and was clearly doing the UFC (and his own wallet) a favor - as Attonito was intending to do.
Johnson had twelve days to drop enough weight and to get some semblance of a training camp in, while dealing with the media requests, daily life and the logistics of getting ready to fight in Nottingham, England 5000 miles away from his home. He ended up being 8 pounds over at the weigh-ins and 20% of his purse was given to Gunnar Nelson. Johnson would lose the fight to Nelson in short order and seemed a bit downbeat, but cheerful regarding his future prospects.
This week, the news hit that Johnson was released and Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com caught an ultra-rare interview with Joe Silva about it. A few pull quotes from that interview had me reacting in different ways at different times:
"I thought it was incredibly unfair to Gunnar Nelson to fight someone that much larger than him," Silva said. "Johnson told me he could make the weight. He's not doing me a favor if he missed weight because I could have gotten someone else who would have made the weight.
"I never pressure anyone to take late notice fights. I got a bunch of guys who want to fight. If one says no, I will find someone else. No problem."
Seems straightforwards, but once you realize the full situation, things get murkier.
In particular, I refer to what went on with Attonito, as it puts the above in a bit of an odd light. Attonito said "Yes, but I can't make either the weight or the catchweight." within a day of saying "Yes." So Joe Silva cut him. That's sort of understandable, if a bit harsh.
However, Joe then called DaMarques Johnson's manager and both offered the fight and told him about what just happened to Attonito. Helwani confirms this chain of events with both Joe Silva and the managers of the fighters:
When Krauss pulled out of UFC on FUEL TV 5 [due to an injury suffered on September 15th], Silva offered Rich Attonito the fight against Nelson via Attonito's manager Dan Lambert. Lambert spoke to the American Top Team fighter, who agreed to take the welterweight bout [on September 15th].
The next day, Lambert called Silva to tell him Attonito said he would not be able to make the 170-pound weight limit on short notice. Silva then offered him the opportunity to take the fight at a 175-pound catch weight, which both Attonito and Nelson, through his manager and father Haraldur Nelson, agreed to. The next day [September 17th], Lambert called Silva back again to inform him that Attonito would not be able to make the 175-pound catch weight either. As a result, Silva decided to release Attonito from his contract.
Lambert confirmed with MMAFighting.com that series of events.
Silva then offered the fight to Johnson [on September 17th], through his manager Monte Cox. When Cox called Silva back to tell him Johnson agreed to take the fight at 170 pounds, Silva said he told Cox about the Attonito release and wanted him to tell Johnson what had just happened as well. Cox did just that.
Later that day, Silva saw Johnson at The Ultimate Fighter 17 tryouts in Las Vegas. He said he thanked Johnson for taking the fight but also noticed that he looked heavier than usual. A couple of hours later, Johnson told Silva that he weighed 210 pounds and didn't think he could make 170 pounds. Silva then offered him a 175-pound catch weight fight against Nelson, which both fighters agreed to.
So what does Johnson do in that situation? He's hearing about this from his manager who has it direct from Joe Silva, who appears to be in a "Do not mess with me" mode.
If Johnson says "No" to the fight, the Attonito cut shows him that he runs the considerable risk of getting cut or perhaps excoriated in public by the official faces of the UFC like Jon Jones was in the UFC 151 aftermath. If he says "Yes" to Joe, but admits that he can't make the welterweight limit, he's cut. If he misses the weight somewhat and loses the fight (which he did), he might not be cut because a similar thing happened when he lost to Matt Riddle in 2010 after not making weight. He wasn't cut then and had six more fights in the UFC. The only hypotheticals we haven't covered are if he makes the weight and loses or if he misses the weight and wins, Anthony Johnson style.
The stance Joe Silva and the UFC are apparently taking with the Attonito and Johnson releases is "If you say 'Yes' to a fight, don't tell us you can't make weight." That's somewhat reasonable. However, the second guy Joe Silva asked to step in was coming off a very recent KO loss, was willing to do this on less than two weeks notice and has multiple exciting fights (all ten fights Johnson has had in the UFC have been a "finish or be finished" fight with none making it to the third round). Do none of the above facts actually matter? Is the stance more important than paying back a favor? It seems to be.
Most importantly, if Joe Silva has a ton of guys he can call to fill an empty slot, why is an obviously not in top condition DaMarques the second guy on the list? There's something off about this. Maybe there's more to the story than we're hearing here. Maybe Joe was guided towards DaMarques by a word in his ear. We don't know. All we've got is what's before us and it is plain weird.
If indicative of a pattern, this cut points towards a colder Zuffa going forwards. That is the prerogative of Dana White, Joe Silva, Sean Shelby, Lorenzo Fertitta and the other decisionmakers there, but it should serve as a wake-up call to fighters on the verge.
In the end, it looks like a Zuffa favor is like the a reverse version of the imaginary food Peter Pan's Lost Boys eat.
You can dream it up every night and find it soul satisfying - but only as long as they believe in it.
Bangarang, DaMarques, Bangarang.