104. No I'm not talking about the amount of F-bombs Dana White drops during an average interview, nor am I alluding to the number of seconds it allegedly took Ronda Rousey to armbar professional boxer Vic Darchinyan when the two tested their skills against one another in a gym sometime late last year (the correct number in the latter case was reportedly closer to five according to MMAFighting.com's Dave Meltzer).
Unfortunately - much to the chagrin of everyone at Zuffa - 104 is an approximate tally of all the training injuries sustained by UFC and Strikeforce fighters during the year 2012. Living through the past year in real time it was easy to become numb to the steady stream of injuries that plagued nearly every card Zuffa announced, but there's something about looking at the total number in all its three digit infamy that makes the enormity of the injury epidemic really sink in. That's a lot of cancelled fights.
Nothing is quite as vexing as a problem with no apparent solution, but that's just what the injury bug presents to the higher ups at Zuffa. Short of putting a clause in all future contracts mandating fighters train in a cage full of packing peanuts and requiring them to wear full body armor made of bubble wrap at all times, there isn't much the UFC can do to cut down on people getting hurt and pulling out of fights. Like it or not, this is probably the new normal.
One of the unforeseen side-effects of the evolution of MMA has been a concomitant rise in the rate of injuries. Not only are the stakes much higher with the UFC being the only big money game in town, but a general elevation of the talent pool has also led to an arms race of sorts where fighters overtrain to avoid coming in unprepared against equally talented opponents who are also overdoing it in training. Nobody wants to be caught slipping when there's so much riding on every single fight, so if your opponent is giving it 110% you had better be giving at least 111%.
Unfortunately, this mindset leads to fighters pushing their bodies beyond the breaking point. The result are torn ACLs, blown shoulders, bulging discs, scratched fights, headaches for Zuffa brass, and a general dilution of cards leading to decreased fan enthusiasm. None of these are good things.
The injury with undoubtedly the worst impact on UFC business in 2012 actually occurred in late 2011 when welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre blew out his ACL in training. GSP is the biggest draw in MMA so it was obviously a huge financial and logistical blow to the UFC for him to be on the shelf for most of the year.
GSP wasn't the only champion on ice during 2012 though. Bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz didn't fight once all year thanks to a torn ACL he suffered preparing for a UFC 148 date with rival Urijah Faber. Things weren't much better in the featherweight division, where Jose Aldo only defended his title once thanks to an undisclosed training injury he sustained in June and then getting in a motorcycle accident while zipping around the notoriously chaotic streets of Rio de Janeiro in September. Meanwhile over on the Strikeforce roster, champions Luke Rockhold and Gilbert Melendez were also forced to take extended time off due to injuries. The Melendez injury led to the cancellation of a Sept. 29 Strikeforce card in Sacramento when Showtime opted not to televise the show without El Nino in the main event.
The effects of the injury epidemic were even more pronounced when you look at the number of main events lost due to injury in 2012. There were ten injuries to fighters scheduled for a main event on a Zuffa show last year: Vitor Belfort (UFC 147), Brian Stann (UFC on FOX 4), Jose Aldo (UFC 149 and UFC 153), Rory MacDonald (UFC 152), Dan Henderson (UFC 151), Erik Koch (UFC 153), Frank Mir (Strikeforce: Cormier vs. Mir), Gilbert Melendez (Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Healey) and Shane Carwin (TUF: 16 Finale). This is in addition to eight co-main events scratched when one of the combatants got hurt.
While all these scratched main and co-main events were undoubtedly bad for business, none could match the disastrous effects of Dan Henderson pulling out of UFC 151 due to a torn MCL in his knee. This was the first domino that fell in a chain of events that would see light heavyweight champion Jon Jones turn down a short notice fight with Chael Sonnen and the UFC react by cancelling UFC 151 mere days before the show. Zuffa took it on the chin with the cancellation to the tune of somewhere around $20 million, but it's impossible to calculate what kind of hit they took in terms of goodwill amongst customers who had already paid for airfare and hotel to come see UFC 151 live in Vegas.
In a business that depends on convincing fans to pay large sums of money to attend shows live and putting on cards attractive enough to get them to open up their wallets and shell out $60 for pay per view, forging a bond of trust with your customer base is essential. Fans need to be assured that spending upwards of $1000 to fly out and attend a show live won't be rewarded by a lackluster card in the vein of UFC 149 or a weekend spent wandering around smoke filled Vegas casinos wondering what could have been like with the UFC 151 debacle. Personally, I think I'd be hesitant to give the UFC - and especially champion Jon Jones - my money again if I had been unfortunate enough to throw down hundreds of dollars flying out to Vegas for UFC 151.
While it's not outside the realm of possibility to think an injury to a fighter main eventing a show with a weak undercard could cause another cancellation in the future, UFC 151 was likely a one time aberration. However, odds are there will be more cards like the weak UFC 147 and the utterly decimated UFC 149 in store this year.
A mere three days into 2013 and we've already seen Erick Silva scratched from UFC 156 and Justin Salas pull out of UFC on FX 7 due to injury. Dana White is kidding himself if he thinks last year's injury bug was the result of bad luck or a voodoo curse. Something's got to give when you combine an injury epidemic that shows no signs of abating with a roster stretched wafer thin over an expanding schedule of shows. If the UFC doesn't figure out something quick to staunch the bleeding caused by the injury problem - whether that be a decreased schedule or some countermeasure to address the issue of overtraining - that something just might be an erosion in fan interest.
I began working on a table of all injured UFC and Strikeforce fighters back in the middle of December, but while I was busy Monday figuring out how to create an Excel spreadsheet and import it onto a website - final verdict: it can't be done by someone who doesn't understand programing - SB Nation blog member Sexytime posted an excellent and comprehensive list of every alteration to a card in 2012 due to injury (and other reasons as well). Alas, I done got scooped.
However, my chart is slightly different in that it's organized in chronological order rather than by event, and it only accounts for injuries sustained in 2012 (i.e. GSP isn't on the list even though his December 2011 ACL tear caused him to pull out of a show in February of 2012). Cheers to Sexytime for finding a few fighters I didn't notice in my initial research such as Byron Bloodworth and Siyar Bahadurzada.
In the table below, all champions are highlighted in yellow, main events in red, and co-main events in blue. In the case of champions being pulled from main events, precedence was given to championship status since the loss of a champion could potentially mean multiple main events lost for the year.
Since it appears to be impossible to imbed spreadsheets in Fanposts, I have included a link to my table as a Google document below.
Look for more year in review columns from me over the next few days.
Follow me on Twitter @BorchardtMMA