The first indication that the UFC's second Dublin event was in trouble came when Stipe Miocic had to pull out from the scheduled co-main against Ben Rothwell, just under two weeks out. The second came when Joseph Duffy was pulled a bit later.
That Duffy was pulled was disappointing, but Zuffa's decision to pull him is genuinely worth praise. Concussion-based injuries have proven to be some of the nastiest going in recent years: Alpha Male prospect and TUF winner Chris Holdsworth and once-#1 contender at lightweight TJ Grant have essentially disappeared from the sport for months, even years, following persistent concussion symptoms. That the UFC was willing to self-regulate and pull the biggest home draw from an already-damaged card to hopefully stop this kind of thing from happening again deserves to be lauded.
So in the broader picture, it's a good move. Down in the details, the way it was handled is a tiny bit more murky. Duffy was apparently injured on the last day of sparring, without actually specifying when said day of sparring was. At one of the most careful, conscientious camps around, like Firas Zahabi's Tristar, it seems a little unlikely that they would have been sparring quite as late as a few days before the fight, but that's when the news was broken to the public.
Duffy was the centerpiece of the card, and the later a central pull-out arrives, the less likely the buying public are to cancel. It's possible to get a ticket refund for the UFC, but many of the ticket holders have booked flights, trains, hotels. Given advance notice, fans might be able to cancel some of these, but if the fight is off at the last minute, they may just decide to make the most of it. Before someone officially pulls out, the promotional materials which have been created for them can still be used in "good faith". A promoter can wait around and hope that an injured fighter will miraculously get better.
Essentially in these kind of situations, as in the Aldo-Mendes-McGregor situation of, there is a clear incentive on the promoter to sit on the change of fight for as long as possible.
As said, overall the UFC made the most important decision, which was to pull Duffy at (let's not forget) a sizable cost to the organization and the card they put on. It's just worth noting that there might have been a little wiggle room inside of that good decision.
As it turned out, an Irish fanbase who had every right to be infuriated instead came out in force and ready for a good time. Some events develop something like a personality as they go on, as the atmosphere generated between fans and fighters takes on its own flavor (for example, look at how freakishly violent the testosterone-laden Fight for the Troops cards have tended to be).
The Dublin card's personality was shot through with can-do honesty, a sort of Blitz spirit of just getting on and making the best of things. When Neil Seery put Jon Delos Reyes away with a second round guillotine choke, he confessed that he knew he couldn't make it to a title shot at his age. Paddy Holohan, his eye already starting to swell from the barrage of ground and pound Louis Smolka had put on him, said "I never said I'm the best, but I fight my heart out every time."
It all made a refreshing change from the traditional monotone bounced between fighters and the organization about how everyone is the best, and everyone's on their way to the belt. A reciprocal generosity suffused the event from start to finish.
Many of the fighters will simply never get to be in front of a crowd like the Dublin faithful on Saturday night. Gareth McLellan and Bubba Bush opened up the preliminary card. They're not big names in any sense, and they weren't even Irish, and got an incredible response regardless. Dana White reiterated that the Irish are the best fans in the world, and it's starting to look like it's true.
The worrying idea is that the UFC brass starts to believe that the Irish will just take whatever is put in front of them, and that their goodwill is indestructible rather than being a precious and finite resource. Those fans made the best of this event, sure, but that doesn't mean that they appreciated being delivered a crippled version of what wasn't a particularly strong card in the first place.
Too big for Ireland?
The UFC's current and past strategies don't really point towards a great promotional future for places like Ireland. The traditional UFC model in new markets involves them stacking an initial card, getting as many fans on board as possible, and then progressively watering down the cards on return journeys. UFC 134's Rio crowd was "the loudest" Dana White had heard, but return trips to Brazil have increasingly resembled Jungle Fights. Other markets like England have seen cards go from a Rampage-Henderson title fight back in UFC 75 to less relevant fare. In addition, as Bleacher Report's Patrick Wyman has pointed out, the UFC is increasingly embracing a strategy of differentiation; less events, more concentration of stars, more tentpoles. It's a strategy which could leave the smaller markets on the outside.
There's a particularly concerning point for the Irish here: the biggest English star has always been Michael Bisping, who was a staple of their events for a while. However, he's been absent from British cards since 2010, in part because he was simply too big and the UFC wanted a reliable mid-level draw to bolster cards in breakthrough areas or plump up the bigger US events.
The Irish are starving for a McGregor return, but there's a real chance that the UFC never puts McGregor on in his home country again, or at least until he's well into his fighting dotage. There are are economic realities at play: McGregor is too big of a star to be allowed on anything but on pay-per-view. To be on PPV means that the card will have to take place late at night- in the UK and Ireland, a traditional main card starts at 3 am. This will probably put pressure on ticket sales, which in turn probably won't be as expensive as the Vegas tickets that Zuffa knows that McGregor could sell anyway. In Vegas and around the US they have well-oiled infrastructure and comfortable promotional partners.
There is a possibility that the UFC sticks with what it knows, and that it keeps McGregor on the big US cards. "Croke Park" could become part of the UFC promotional lexicon in the same way that "Cowboys Stadium" and "Super fight" are: an illusory carrot in front of an increasingly disillusioned audience.
However, the UFC has long prided itself on the experience it provides; how an event is An Event, with a pronounced dependence on intangibles. With respect to intangibles, the Irish have proven themselves to be something special; a fanbase who can take a minor event and inject it with big-fight atmosphere. Like a fighter who steps in at last minute and overperforms, they deserve a step up, to see what they can really do.