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UFC 257 Poirier v McGregor: Weigh-Ins

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Let there be ringers: Why the UFC needs a better backup fighter plan

The UFC needs a more consistent backup fighter plan.

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Max Holloway and Yair Rodriguez is officially on the books. This past Thursday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced the tantalizing featherweight showdown as the main event for its July 17 card in Last Vegas.

After fans’ immediate excitement subsided, the very real thought that the bout could somehow disintegrate led to the classic, contemporary cries of “Put it in bubble wrap!”. Obviously, it’s a cute turn of phrase MMA folk now use to reference the often star-crossed circumstances of certain fights, leading to their dissolution due to injury, drug test failure or more recently, COVID-19. That said, is there anything the UFC can realistically do to protect its July 17 headliner?

I would argue that there is, and we need look no further than another nugget of news from last week. A day after the announcement of Holloway-Rodriguez, it was revealed via UFC President Dana White that the company is actively searching for a potential “backup fighter” for the UFC 264 main event, the anticipated rubber match between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, slated for July 10. Given that UFC 264 could surpass the previous McGregor-Poirier 2 fight at UFC 257 — which did an estimated 1.6 million pay-per-view buys — as the most lucrative card this year, the promotion would obviously be wise to safeguard against any potential catastrophe.

“I’m actually looking for someone right now to be the backup on that card,” White told Bleacher Report. “Nobody’s jumping out. Nobody’s kicking my door down.”

Now, whether you believe White’s rhetoric that “nobody’s jumping out” in a division as talented as lightweight and his classic “nobody’s kicking my door down” invective is irrelevant. What’s important here is that it shows the UFC’s willingness to take precautionary measures when there’s a lot at stake in a particular fight. While Holloway-Rodriguez isn’t a pay-per-view headliner – or a pay-per-view bout at all – the bout still holds a particular importance that warrants similar provisions.

UFC 251: Volkanovski v Holloway Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

While Holloway-Rodriguez likely won’t determine the next challenger for champion Alexander Volkanovski – after all, Holloway has already lost to him twice – it still comes at a critical point for two popular, exciting fixtures of the featherweight division. The former champion Holloway, while he bounced back nicely in January with an emphatic decision verdict over Calvin Kattar, is still 2-3 in his last five bouts. Even though he is still just 29 years old, a loss to Rodriguez would put the “Blessed” Hawaiian at a very real professional crossroads.

On the flipside, by the time this fight happens – hopefully happens, of course – it will be Rodriguez’s first fight in 21 months. At the end of 2018, “El Pantera” was riding high after his consensus “Fight of the Year” and “Knockout of the Year” with his knick-of-time elbow on Chan Sung Jung. Since then, things have ranged from disappointing to nightmarish for Rodriguez. First, it was his 15-second aborted headliner against Jeremy Stephens that ended in an eye poke; even though he beat Stephens handily in the do-over, it felt hollow. Then it was an ankle injury that dashed hopes of a sought-after clash with fellow rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov. After that, last December, he was suspended for six months by USADA for failing to disclose his whereabouts and being unavailable for drug testing. Fans have been clamoring to see him back in the cage, but a loss here could stick him in the muck and the mire of the featherweight division for some time.

Suffice to say, this is a fight worth protecting for both fighters, even if, heaven forbid, one of them fall out of the fight. A late injury or illness forcing its outright cancelation wouldn’t be the end of the world, but would be another brutal sign of the times for the UFC. After all, even if it’s a potential feel-good story seeing former UFC champ Miesha Tate return from a nearly five-year absence, does anyone want to see her headline against Marion Reneau?

Fights like Holloway-Rodriguez deserve to be protected, even if they aren’t McGregor-esque bouts that are going to do huge business. They’re still integral to the company and the natural progression of its divisions. And frankly, it’s bizarre that the UFC hasn’t more steadily employed the idea of backup fighters, given the UFC’s history over the last 20 years.

UFC 94 Georges St-Pierre v BJ Penn 2 Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

The first time the UFC ever made it public that it was employing the backup plan was for UFC 94 back in January 2009, ahead of a welterweight contest between Dong Hyun Kim and Karo Parisyan. Owing Parisyan’s myriad issues – weight, painkiller use, personal drama – the UFC had Rick Story on deck just in case anything ran afoul ahead of the bout. Things went ahead as planned, although Parisyan’s original split decision win wound up being changed to a No Contest subsequently due to, surprise surprise, testing positive for painkillers he had failed to disclose.

Nonetheless, while the concept and the UFC’s willingness to have an explicit backup fighter in targeted situations is not new, it is used too infrequently. A key component of this is that most fights that feature substitutions confront those alterations weeks in advance and have given the UFC adequate time to find replacements. However, there’s no argument it’s better for all involved to have a designated ringer in these situations, giving the substitute a better, honest chance to prepare and be in tip-top shape. Furthermore, with stricter medical precautions and the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen more super-late fight shakeups and cancelations than ever before, and this could help alleviate those issues.

The UFC’s difficulties with late replacements goes back much longer, though. From the moment Zuffa took over the promotion in January 2001, it sought to build the company around then-light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. The company spent over a year chasing a fight between Ortiz and Vitor Belfort, only for it to fall apart multiple times. At the ill-fated UFC 33, the first attempt to stage the bout, they were able to luck into Vladimir Matyushenko stepping in on short notice for Kevin Randleman, who was replacing Belfort. The fight left a lot to be desired, to say the least. At UFC 36, they were not as fortunate and had to scrap an Ortiz defense entirely. If they’d had an ironclad sub in the on deck circle, who knows how different things might have played out?

If anything, the final straw should have come three years ago when UFC 223’s slated main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson for the lightweight title devolved into chaos during fight week after a Ferguson knee injury, leading to the promotion scrambling and going through the gamut of possibilities to save the headliner, before being saved by perpetual malcontent Al Iaquinta of all people. At this point, it should have been clear that it would be a prudent step forward that when a major fight – or fight of any real consequence – is at stake, it’s always wise to have a fighter waiting in the wings.

Certainly, the backup fighter plan is not a surefire panacea; after all, a backup fighter can get injured, too. That said, the only tangible downside for the company is that it’s forced to pay three fighters for a single bout, which honestly, isn’t even a concern with considering for a company that generated about $900 million in revenue in each of the last two years. Throwing a backup fighter somewhere between $250,000 to $500,000 just to stay ready is hardly a strain, especially when you consider the potential saving grace should something go wrong. A quarter to half million dollars to ensure the relative safety of a headlining bout and avoid its outright cancelation is a pittance compared to the alternative.

Like the old adage says, it’s better to have something and not need it rather than need something and not have it. It’s due time the UFC take that maxim to heart in earnest.

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