Just weeks after the ‘Money Fight’ captured the attention of fight fans and the general public all over the world, the UFC has encountered an unexpected hurdle on their pathway back to regular schedule.
Less than two days before UFC 215, the main event bout between Demetrious Johnson and Ray Borg for the UFC flyweight championship has been cancelled. Borg was deemed “unable to compete” by UFC doctors and reportedly had been feeling ill in the lead up to his pay-per-view headlining battle with Johnson. At first, many believed that Borg’s illness would be related to his weight cutting. Borg has previously had significant trouble trying to make the UFC’s flyweight 125lbs limit, however, his nutritionist informed MMA Fighting that Borg had fallen sick prior to cutting the bulk of his weight.
It seems as though UFC 215 was never destined to succeed and this now marks the second main event bout that was scrapped from the event after Junior Dos Santos vs Francis Ngannou was cancelled due to Dos Santos testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
The unfortunate outcome of all of this is that Johnson trained, prepared and would have been ready, like a true professional, to compete on Saturday night in Edmonton for a moment that would have entirely consumed his thoughts for the prior months.
Johnson’s attempt at a record-breaking 11 title defences will have to wait.
The show must continue
Borg's withdrawal from UFC 215 calls for a much needed statistical analysis of late withdrawals in the UFC compared to other organisations and other sports.
Let me state this loud and clear; mixed martial arts is a sport in which athletes should be competing at their peak physical condition. The sport should never encourage, or condone fighters to compete at anywhere that isn't close to full health.
Unlike football, basketball, tennis or nearly any other sport in the world, the risk, and reward, from a single contest is often career-changing. If Russell Westbrook feels ill and doesn't perform at his best, the Oklahoma City Thunder may, or may not, fall short against their opponent. But at the end of it all, it doesn't really matter. In most cases, the Thunder would have another one, two, or three chances to play against that same team that season, or another 81 games in the season to make up for that one poor performance.
In mixed martial arts, though, the stakes are much higher and often resemble that of a finals atmosphere in other sports. Then again, the NFL isn't going to reschedule a Superbowl if Tom Brady isn't feeling 100%; the show must continue and UFC 215 will continue with, or without, Johnson vs Borg.
However, the UFC must begin to appropriately plan for these circumstances going forward. Why? Because UFC 215 will now undoubtedly suffer an extremely low pay-per-view buy rate. To begin planning for these moments, though, there needs to be an understanding of the underlying problem:
Health and safety concerns
Name another world renowned sport in which athletes are forced to deplete their entire energy levels just days before competition at the highest level. I can't think of many.
While it may or may not apply to this circumstance with Borg, weight cutting is the most barbaric and problematic aspect of mixed martial arts. The concept of having to compete at a severely exhausted level makes next to no sense for any sports organisation in the world and the fighters have to endure through demanding and strenuous weeks in the build-up to an event.
In Borg's case, though, it seems that weight cutting is not the issue at hand and he is suffering from unrelated health issues.
Strangely enough, Amanda Nunes, who will now feature in the main event slot of UFC 215 with Valentina Shevchenko, was forced to withdraw from UFC 213 after she suffered from sinus related issues.
Nunes' health concerns were completely different to those of Borg, as Borg was deemed unable to compete by doctors. Nunes, however, as Dana White laid out was cleared by medical staff and was virtually able to compete in the event. She just chose not to.
And I don't have a problem with this.
Nunes wasn't protecting her own health or safety, but rather ensuring that she is able to defend her championship title with all her strength. Unlike team sports, Nunes represents only herself in the cage and even the most subtle impact from diminished performance could see the title slip from her hands.
The consequence of losing the title is far greater than many would believe.
Which leads us to here; when you're at the top, you shouldn't risk it all if you're not feeling well enough to compete.
Nunes' situation, while it is a rare one indeed, highlighted the financial disparity between the UFC's champions, top-level fighters and the mid-range to newly debuting fighters. Nunes' partner explained to ESPN that it wasn't worth the risk for Nunes to compete at UFC 213.
When you're starting to see what this life can do for you, and your family has had nothing, you realise 'Why risk it?'
[Without a title], you're going from potentially $1 million per year to $60,000 per year. And you want to put that on the line when you're feeling 50 percent?
It makes sense, too. If Nunes was to compete and lose to Valentina Shevchenko, she'd not only be in a position of immediate financial disadvantage compared to her previous state; she'd also need to work her way back to a shot at the championship which can take anything between 12 to 24 months of hard work and persistence. Instead, by ensuring she competes at close to maximum capacity, Nunes can ensure she limits the financial risk involved.
Furthermore, this is the reason why the UFC doesn't, or can't, have last-minute replacements. There aren't many fighters who are willing to risk it all solely to save an event for the UFC. For Johnson, yes, he might have liked someone to step up and face him on short-notice, but as it was not the opponent he was preparing for, he'd be taking on the additional risk of the unknown and a significantly reduced salary to do so. This was the case recently when Tony Ferguson didn't want to face potential late replacement Michael Johnson at UFC 209.
The UFC need clear contingencies
The problem with UFC 215, as it stands right now, is not the Johnson vs Borg cancellation; it's more that they didn't replace the Dos Santos vs Ngannou main card that was also cancelled.
Dos Santos vs Ngannou being removed from the card was already enough to hinder the potential success of the pay-per-view, but the UFC carried on in the belief that a strong main and co-main event can carry the event. It looked as though it would be fine, too.
But the loss of the main event scrap between Johnson and Borg highlights the lack of depth in many of the UFC's pay-per-view cards today. Would the impact of this cancellation be as huge if the UFC replaced the Dos Santos vs Ngannou fight with a battle of a similar standard; probably not. Now, the UFC will pay the price for believing they could sneak in a fight between Ilir Latifi and Tyson Pedro onto the main card of a pay-per-view.
How does this impact UFC 215 and what do you think should be done to prevent this in the future? Let us know in the comments.
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