Alexander Gustafsson injury put UFC in bad position, but situation could've been handled better

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The timing of Alexander Gustafsson's injury was among the worst ever when it came to a UFC main event. Yet, there are lessons that can be learned from it that should have been absorbed last year from the ill-fated Calgary show.

There is never a good time for a UFC main event injury, but they are hardly unusual in this day and age.

If you have to pick a worse time and place scenario, what happened this past week with Alexander Gustafsson's cut that caused him to not be cleared to fight Gegard Mousasi at UFC's show on Fuel that airs on Saturday afternoon, it would be near the top of the list.

Gustafsson, the UFC's current No. 2 ranked light heavyweight contender, was scheduled to headline against the former Strikeforce light heavyweight and Dream middleweight champion in Mousasi's UFC debut. But it goes deeper than that. The show takes place at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, Gustafsson's home town.

UFC is big on television in Sweden and this marked the company's second time in the country. The first event was also headlined by Gustafsson where he defeated Thiago Silva in the sold out 15,500-seat arena. In fact, it was sold as soon as tickets were put on sale, the most successful on-sale for any UFC event ever in Europe. The second show equaled that immediate sellout pace, for a show hardly filled with marquee fighters.

How much of that is UFC running in Sweden and how much of that is Gustafsson as the local superstar is impossible to ascertain, but logic would say it's a combination of both.

Gustafsson suffered the cut more than a week ago, but wasn't actually flagged by the Swedish Mixed Martial Arts commission until Tuesday. Worse, with the show being in Sweden, there were very limited options. There were no other light heavyweight fights on the show. Due to issues of it being too late to get a visa, a replacement fighter would have to come from Europe unless the fighter already had a visa, since Sweden allows anyone from a European country to compete. And then, you'd have to find someone willing to face a dangerous opponent in Mousasi without any specific training.

The replacement ended up being being Ilir Latifi, a fighter who has never been to Cheers, since a week ago, nobody knew his name. Immediately, the jokes started that UFC was putting Queen Latifah in the main event.

Latifi is a former Swedish junior Greco-Roman wrestling champion, who trains with Gustafsson. He's got a 7-2 record. None of his victims would be household names, even in their own household. His most recent loss was a decision loss two years back to Emanuel Newton, who just won the Bellator light heavyweight tournament and knocked out "King" Mo Lawal. The other was a third-round TKO loss to Tatsuya Mizuno, a Japanese fighter of some name value in his home country, back in 2009. Oddsmakers immediately made Latifi a 20-to-1 underdog, the longest main event odds in UFC history.

If there is a lesson here, is it's a good idea to have at least one fight in the weight class on the undercard in case a last minute issue like this arises.

Past that, UFC made the decision that, given the place was sold out and options were limited, to go with a local fighter, who had immediately offered his services when Gustafsson's cut became public knowledge.

On paper, is it a viable UFC main event? Under normal standards, of course not. Without knowledge of what legitimate alternatives there were, it's impossible to say whether it was the best available option. Given all the issues at stake, between serving the live audience and the time constraints, the company couldn't come up with anything better. Evidently the option of moving the show back a month or two, and going with the planned main event, wasn't viable at this late notice. Going with Ryan Couture vs. Ross Pearson, the scheduled No. 2 fight as the main event or canceling the event, were clearly far worse possible options.

From a fan standpoint who didn't buy a ticket to the show, it absolutely weakens the show, which didn't have much of a marquee undercard. But it's a free television show on Fuel. Like any UFC event, if you don't like it, you can choose to skip it. While fans looking forward to Gusafsson vs. Mousasi as a match and real test for both men are disappointed, there has been little outcry. There shouldn't be.

For those who purchased tickets, it's a different situation. There are a lot of factors in play. As far as the key ticket selling match, there was a big drop off in value, in particular going from the country's biggest fighting star to a fellow countryman who had not even made the UFC roster. But UFC only comes once a year to Sweden.

When asked about offering refunds, Garry Cook, UFC's new Executive Vice President and Managing Director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, argued that it was the brand and the event, not the biggest individual star that was the primary reason people were attending.

"We're in the commercial world, and a lot of people have spent hard-earned money to come to a UFC event, and I think that's the clear message," Cook said at Wednesday's press conference. "It's not just about Alexander. We understand people have a preference to see Alexander, and we get that. But there are seven Swedish fighters on the card. There are four fighters who are debuting on Saturday night. What a great opportunity to see the beginning of a career that moves on. We like to think of fans as UFC fans. We understand they've got player preferences, fighter preferences, in sport. We understand that."

Last year, UFC ran a show in Calgary, where the injury curse was beyond belief. It wasn't so much a main event issue, although that also changed from Jose Aldo vs. Erik Koch to Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber to Renan Barao vs. Faber. From a marquee value, the ending main event wasn't substantially worse off than the original one that had sold the arena out.

But with nearly a dozen injuries, the overall show was decidedly weaker. Like with Stockholm, the demand to see UFC was through the roof, as they sold out and did a $4 million gate as soon as tickets were put on sale.

Yet, UFC left a bad taste in the mouths of fans in that city, a location that had embraced the product and looked like it could have been one of its best North American markets. For better or worse, in the local media, and among the public as well, sentiment grew decidedly negative toward UFC. It wasn't so much about the injuries, but it was over refunds not being offered.

Given it was the first show in the market, one questions how many fans would have even asked for them. But from a public relations standpoint, whatever money was returned would have changed the attitude of the fans who attended, who ended up furious based on chants once the show had ended.

It's the same thing with Saturday's event. Most fans aren't the reactionary people starving for attention, blaming Dana White or UFC for ripping them off by not delivering the advertised match when it was out of their control. But there's a feeling about whether the company cares about its fan base. By offering refunds, the local fans may still be disappointed about not seeing Gustafsson, but will also feel the company was fair to them.

And by offering refunds, rather than speculating about what fans want, they will know who came mostly to see a UFC show, and who came mostly to see a Gustafsson fight. No matter which category the fans fit into, they can't complain the promotion didn't treat them fairly.

Whatever short-term cost will be more than made up with long-term public relations value in Stockholm, which thus far, has treated the company as good as they could have ever expected. The reciprocal needs to be asked if they don't: will the fans believe UFC has treated the Stockholm fans just as well?

If there is an unsung hero in all this, it's Mousasi, who was put in a terrible situation. With no time to change his training, Mousasi goes from facing a 6-foot-5 striker to a 5-foot-8 wrestler. And it's a no-win situation for him. A win isn't going to help him much. In fact, a close win could hurt him. He not only has to win, but do so in memorable fashion, or it can lower his stock. A loss would be devastating.

The contrast with Jon Jones and the cancelled UFC 151 event last year is noteworthy. Mousasi is not an established name to UFC fans and was risking his UFC future against an opponent he had no knowledge of, nor had trained for. Plus, his last loss to Lawal in 2010 was based on being outwrestled. Granted, there is a huge difference in wrestling and MMA pedigree of Lawal compared to Latifi,which is why the odds are what they are. Jones was an established superstar. Had he lost to Chael Sonnen, he would have dropped his championship, but the end result would have been his biggest payday of his career for a rematch that would been one of the biggest pay-per-view matches in UFC history.

This marks only the fourth time in UFC's nearly 20-year history that a main event will have two men making their UFC debuts, but there really wasn't one incident that resembles this. Inherently, UFC I was going to have two newcomers in the main event. UFC III, on Sept. 9, 1994, was a tournament show that came down to newcomers Harold Howard vs. Steve Jennum in the finals, but the show was advertised around Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, who both fought. The other example was the season eight finals of The Ultimate Fighter, built around Efrain Escudero vs. Phillipe Nover and Ryan Bader vs. Vinny Magalhaes, all in their first live UFC fight, but all four had been on weekly television for three months.

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