Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
The UFC tried to please Calgary. They brought what they believed would be a world-class demonstration of MMA talent, a title fight with a pound-for-pound killer and plenty of hometown heroes to parade for the local audience. And when those plans fell through, they did their best to replace the original event with one that featured the best available talent as well as intriguing, relevant main and co-main events.
The problem, of course, is that it didn't work. The other problem is that bad luck is only part of the story of why it didn't.
Let's be fair about that lack of serendipity by recapping just how things unraveled. I don't believe the original main event of Jose Aldo vs. Erik Koch would've sold a ton of pay-per-view buys, but watching one of the best fighters on the planet defend his title is nothing to sneeze at. Not only was that fight totally lost, but so was everything else that made the original card great.
Consider all that happened. Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Thiago Alves was all set until Akiyama was injured. Siyar Bahadurzada stepped in for Akiyama, but he, too, got injured. Then Alves himself was off the card with an injury. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was to tangle with Chieck Kongo, but he was injured and the upstart Shawn Jordan filled in. Michael Bisping was set to face Tim Boetsch, but Bisping's injury forced Hector Lombard to fill in (not a terrible substitution by any means, but not the first plan). Thiago Silva was to collide with Mauricio Rua, but Silva's injury ended up scrapping the entire thing and Shogun moved to battle Brandon Vera at UFC on FOX 4. And so on and so forth.
That is an absolutely disastrous turn of events and there's simply no other characterization that properly fits. Nearly every fighter and fight UFC fans care about was lost to poor fortune. On this account - and this is a fairly sizable one - UFC is above blame.
Where things went wrong for the UFC was in doubling down on the event. They elected to not cancel an important first show in a key market. I'm not here to suggest they should have, although there's probably some merit to the position. The truth is also that fans and media have glibly suggested it was the obvious choice, but there are a series of challenges - including twenty-two fighters who won't get a much-needed paycheck - that are easy to dismiss when it's not one's personal responsibility to suffer the consequences of a bad decision.
Regardless, there's opportunity cost in not cancelling the event that no promotional entity can avoid. There are also two undeniable truths about the risks of fight card changes, particularly of this magnitude, that cannot be escaped.
First, there's an obvious loss of star power. That's not necessarily true in the case of Lombard replacing Bisping, but it is everywhere else. There's no doubting from the original fight card offered to what was presented last night, the star power factor was significantly diminished.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, fans can be tolerant of star power loss through fight card changes, but that will only increase their demand that the fights deliver. Can't get Nogueira vs. Kongo? Alright, but that Jordan vs. Kongo fight better be a barn burner.
A downgrade in star power eats into fans' good will and high hopes. That can be salvaged with a night of sensational fights, but if both star power is reduced and the replacement fights fail to deliver even up to basic standards, that's when fans chant expletives of disgust and frustration after the main event.
That isn't to say they wouldn't have bellyached had the original card played out with a similar level of boredom. Let's not pretend MMA fans are somehow selective and prudent with their booing. A perceived boring fight is going to get lambasted by fickle fans at a moment's notice, no matter the level of celebrity and fan appreciation of the talent. Fans will be fans, after all.
Let's also give credit where credit is due. Even with replacements, the UFC ended up on the wrong end of a good faith effort to give fans the best UFC action they could. Faber vs. Barao was not particularly special, but it was hardly a bad fight. Did anyone really expect Lombard vs. Boetsch to unfold the way it did? Knowing how Shawn Jordan has competed in MMA, was it really that crazy to think he'd try to take the fight to Kongo? UFC went to the well with Brian Ebersole too much (like Rick Story, competing twice in two months in the UFC doesn't work), but they also correctly engineered the opening fight of the pay-per-view to be a scrappy affair.
Not much about the UFC's expectations or plans with the replacement card are crazy. In terms of looking at historical track records, how styles match up and other relevant criteria, UFC had plenty of reason to think the fights they booked would deliver.
Except that they didn't. And the reason why is because no one can write the future. The UFC wasn't wrong to think the fights had a good probability of turning in entertaining moments. The problem is they gambled on them after taking out most or all of the fights and fighters fans wanted to see. They put themselves in a position to have no room for error in a chaotic, difficult sport that upends the best laid plans of mice and men.
In some ways, the UFC is a victim of their own success. They've spent years taking (mostly) stacked cards and (much) more often than not, those events have helped to build that brand and the sport to the level it is today. Every time the lights go on above the Octagon in whatever city they're in, the expectations are high and rightly so. Those are pretty good problems to have.
But that also underscores the risk in moving forward with an event that's been significantly altered: little is allowed to go wrong in an uncontrolled environment where all you can do is pray for success. No one really knows if any fight is going to live up to expectations, but the overall task of pleasing fight fans becomes a lot easier when you give them the stars they want in bouts they paid to see.
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