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Fortunes changed for five at UFC St. Louis

UFC Fight Night: Stephens v Choi Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It’s become a sad part of the UFC that every fight week, some of the most excitement and news comes the day before the show.

The question is who will miss weight and be fined 20 percent of their purse, and what fights will fall apart.

On Sunday’s UFC debut in St. Louis, two fights were canceled in the days leading to the show. A third fight, which did happen, included a fighter who had missed weight by four pounds. One of the fighters, Uriah Hall, who was to face Vitor Belfort in the No. 2 fight on the show, spent 48 hours in the hospital.

A last few days like that would have been big news a few years ago. Today, it feels like it’s commonplace, neither a surprise nor unusual. The problems associated with heavy weight cutting was considered one of the sport’s biggest problems years ago. Today, with the UFC said to be monitoring the fighters closer, and at least some commissions trying to be proactive, the result has been things have gotten far worse.

The number of fighters missing weight, who end up hospitalized related to weight cutting, and the number of fights that have been canceled over the last two days before the show, has all become a bigger problem.

The big change, the early morning weigh-ins was an idea widely applauded at the time for being a step in the right direction. But as we pass 19 months since that program has been put into effect, we can see that, despite the good intentions of those who got the change made, it has backfired.

In the first five months of 2016, there was one fighter who missed weight, according to MMA Junkie’s Mike Bohn. Since the changes, there were 21 fighters who missed weight and three who didn’t even fight. In 2017, there were 28 fighters who missed weight and eight who couldn’t compete.

There are probably a number of reasons. The earlier weigh-ins, roughly six or more hours earlier than in the past on the day before the fight, was designed with the idea that it would give fighters more hours to rehydrate. The main concern was fighters would fight somewhat dehydrated, which isn’t healthy for their brains or their fighting performance.

But in practice, as opposed to theory, while hydration levels are probably up from the past, that’s been negated in other ways.

The most obvious is that before, the hardest part of the weight cut would be the day before the fight, all day, until going onto the scales later afternoon. Now, the weight cut is often being done in the middle of the night, because they have to be on weight in the morning with no time the day of to cut.

A second issue also seems to be, with more time to rehydrate, fighters may be cutting from a higher weight, with the idea they had more time to put the pounds back on. In doing so, their cut would be more severe than in the past. In doing so, it adds to the risk of cutting the weight and plays Russian roulette with the kidneys.

The combination of those two factors has led to the increase in health issues and fights being canceled.

The one thing is, with fighter safety considered to be the major concern for both the UFC and athletic commissions, the results of this change should be a neon sign that how things were done prior to the summer of 2016 is far superior to how they are now being done. But with the commission structure as it is, a change that should be cut-and-dried seems to have no movement in the direction of changing back.

Granted, all that does is put everything in the position that was considered bad enough that they were able to get massive changes to the long standing system. But we also have more than 15 years of evidence that the old flawed system is superior to the current nearly disastrous system. A move back is not the answer to the problem, just a small step to make things a little better.

The goal should be to have fighters fight at their real weight, or at least close to it. The idea of fighters depleting themselves greatly right before fighting, a practice accepted because it’s always been that way, just puts fights in jeopardy and health of fighters in jeopardy before they even do battle.

Implementing rules with the mentality that fighters shouldn’t cut a lot of weight would be a step in the right direction. The reality is, if tomorrow, the UFC decreed that every fighter on the roster has no choice but to move up one weight class, the fighters would still be facing the same competition. Weight cutting, at least at first, would be minimal. Fighters would be far healthier going into the cage. Far fewer fights would drop out. And the fights would be better because fighter stamina wouldn’t be hurt by the crash weight loss the day before.

Of course, the obvious problem is that fighters would then try to eat their way up 10 to 15 pounds of natural weight and cut roughly the same amount as they do now. Which is why there is no easy solution.

But with almost weekly stories of fighters rushed to the hospital the day before fights and talking about how they feel near death, it is inevitable that some day a high-profile fighter, as opposed to an unknown fighter as in the past, will pass away. At that point, there will be heavy discussion of changes and examining the issue with all of its weekly warning signs on why changes hadn’t been made. But with almost weekly warnings, it’s better for the UFC, Bellator, ONE, and the athletic commissions to get together and be proactive.

Sunday’s debut in St. Louis looked good on paper going in, but with fights falling out, turned into an ordinary show. Let’s look at how fortunes changed for five stars of the show.

JEREMY STEPHENS - Sunday’s main event winner moved to 27-14. He called out Brian Ortega (13-0) when it was over. It’s a great fight for Stephens, but not so much for Ortega, who can probably sit tight without fighting and get the winner of the March 3 featherweight title match with Max Holloway vs. Frankie Edgar.

For Stephens, more likely opponents can be Josh Emmett (13-1) or Darren Elkins (25-5). Stephens defeated Elkins in 2014, but Elkins has gone 7-1 since that time with his last three fights being wins over Mirsad Bektic, Dennis Bermudez and Michael Johnson. With his exciting fighting style, Stephens may only be a couple of wins away from a title fight. But he will need some strong wins since champion Holloway already beat him on his climb to the top.

DOO HO CHOI - Choi (14-3) was the favorite and main event star of the show. He was coming off a losing effort in an incredible fight with Cub Swanson on Dec. 10, 2016. A year between fights should have been a sign that the beating he took in the Swanson fight may have been career changing. He didn’t seem to be the same fighter here that he was in his previous fights, and it wasn’t just the idea that he had a hard-hitting opponent.

A good next fight would be Yair Rodriguez (10-2), another exciting fighter who looked on the rise until running into a championship caliber fighter in Edgar.

JESSICA-ROSE CLARK - Clark (9-4, 1 no contest), who fought much of her career at bantamweight, dropped to flyweight and took the decision over Paige VanZant, who was moving up from strawweight. The size difference was clear early on. A good next fight would be Jessica Eye (12-6, 1 no-contest), who also came down from bantamweight to flyweight on Sunday and took a split decision over Kalindra Faria.

KAMARU USMAN - Usman (12-1), moved to 7-0 in UFC and notched his 11th straight win with a one-sided decision over Emil Meek. He then ran afoul of Dana White by saying he only fought at 30 percent. White clearly wasn’t happy that Usman used his wrestling to dominate the fight, and the St. Louis fans booed him when it was over. Still, the strategy was effective.

Usman immediately called out Colby Covington (13-1), which is a good fight for Usman if he can win, since Covington is ranked as the No. 3 contender. White made it clear that Covington is not going to get the next shot at welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. It would be an interesting battle between two of the division’s best wrestlers. If that doesn’t happen, Neil Magny (20-6) would make for a viable next foe.

MICHAEL JOHNSON - In his move to featherweight, Johnson (18-13) lost to Darren Elkins, his fifth loss in his last six fights. Johnson is an enigma, because he’s got wins over Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza and Dustin Poirier, three of the best lightweights in the world.

And it’s not that he’s looked diminished in his losses. He was hurting Khabib Nurmagomedov in the standing game before being destroyed on the ground, but Nurmagomedov does that to everyone. He was in an all-time classic fight his previous time out with Justin Gaethje, which won a number of Fight of the Year honors. Johnson came close to winning the Gaethje fight on more than one occasion. Even here, he took the first round, before being choked out in the second.

An exciting next night would be with Cub Swanson (25-8), who is coming off a similar type fight where he won the stand up game but lost via submission to Ortega.

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