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UFC 232’s jilted Las Vegas fans detail havoc wrought on their year-end plans

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T-Mobile Arena
T-Mobile Arena
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ryan Hall is Alex Bilbrey’s favorite fighter.

Alex is an 11-year-old from Dallas who wrestles, boxes, and trains in Muay Thai. But jiu-jitsu is his favorite discipline, and he loves Hall’s unique manner of translating his grappling into mixed martial arts.

So when Hall was announced for a fight with the legendary B.J. Penn at UFC 232, Bilbrey’s parents decided it was time to make a special holiday trip to Las Vegas.

Tim Bilbrey splurged on three eighth-row floor seats at T-Mobile Arena for the event which was scheduled for Saturday night so his son could see his favorite fighter up close.

“Our family vacation the last several years has been to Vegas right after Christmas for the UFC fights,” Bilbrey told MMA Fighting. “Ryan Hall is his favorite fighter hands down, which is why we tried to get as close as possible to see him fight B.J. Penn.”

But the Bilbreys won’t get to see Hall or anyone else compete in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

The show was moved on six days’ notice to The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in order to accommodate Jon Jones for his headline fight with Alexander Gustafsson. The Nevada Athletic Commission would not license Jones without a hearing for the bout following a disputed USADA test result and there wouldn’t be enough time for said hearing.

MMA Fighting talked to more than two dozen fans this week who had purchased tickets to the show in Las Vegas. All were caught off-guard by the situation, and were left to make expensive decisions on short notice. Some chose to cancel their trip altogether. Some had the flexibility to purchase tickets for the rescheduled show in the Los Angeles area. Some are keeping the Vegas part of their trip minus the live fights.

All consider the decision made by the UFC to uproot the show a terrible move.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Erika Stewart of Baltimore.

Stewart has been an MMA fan since she accompanied a man on a date to a venue showing the PPV for the legendary Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen rematch in 2012 (“I ditched him and kept the sport,” she quipped). She had been to one previous show, UFC 171 in her hometown, but this was her first time traveling.

Stewart works as a project manager, and she views the UFC’s decision to pull the show through a project manager’s eyes.

“As part of my job, I have to do the hard rate, you have to think about what are the factors when you’re considering making a drastic move,” Stewart said. “How does it affect all of these things: The relationship with the fans, the relationship with the arena and the hotels, with the Nevada Athletic Commission. These are smart people and they had to consider all of those factors, but there could have not been enough check marks for it to make sense.”

There were a host of other options the UFC could have picked after Jones ran into his latest round of trouble. With a strong and deep card that included Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes as a viable replacement headliner, the show could have gone on at T-Mobile Arena with Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 postponed pending Jones’ NAC hearing next month.

Or the UFC could have moved the main event to California and kept the rest of the show at T-Mobile, a multi-venue option occasionally employed in boxing.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense, we’ve had pay-per-views that have been really bad, awful PPVs,” Stewart said. “You know how this goes when you’ve been following the sport long enough, but they don’t just pick it up and move it to another state.”

Stewart, who is spending her time in Nevada with her mother, had committed to a time share at the Wyndham near the MGM Grand, and it was too late to avoid a cancellation fee. Going to LA wasn’t in the budget, so the two are going to spend the trip doing Vegas things like seeing shows and shopping, but haven’t yet decided if they’ll find a place to watch the event Saturday night.

The Bilbreys, likewise, also didn’t have the budget to make a last-minute side trip to Los Angeles, but they’re too committed to the sport to skip the show.

“We plan to find a sports bar to watch the fight,” Bilbrey said. “I guess we will be those people...with an 11-year-old in a Vegas bar.”

Skipping the live card wasn’t an option for Matt Bailey.

The 27-year-old became a fan when a fighter from his hometown of Nottingham, England — Dan Hardy — rose to prominence. UFC 232 will mark his 18th live event, which has included Michael Bisping’s knockout of Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 and Conor McGregor making history by finishing Eddie Alvarez and becoming the UFC’s first-ever simultaneous two-weight-class champion at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden.

So Bailey and his group are among the 3,000 fans (according to UFC president Dana White at Thursday’s UFC 232 press conference) who took advantage of the first crack to purchase tickets for The Forum given to Vegas ticketholders on Wednesday. They will be refunded for the Vegas cancelation separately by AXS tickets, which will take 7 to 10 days to process.

“I’m not coming all the way out from England and not going to the show when they moved it to a place a few hours away,” Bailey said. “It was a gigantic hassle but we’re going to Los Angeles.”

Bailey, who is traveling with a group of about 10 friends, had already committed to a non-refundable package which included both airfare and hotel, which complicated matters. So Bailey’s group found airfare out to Los Angeles on Saturday morning, will go to the show at The Forum, and then fly back to Vegas early Sunday morning without bothering to get a hotel in LA, then catch their flight back to the U.K. later on Sunday.

They’ll still get to see the fights, but that doesn’t mean Bailey is happy about the turn of events.

“Dana took a huge shit on the UFC’s biggest fans,” Bailey said. “You understand that last-minute changes are part and parcel of being a fan. I came out to UFC 213 and that had all types of problems. But to move this show on behalf of Jon Jones is ridiculous. To make us have to make all these changes in the middle of Christmas week, I’m still angry about it.”

Angry or not, Bailey’s crew is still going to the fights on Saturday night. And of those who were willing to speak on the record for this story, some admitted they will think twice about traveling to UFC events in the future, but none will swear off the company, acknowledging that chaos is always a part of the sport.

“I don’t think I would plan a long trip around an event, it would have to be close to Detroit,” said Michigan native John Zentz, who is traveling into Vegas with his wife and will find a place to watch the fights in town.

Zentz, a fan of six years who has been to cards in Chicago, Toronto, and Las Vegas in addition to his hometown, says he would have been fine with the card continuing in Vegas minus Jones.

“I think the decision to move the fight last minute is really bad,” Zentz said. “Had they pulled Jon Jones from the card when he tested positive on Dec. 9, it sure would have been a lot easier to take. I think the way Dana handled it was really bad for the fans.”

Fans almost unanimously agreed, though, that this is the last time they’re going to buy tickets for a show with Jones as a headliner. For Bilbrey, this is the second time he’s been burned, having bought tickets for UFC 200, in which Jones was pulled from a bout with Daniel Cormier.

“We will not support nor go watch another UFC event that features Jones,” Bilbrey said. “The UFC has proved that his actions are rewarded and they are willing to take the fight card anywhere to get him licensed for the fight and to hell with any other fighters or fans.

“No one wins with the UFC moving the venue to LA. Not the fighter, the fans, and not especially the UFC.”