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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Brasilia

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UFC Fight Night: Lee v Oliveira
Charles Oliveira
Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

The state of the world as we know it changed so much in the past week that it has left the entire sports world in limbo.

Unlike every other major sporting organization, the UFC attempted—to the bitter end—to keep going on a regular weekly schedule. There are many aspects to this story.

One is likely the determination to produce events as planned. But every sports organization has that. If the medical information available was enough for the NBA, NHL, NCAA and everyone else aside from UFC and pro wrestling to try and wait this one out, there was clearly a risk in running an event. UFC fighters, who don’t have guaranteed income, need to fight to support their families. And while the UFC is historically extremely profitable, it was built on acquiring substantial debt, both from the original owners, Lawrence and Frank Fertitta, with Dana White, and now with Endeavor, which leveraged heavily to make the $4 billion purchase in 2016.

The interest on the debt alone comes to a number believed to be in excess of $120 million annually. In short, the UFC needs profits of above that figure each year just to cover the interest on its debt. But with EBITDA approaching $300 million per year, there has been little stress in making that figure.

With the current deals with ESPN, for television, streaming and pay-per-view, guaranteeing in the range of $500 million annually in revenue, and with total gross income in 2019 being $900 million, paying off the interest on that debt wasn’t even an issue in the old world.

Until, suddenly, it is. Nobody could have foreseen the idea of being unable to run shows when the UFC made the call recently to pay out $300 million in dividends to the owners. That left the organization with far less financial cushion in the event a disaster happened.

It’s unfair to second-guess the decision, as aside from the idea that fighters should have been paid more, something most would agree with, there was no need for huge amounts of cash on hand in a business with huge contractual financial guarantees.

The problem is, the UFC needs to produce shows to get that guaranteed money.

The UFC has at least three shows off right now - Saturday’s event scheduled for London, the March 28 event scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and an April 11 show scheduled for Portland, Ore. Dana White has talked of making up the dates, meaning that when the country and the world return to something resembling what it was two weeks ago, we may have both Friday and Saturday night events some weekends to catch up.

The next date they are still trying to save is April 18, with Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson for the lightweight title. The UFC has tried to make this fight on five different occasions. So it goes down as the most jinxed in UFC history. It was, arguably to the public and certainly to hardcore fans, the most highly-anticipated fight of the year.

Complicating matters is there is no location for that fight at this time. Given President Trump’s guidelines—and Dana White is an avid Trump supporter--it doesn’t look to be possible to stage an event of that magnitude, even in an arena with no fans, in the U.S.

White’s trying to continue on as the rest of the sports world has stopped has hardly made him look good to he public. It’s worse when it’s public knowledge that he can’t run in the original arenas, or his own arena, and had still tried to run on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. Before this was an issue, the pro wrestling group, All Elite Wrestling, did a television show from a cruise ship, but even that’s not possible with the shutdown of that industry.

And then there’s the training issue if White finds a place overseas.

This should be the most important time for Nurmagomedov when it comes to his most intense training. It’s more important than ever considering the amazing pace that Ferguson can fight at. But San Jose, where Nurmagomedov usually trains, is on a shutdown. Gyms aren’t allowed to be open. It’s technically a misdemeanor to leave your residence unless you work in essential services, or are in need of essential things like food or money. It is legal to run outside, but going to a gym does not fit into those parameters. So unless he was able to get out of the quarantined area, meaning a new gym at the last minute, he and his coaches violate the statute, neither a good thing, or he goes into the Ferguson fight not at his best, the worse thing of all for him, this date now threatens the competitive aspect of the fight.

This is a trying time for most people and most businesses. Unfortunately, it is in these times of duress where leaders can come off great, or not so great, when it comes to history. When things get back to whatever normal will be, people will want to see fights. For decades, boxing promoters were thought by the public to be exploiters and corrupt, but fans still supported big fights.

There were all kinds of financial reasons, and perhaps even positive reasons since many in the public could use a sports escape right now, for continuing. But people in hindsight will look at NBA commissioner Adam Silver one way, and Dana White in a very different way.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday’s show in an empty arena in Brasilia, Brazil.

CHARLES OLIVEIRA - Oliveira (29-8-1), the company’s historical king of submissions, added No. 14 with his guillotine on Kevin Lee in the third round. To show how amazing this record truly is, Oliveira is 30. Demian Maia, who is second with 11 submissions, is 42. And after pioneer Royce Gracie with 10, next on the list are three fighters with eight, Nate Diaz, Jim Miller and Frank Mir. So Oliveira’s record looks to stand for some time to come.

Oliveira’s 16th UFC finish tied him with Donald Cerrone for that record, and Cerrone is about to turn 37, meaning Oliveira has a good chance of breaking that and putting up some distance in that category as well.

Still, Oliveira was only ranked No. 13 in the deep lightweight division going into the show. As far as a next opponent, Justin Gaethje (21-2) would make the most sense. The only obstacle is that if a Gaethje vs. Conor McGregor fight was in play, then Gaethje would not be viable here. Oliveira then should face the winner of the scheduled May 16 fight with Dan Hooker (20-8) vs. Dustin Poirier (25-6).

KEVIN LEE - Lee was so disappointed with his loss that he has since talked of taking time, even years, off. That type of frustration historically changes in time. For Lee, an exciting fighter and colorful personality, his next fight should be with the loser of Poirier vs Hooker.

RENATO MOICANO - After Moicano (14-3-1) finished Damir Hadzovic (13-6) in the first round, he noted that he was No. 7 at featherweight. In winning, he wanted to face No. 7 in lightweight, Paul Felder (17-5). It’s viable, but since Felder’s loss to Hooker was a very controversial decision, he may get a more established lightweight next. If that’s the case, good next foes for Moicano could be Al Iaquinta (15-6-1), Anthony Pettis (22-10) or Beneil Dariush (18-4-1). The first two would make him more well-known to fans than a bout with Dariush would.

BRANDON MORENO - In what looked to have been a fight to determine a flyweight title contender, Brandon Moreno (17-5-1) took a controversial decision over Jussier Formiga (23-7). Formiga came in looking like the logical first contender for the winner of the likely Joseph Benavidez (28-6) vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (18-1) rematch to determine the vacant championship. But it should be noted that Formiga got 62 percent of the media scores even thought the judges had it unanimously for Moreno.

JUSSIER FORMIGA - Formiga, because of the nature of the loss, could get a title shot next even off a loss if Moreno was injured. If not, he should next face either Alexandre Pantoja (22-4) or Ray Borg (13-4) in a title eliminator.