In the space of a week the UFC has lost back-to-back main events. Considering the headline bout at UFC 196 was also subjugated by fighter withdrawal, it has clearly been a woeful period for Dana White and co.
The company is scrambling to accommodate pull outs with questionable interim titles and last-minute replacements. There seems to be a recurring theme of panic to keep the organisation’s big fighters on the card, but are the UFC shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to their persistence of late replacements?
Rewind to late last year when highly pushed strawweight Paige VanZant was scheduled to fight Scottish striker Joanne Calderwood. VanZant, who White once compared to Conor McGregor, was being groomed to be the next superstar in women’s MMA. She had the looks and personality that the UFC could market effortlessly. Never had the company endorsed a female as much since Ronda Rousey.
’12 Gauge’ Paige was riding a three-fight win streak but her performances in the cage left many unsure whether or not her hype was justified. On November 1st it was announced that Calderwood would not compete due to a knee injury. To the delight of fans who questioned VanZant’s credentials, the extremely talented ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas was announced as Calderwood’s replacement. A true test of the California native’s capabilities.
Given just under four weeks to prepare for a new and far more difficult opponent, VanZant confidently accepted the task at hand and stepped into the octagon on December 10th.
The hype train came to an abrupt end as Namajunas imposed her superiority from the get-go in what would turn out to be one of the most one-sided fights in strawweight history. VanZant was dismantled on the feet and on the ground with ease by the Lithuanian-American hybrid in what was often hard to watch. Bloodied, battered and bruised, VanZant offered nothing in the contest and was eventually submitted in the fifth round via rear naked choke. If you listened closely you could almost hear the teardrops fall from White’s eyes.
The UFC had sent one of their biggest assets straight to the slaughter house completely unnecessarily as Calderwood confirmed she would only be out for a couple of weeks. Had the company held out for the initial match-up, and not insisted on a late replacement, VanZant could have elevated her status even more with a victory over her original opponent of similar calibre.
Since that comprehensive defeat ’12 Gauge’ has somewhat faded into the MMA background. She’s had her fighting abilities exposed and seen her stock decrease significantly. She’s also a far better dancer than a fighter, judging by her performances on ‘Dancing with the Stars’; career change anyone?
Another hugely hyped fighter who competed on that December 10th card was Sage Northcutt.
At the tender age of 19 ‘Super’ Sage exploded into the MMA mainstream after featuring on the debut episode of ‘Dana White: ‘Lookin’ for a Fight’. Northcutt’s exceptional, distinctive physique combined with his supplementary charisma and pretty boy image, immediately replaced the pupils of the UFC president with dollar signs. He knew he had stumbled upon a special individual.
Like VanZant before him, Northcutt would soon find out that good looks and marketability would not spare him from the susceptibility of late replacement syndrome.
Coming off the back of an impressive first round stoppage of Francisco Trevino on his debut, and a noteworthy submission finish of Cody Pfister in his second bout, fans were clambering for Northcutt to be handed a step up in opposition. Clearly being pushed by the UFC, the MMA community concluded that the karate specialist was being protected when his third opponent was announced.
Andrew Holbrook was scheduled to be Northcutt’s next stepping stone. A fighter with only one bout in the UFC and considerably less experienced than Sage’s previous opponent, Pfister. Groans of disappointment ensued until eight days before the bout Holbrook had to withdraw, not citing a specific injury.
Northcutt accepted the short notice replacement of Bryan Barbarena, a quite substantial step up in competition. Barbarena was coming off a seven-fight win streak, six of those being stoppages, until he lost to noteworthy competition in Chad Laprise, the TUF nations winner. To make things that bit more complicated the fight would now be at welterweight instead of lightweight due to the limited time for Barberena to make 155 pounds.
Northcutt was holding his own in this fight but in the blink of an eye he went from superstar to embarrassment after the most unusual of submission finishes you’re likely to see. Barberena finished Northcutt in the second round with an arm triangle choke from half guard.
Shades of the unthinkable as the sight of a top level fighter tapping out instantaneously in this specific position/submission hold, brought a fierce backlash from fighters and fans alike. Fellow UFC fighters tiraded the 20-year-old on social media with criticism and memes alike.
‘Super’ Sage was now just ‘Regular’ Sage as he lay red-faced in the octagon. Northcutt later claimed a throat issue was the reason for the quick tap but one can’t ignore the significance the late replacement played. Once again the UFC had unnecessarily pulled the carpet from underneath a fighter they had such high hopes for, leaving him embarrassed, diminished and left to rebuild his promising career.
You simply cannot talk about late replacement fights without mentioning Conor McGregor. The notorious one has grown accustomed to a change of opponent as, amazingly, six of his last twelve challengers have been altered.
McGregor’s first opponent change in the UFC came in the form of the Hawaiian Max Holloway. The Dubliner sustained a serious ACL injury in that fight but still managed to get the win in what is now an even more credible feat given Holloway’s current form. In his second adjusted bout Mystic Mac dispatched the Brazilian Diego Brandao emphatically. When Chad Mendes stepped in on twelve days’ notice to replace Jose Aldo at UFC 189 McGregor got the job done, just.
This is where the UFC brass should have started to realise that you are playing with fire when issuing replacement fighters on such short notice. McGregor was comprehensively losing that fight and there is always the ever-present argument that if Mendes had a full camp he would have won.
That fight came so close to shutting down the biggest star the UFC has ever seen. When you think that the card was already stacked with amazing fights, including a stellar co-main welterweight title fight, it is easy to argue the PPV would have sold relatively well without the additional risk of a devastating McGregor loss.
Of course we all know McGregor genuinely will fight anyone, anywhere, anytime but at the end of the day the UFC has the final decision on what goes down. So when Rafael Dos Anjos pulls out of the lightweight title fight at UFC 196 with less than two weeks to go, you’d think the company would show a little more caution with the situation given what happened last time around, right?
Nope. Somehow we end up with Nate Diaz at 170 pounds. An unfavourable match-up stylistically and physically already, the added stipulation of the featherweight champion fighting two weight classes above his own was always going to be a recipe for disaster.
We all know what followed and now we are left with McGregor being beaten by the number five ranked lightweight, with no training camp, who was drinking shots of tequila in Mexico when he got the call and who also got destroyed by the Notorious’ original opponent, Dos Anjos. The highly anticipated lightweight title, and potential welterweight title super fights, now seem a million miles away for Mystic Mac and the UFC’s bank account. The aura of McGregor is not completely vanquished but certainly wounded and all thanks to the curse of the late replacement fighter.
On the week where we reminisce about Matt Serra’s unthinkable victory over Georges St Pierre nine years ago at UFC 69, we must not forget that this is a crazy sport where anything can happen.
Sure, it is highly unlikely Jon Jones will taste defeat for the first time (legitimately) at the hands of Ovince St Preux and yes it is extremely doubtful that Khabib Nurmagomedov will have his 22-fight unbeaten record conquered by newcomer Darrell Horcher, but in the spirit of Serra’s performance we cannot say these things are certainties.
What is for certain, though, is that the UFC is risking the status of two more of its biggest fighters, and the two most important fights in their respective divisions, by implementing late replacement fighters.
David O’Donovan, Pundit Arena