Beset by injuries in 2012, UFC stacking deck for year-end show
The UFC is taking no chances to make sure its year-end fight card is received well
A mystifying string of injuries has led to a series of watered-down cards in 2012
UFC 155 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas will feature no shortage of big-name contestants
Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
Maybe we should call upon the ghosts of Aesop and Cervantes to come up with mixed martial arts versions of their time-worn soundbites of wisdom. Or how about we just go ahead and cover both barnyard-based sayings with: "Don't count on your fight card before the main eventers make it out of training camp in one piece"?
Given the tumultuous fragility of UFC fighters and fight cards in 2012, a wait-and-see approach is probably the most appropriate way to view the event that will close out the year. That'd be prudent, but it's hard not to look at the UFC 155 lineup and lick your chops at what's scheduled to go down Dec. 29 in Las Vegas.
Why am I bringing up a New Year's week fight card when we haven't even dressed up for Halloween yet? Well, the UFC added some more appealing fights on Monday after announcing a couple last week. It looks like the behemoth fight promotion, plagued by a succession of ill-fated events made threadbare mostly by injury and in one case even being canceled, has settled on a sustainability strategy: strength in numbers.
Allow me to explain by starting at the top. UFC 155 is anchored by the most glamorous happening in all of combat sports: a heavyweight championship fight. The rematch between Junior dos Santos and the man he dethroned, Cain Velasquez, has been a long time in coming. And yet it's been worth the wait, as in the time since Dos Santos captured the belt with a 64-second knockout in November 2011, Junior and Cain have annihilated Frank Mir and "Bigfoot" Silva, respectively, building momentum for their collision course.
That's quite an alluring matchup ... if it happens. Not to douse anyone's enthusiasm, but consider the fate of the UFC's recent numbered events:
UFC 147: Originally, the June 22 event was to be held in a Rio de Janeiro soccer stadium, a venue just about the right size to contain the contempt being flung back and forth between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and his challenger, Chael Sonnen. But when a timing conflict with a United Nations conference made holding a mega-event in Rio unworkable, the fight card was moved to a smaller arena -- sans the Silva-Sonnen rematch. Instead, we were scheduled to get a different Silva, Wanderlei, taking on old nemesis Vitor Belfort. The only thing more watered down than that main event would be the one we eventually got: Belfort was pulled from the fight and replaced by Rich Franklin. Glug glug glug.
UFC 148: This was the landing spot for Silva-Sonnen II. And that was a stroke of good fortune for the Las Vegas card, which had been slated to be headlined by a third meeting between bantamweight belt holder Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber. But "The Dominator" injured his knee, and the July 7 evening of fights got a better main event. A lucky roll in Vegas -- who would have bet on that?
UFC 149: José Aldo was to defend his featherweight belt against Erik Koch, but the champ was injured in training. So instead the Calgary fans got Faber vs. Renan Barão for the interim bantamweight championship. Not exactly an equal substitution, but we would have called it even if the July 21 event had not also lost fights featuring Michael Bisping and Mauricio Rua.
UFC 150: This Aug. 11 event suffered some losses, too, but only on the undercard. The main event, a lightweight title bout between Benson Henderson and former champ Frankie Edgar, went on as scheduled. So we've got to consider Denver a winner.
UFC 151: Don't ask. What doesn't happen Sept. 1 in Vegas stays in Vegas.
UFC 152: Vegas' loss was Toronto's gain, as Jon Jones, whose refusal to accept a late-replacement challenger had triggered the 151 cancellation, was moved to this Sept. 22 event. His light heavyweight title defense against Belfort was stuck atop the bill, over another championship fight, Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez for the flyweight belt. Two title bouts? Clearly a karmic sign that the Canadians are living nobly.
UFC 153: Not sure how to interpret the laws of karma as they relate to this return to Rio. The Brazilian fans first were to be treated to a title defense by homeboy Aldo, as the featherweight king's postponed fight with Koch was rescheduled for this Oct. 13 show. Then the fight got even better, as Koch dropped out and was replaced by former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar. Then Aldo was injured, and on the same day that the main event fell apart, so did the co-main, with Quinton Jackson pulling out of his fight with hometown hero Glover Teixeira. The locals also lost the chance to see another Brazilian hero, Belfort, take on Belcher.
But all of the discontent evaporated in an instant, as the biggest hero of them all -- Anderson Silva, who the UFC has claimed to be Brazil's most famous active athlete other than Neymar of the Seleção -- stepped up on short notice to fight light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar. It took an act of the gods -- or at least the MMA deity known as "The Spider" -- to make things right.
Next up is UFC 154, and if the Nov. 17 event in Montreal loses homeboy Georges St-Pierre, this event would be situated on a place familiar to sports fans in the home of the Canadiens: on thin ice. The co-main event is Martin Kampmann vs. Johny Hendricks, a nice No. 1 contender showdown in the welterweight division, but not exactly a fight that many folks are going to plunk down $54.99 to watch. Especially when there's not much to talk about below that on the card. So now the UFC will wrap GSP and Carlos Condit in EcoCradle protective packaging and we'll all hold our collective breath.
Another option for the UFC, one that doesn't require us to hold our breath, is to do what the fight promotion is doing with its year-end event. UFC 155 is stacked. No doubt it would feel a sting if Dos Santos-Velasquez II were to fall apart. There's no co-main event that could live up to that championship fight. (If there were, it would be headlining its own pay-per-view, no?) But the event truly promises a full evening of entertaining fights.
The Monday addition that caught my eye is a featherweight showdown between Koch and Ricardo Lamas. Yeah, it's not exactly the superfight of the century, but it's a pairing that says a lot about UFC matchmaking.
Koch is the embodiment of "you snooze, you lose." It's more "you bruise, you lose," really, as the 13-1 "New Breed" was twice lined up for a coveted challenge of Aldo until injuries scuttled the best-laid plans both times. And while he did get rescheduled with Aldo the first time, when Koch pulled out of UFC 153 he was replaced by Edgar ... apparently for good. When Aldo is ready to fight, the UFC has let it be known, he's going to get Edgar, not Koch.
Erik will be taking on a man who also played a role in canceling plans for a featherweight title bout. Sort of. Hatsu Hioki, the former Shooto and Sengoku champ, arrived on the scene a year ago with the expectation that he would pose the next challenge for Aldo. And after dominating Bart Palaszewski in February in his second UFC bout, he was offered his shot. But Hioki decided he needed one more fight before stepping in with the Brazilian, so he turned down the title bout to take on Lamas in June. And lost. Badly.
So now Koch and Lamas will meet, likely to determine who'll take on the Aldo vs. Edgar survivor. That makes it a fascinating fight with significant ramifications. And to find it you'll have to look way down on a card that goes pretty deep.
This is where the chicken-hatching, egg-carrying thing comes into play. The UFC has a most appealing main event supported by a substantial list of tempting fights. In addition to the presumed No. 1 contenders bout at featherweight, we'll get to see two -- maybe even three -- of the leading contenders for a shot at Anderson Silva. At the head of that line is unbeaten Chris Weidman, who's hoping a win over Tim Boetsch will secure him the middleweight title fight he believes he earned with his July destruction of Mark Muñoz.
Boetsch, a winner of four straight -- including upsets of Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard -- no doubt thinks a win over Weidman would make him the top contender. That's a status also being sought out by Alan Belcher, who also has won four in a row -- all finishes -- and will be looking to avenge a 2006 loss to Okami.
That's a lot of top-of-the-heap fighting for one event, and we'll also get to see once-beaten lightweight contender Gray Maynard face Joe Lauzon and featherweight Brad Pickett, the last man to beat 125-pound champ Demetrious Johnson, take on former 135-pound belt holder Eddie Wineland. The always-exciting Chris Leben is also on the card.
We haven't even mentioned the nominal co-main event. Perhaps with good reason. Originally, it was to pit Chael Sonnen against Forrest Griffin, but last week the UFC announced amid considerable acrimony that Chael will have to wait a few months for his first fight at 205 pounds in seven years. (In a matchmaking move that paradoxically is both shocking and not too surprising, he's talked his way into an April challenge of belt holder Jon Jones.) Instead, 155 will see Griffin take on Phil Davis. This one doesn't have the sizzle of some of the evening's lower-billed fights, and it'll be interesting to see how the UFC promotes the card if the main event falls out.
But that's a concern for another day. At this point, the Dana White Fight Club is doing what it has to do -- what it's learned the hard way it must do: It's stacking the deck in a way that will prevent its spotlighted year-end event from crumbling like a house of cards.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the next SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.