The UFC needed to find a better Plan B than Ilir Latifi
There always was the potential for this weekend to bring turmoil to the UFC. And it wouldn't have necessarily been a bad thing.
But now turbulence of a different sort has rocked the promotion's fight card slated for Saturday in Stockholm (2 p.m. ET, Fuel TV). And it's anything but good.
The source of both types of unrest is the same: Alexander Gustaffson.
First, the potentially positive vibration, which never came to fruition: The 15-1 light heavyweight was scheduled to take on Gegard Mousasi in the main event in his hometown, and a victory -- especially if impressive -- could very well have scuttled the promotion's plans for its 205-pound division. As things stand, Lyoto Machida has been proclaimed the division's No. 1 contender, but the prospect of seeing him fight a rematch with Jon Jones (who first must defend his belt against Chael Sonnen later this month) hasn't exactly been energizing a fan base that cannot set aside the image of Machida being choked out by "Bones" and dropped limply to the canvas a little over a year ago. An eye-opening performance this weekend by Gustaffson, who at 6-foot-5 would be the first challenger with the physique to match up with Jones, might have leapfrogged the 26-year-old Swede into a more intriguingly marketable title bout.
But forget about all of that. On Tuesday, the UFC on Fuel TV 9 card was itself robbed of its intrigue and marketability when Gustaffson, who'd suffered a cut above his left eye in training, was declared unfit to fight by the Swedish Mixed Martial Arts Federation. Four days before showtime for an event 5,000 miles from the promotion's Las Vegas home base, the UFC had no main event.
Enter Ilir Latifi.
Who? That's a reasonable question for even a mixed martial arts diehard.
Latifi is a barrel-chested 29-year-old from Malmo, Sweden, known (to those who know of him) as "The Sledgehammer." He's fought 10 times professionally, never in the UFC. Most of his bouts have been in Sweden and all but one have been in Europe, and he's won seven times -- three by submission, two by knockout, and his last two by decision. One of those decisions ended a seven-fight win streak by former King of the Cage champion Tony Lopez. One of Latifi's two losses came against Emanuel Newton, who last month won the Bellator light heavyweight tournament. And there you have the slim resumé of the stocky man who'll headline this weekend's offering by the sport's biggest promotion.
So apparently when the UFC went hunting for a last-minute tough guy, Mike Rice was unavailable?
That's a joke, one of many that have been thrown around ever since this main event began to unravel. Those who don't appreciate black humor, of course, have been more dour. Just ask Wanderlei Silva, who took to Twitter to announce that he'd been contacted by the UFC to fill in for Gustaffson. He wrote this on Monday -- you know, April Fool's Day, otherwise known as Take Everything You Hear With a Grain of Salt Day. I mean, my son's after-school announcement that he'd been sent to the principal's office almost got me, until I saw the grin he couldn't hold back from creeping across his face. In the case of Silva, it was an unlikely but not implausible scenario he threw out, which is to say it was a good April Fool's joke.
Until he took it too far. When reporters started calling, Wanderlei's first and only comment should have been "April Fools!" That would have been the end of it. Instead, he confirmed that he was packing for Sweden, allowing this faux story to get a head of Internet steam behind it. The tall tale quickly reached Mousasi, who hadn't heard a thing from the UFC but nonetheless tweeted his acceptance of the bout: "Let's go!" Gegard's respectful tone -- he referred to Silva as "Mr. @wandfc" -- took a dramatic shift, however, once he heard he'd been taken for a fool. "Idiot of the Year 2013," he went back to Twitter to write.
Some fans and members of the media might agree. Others might instead attach the label to Dana White and his UFC matchmaking team for putting together another top-heavy fight card with no Plan B. When have we seen this scenario unfold before? Oh, yeah, when Dan Henderson had to pull out of the UFC 151 main event and Jon Jones wouldn't accept Chael Sonnen as a replacement opponent on nine days' notice. That fight card last September was canceled altogether, but the situation was different. It was a pay-per-view, where the bar is set higher. There's a distinction between asking fans to pay $55 to watch just the opening act and simply asking them to tune in for what you have to offer. The UFC on Fuel TV card has lost much of its appeal, for sure, but fans who like fights still will see plenty of them.
Still, this is a problem the UFC must address. What if this were to happen to another PPV main event? The biggest MMA organization on the planet, with more than 400 fighters under contract, simply must be capable of putting together two headline-worthy fights for each card. White & Co. have to take their co-main events more seriously. Sometimes they do -- Johny Hendricks vs. Carlos Condit could have carried last month's UFC 158 if it had to in a pinch, and Mark Hunt vs. Stefan Struve would have sufficed, if need be, at the event before that, a UFC on Fuel TV card outside Tokyo -- but not always. Not this time, in fact. There's no way Saturday's co-main event, Ross Pearson vs. Ryan Couture, could have been elevated to top-billing. Even with Ryan's last name.
But that's a matter for future discussion in the company's meeting rooms. This weekend's business is to be conducted in the octagon, a workplace where the show must go on no matter who shows up to work. Mousasi (33-3-2), a former Strikeforce and Dream champion, gets to make his UFC debut not as an underdog but as a favorite -- though not a fan favorite, as the Netherlands-based 27-year-old still will be facing a Swede. And as for Latifi, he's got the Rocky theme in his head, maybe even in his heart, and an opportunity to ensure that no one ever again says "Who?" at the mention of his name. If he pulls off the upset, or simply puts on a performance worthy of a UFC main event, there could even be a sequel to his once-in-a-lifetime story.