Mixed martial arts is a dangerous game. You punch and you kick, you twist limbs and you choke off airways. And that's just what you do in training camp while preparing for an actual fight.
Therein lies the problem. To prepare to fight, you must fight. To ready yourself for hurting an opponent, you must expose yourself to getting hurt.
And MMA fighters are being felled by training camp injuries in epidemic numbers.
The UFC has seven champions, from heavyweight to bantamweight, and more than half of them have their decorated careers on hold because of injuries, mostly sustained out of competition. José Aldo was the most recent to fall, the featherweight champ pulling out of next month's UFC 149 title defense on Saturday after injuring a thigh muscle in training. A month ago, bantam champ Dominick Cruz hurt a knee in the gym and had to cancel his UFC 148 defense. Surgery could keep him out for the rest of the year. And speaking of extended layoffs, welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre has been on the shelf since injuring a knee in training last December. He hasn't defended his belt since April 2011.
The other champ in a holding pattern is Junior dos Santos. Although the heavyweight belt holder is himself healthy, his scheduled rematch with the man he beat for the title, Cain Velasquez, is contingent upon a doctor's note. If the ex-champ's injured left hand is cleared for full-contact training, he'll get his shot at Dos Santos at UFC 152 on Sept. 22 in Toronto. If is always a key word in UFC matchmaking, it seems.
And on and on it goes, the injured list growing by the day. Every injury hurts, testing the limits of the UFC's roster depth. But those main event casualties are especially agonizing. Consider the collapse of the non-title headliner for this month's UFC 147.
When Vitor Belfort broke his left hand in training a couple of weeks ago, that scuttled weeks of hype on Brazil's first season of The Ultimate Fighter, as Belfort was scheduled to fight opposing coach Wanderlei Silva. "The Axe Murderer" now will face Rich Franklin. Not exactly a scintillatingly climactic finale for the event a couple hundred miles north of Rio de Janeiro. But it was the closest thing to lemonade that the UFC could concoct when its top-of-the-card bout turned out to be a lemon.
So in case you're scoring at home, that's UFCs 147, 148 and 149, all with second-try main events. Will someone please pack a roll of bubblewrap around lightweight titlist Benson Henderson and ex-champ Frankie Edgar, protecting the headliners of UFC 150 until they arrive in Denver in mid-August?
If your response to that cartoonish image is to say injuries are nothing to make light of, I'll simply point out that I'm approaching this matter in the spirit of Dana White.
"I got guys dropping like rocks," the UFC president said Friday night in an interview on Fuel TV following the UFC on FX telecast, his face lit up by a smile that clearly demonstrated the man has an appreciation for black humor. "People are getting injured left and -- probably three guys injured while we're sitting here doing this interview."
If only White knew how prophetic his words would prove to be. He was speaking a short time before he learned of the Aldo injury.
How does White find humor in his company's ongoing quandary? "I'm numb to it now," he said later in the interview. "Last year, when the stuff started happening, it was devastating. Now I've chalked it up to this is part of the business."
Injuries happen in every sport, even in practice. If hundreds of wide receivers run thousands of pass routes in training camps across the NFL, the odds are that a few will twist an ankle or blow out a knee or Achilles. It happens even though the object of football has nothing to do with putting ankles and knees at risk. When the Yankees lost Mariano Rivera for the season to a torn ACL and meniscus, the future Hall of Fame closer wasn't anywhere near a pitching mound. He was shagging flies during batting practice. Those are the breaks of the game.
In MMA, injuries are even more of an occupational hazard. We've yet to hear any details on the circumstances surrounding Vitor Belfort's broken hand, but it's safe to assume he didn't hurt it while catching a baseball. He probably was punching someone or something, or blocking a training partner's strike. And why wouldn't he be doing that? To get better at what you do for a living, you've got to practice.
Dana White gets that. He understands more than most that there's big money at stake in today's UFC, and that athletes who've made it to that elite level cannot survive by slackening off in training. He grasps that the company he's helped build is a repository for dreams and ambitions and legacies and futures. The UFC poobah knows that habits formed in practice will show themselves on fight night. He understands that fighters are going to fight.
But he wishes his fighters would take it easy just a little. As White explained during the interview with Fuel TV, "I think what's happening, too -- and me and [matchmaker] Joe Silva were talking about this tonight -- you have so many talented guys out there now all in the same camp, going at it like they're fighting for the title. These guys need to tone it down in training a bit and stop hurting each other."
That's a tough thing to ask a guy who's in the hurting business.