UFC 151, although cancelled, not without its winners and losers
In the sports world at large, the first event cancellation in the modern era of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a curiosity: A one-day headline on the home page of major websites and the subject of a quick mention on national sports broadcasts.
Inside mixed martial arts' insulated world, however, the deep-sixing of UFC 151 reverberated with the force of an earthquake, the aftershocks of which are still being felt.
You know the story by now: Dan Henderson suffered a knee injury training for his Sept. 1 main event title shot at light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Jones refused a bout with replacement Chael Sonnen. In response, UFC president Dana White pulled the plug on the event in an angry teleconference. Jones was slated to meet Lyoto Machida instead at UFC 152 on Sept. 22, but in a final twist, Machida refused the date, so Jones will instead face veteran Vitor Belfort.
MMA is a community and a lifestyle as much as it is a pure sport. Nearly a week after the sport's version of "The Decision," that community is still debating who's at fault for the chain of events.
Who came out of all this a winner, a loser, or somewhere in between? A look, in alphabetical order, at the key players:
You'll have to excuse the former UFC light heavyweight champion if he feels like he won the lottery. Here's a 35-year-old who just months ago appeared to be in an uphill struggle. Belfort lost his 2011 title challenge to middleweight champion Anderson Silva via spectacular face-kick knockout. In May, Belfort broke a hand while training for a planned UFC 147 main event against Wanderlei Silva. Belfort was then slated for a tough middleweight contender's bout against Alan Belcher at UFC 153 in October.
All of a sudden, Belfort has a golden ticket.
Jones, who commented two weeks ago that he didn't want to fight Machida because he doesn't consider Machida a pay-per-view draw, turned around and rejected a fight with Sonnen, a massive pay-per-view seller, for the reason that Sonnen was a middleweight who didn't deserve a shot at the 205-pound belt. Then Jones turned accepted a match with Belfort, a middleweight since 2009. Go figure.
Belfort is on the wrong ends of astronomical odds heading into the Jones fight. But he's a cagey vet with a puncher's chance, and simply getting the opportunity makes him a winner.
One can appreciate the dilemma Henderson faced. With an MCL injury three weeks before the Jones fight, pulling out of what figured to be his last, best shot at glory was the last thing he wanted.
This is a former Olympic wrestler and the only MMA fighter ever to simultaneously hold multiple weight-class titles for a major promotion. The last thing he's going to do is quit. You can't blame a tenacious competitor for wanting to forge ahead, as he's done for his entire career.
Should Henderson have been quicker to report his knee injury to the UFC? That's another tough call. Rumors spread fast in the chatty MMA world. Suppose Henderson reported his injury, and then found out he would be able to continue with the fight after all?
Henderson just turned 42 and is not getting any younger. He'll have to get back in line at 205 pounds. Henderson may or may not work his way back to the top, but it's hard to believe he won't give it another go.
One can make a logical argument that Jones was right to refuse a short-notice bout with Sonnen. But such a stance misses the big picture.
The champion fancies himself a businessman first. He takes pride in his breakthrough Nike endorsement deal. Jones' defenders have said, in so many words, that Jones needs to protect his brand. But Jones and his handlers seem to have lost sight of the fact MMA fans are a unique breed. A fan base which just wants to see fighters fight aren't likely to buy too many Nike products from a fighter they perceive, fair or not, as having personally sunk a major event.
If Jones took the Sonnen fight and won, he would have been a hero for saving the show. If he took the fight with Sonnen and lost ... so what? This isn't boxing, which places a premium on gaudy won/loss records. Some of the best-selling, biggest-money fighters in MMA history, like Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, finished their careers with double digits in the loss column. Fans have proven time and again that they'll shell out big bucks to see a fighter who comes to fight, win or or lose. They would have forgiven an upset loss to Sonnen.
Even before last week's episode went down, Jones was not a pay-per-view seller on the level of stars like Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva, the latter of whom offered to take a bout at light heavyweight in order to save UFC 151. Now Jones is perceived as a prima donna. Whether you believe White or Jones is at fault for the cancellation, as a business, Jon Jones the corporation is in need of a new board of directors.
After UFC on Fox 4 in Los Angeles on Aug. 4, where Machida scored an impressive knockout win over Ryan Bader, White made a hard sell on why Machida deserved a shot at the light heavyweight championship, saying he pushed for it more than any other contender.
Well, Machida didn't exactly come off as an eager beaver in the wake of the Jones fallout. The former champion was en route to Brazil when the news came down that Henderson needed to pull out of the Sept. 1 date, so it is understandable why he turned down that specific date. It's a bit tougher to figure why he'd say no to Sept. 22.
Machida's reasoning for skipping the title shot is sound on the surface: He wanted a full six weeks to prepare for Jones. Conveniently enough, that would place a Jones-Machida fight at UFC 153, which will take place in Machida's home country of Brazil. Nice try, Lyoto.
White went out of his way to convince everyone that nobody wanted a title shot more than Machida. The way things panned out, though, White isn't likely to do him favors any time soon.
MMA's master manipulator came out of last week's events smelling like a rose. Sonnen's career path appeared blocked after losing twice to Anderson Silva, most recently on July 7. He returns to light heavyweight competition for the first time in since 2005 when he meets Forrest Griffin on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas.
By offering to fight Jones, Sonnen came off as the hero of the story. His willingness to take the bout on short notice has been called by his detractors a win-win situation and a no-brainer, but presumably those making such proclamations have never been on the wrong end of a string of Jones elbows. Sonnen was willing take that chance. As Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva prove, no fighter connects with an audience like those willing to face anyone at any time.
Sonnen's ploy to vault into a title shot didn't have an immediate payoff. But the way events transpired, as long as he takes care of matters in the cage -- which at his age and new weight class aren't a given -- Sonnen guaranteed he'll remain relevant for some time to come.
In the wake of the UFC 151 fiasco, White, Jones, and the UFC have been compared to counterparts in other sports.
Such talk misses the point that the UFC has gotten where it has -- rising from a near-dead brand to the unquestioned leader in its industry -- by embracing its niche as the square peg in the round hole of sports franchises. Whenever the UFC's detractors have tried to force the peg into the hole, White has dug in his heels and the company's passionate fans have usually sided with the UFC.
But last week demonstrated this approach's limitations. Jones didn't design a fight card which hinged on one big main event. The UFC did. And it did so because it has spread the brand thin. The UFC is pushing its schedule about as far as can be pushed. As a result, fighters are getting hurt in training with an alarming frequency, fights are falling out, and in the case of UFC 151, worst-case scenarios can unfold.
The company has gotten itself out of much deeper holes, but White needs to recognize that it's time to scale things back a bit.