All it took was one pre-fight, pre-licensing positive drug test from heavyweight challenger Josh Barnett to derail the main event of Affliction's Aug. 1 show and, perhaps, its chances of ever turning into a major player on the MMA scene. If my pro sports timeline is accurate, this is about when Barnett will embark upon his innocence tour. He'll tell us that the test was flawed, his samples were mishandled, or the culprit is really some over-the-counter supplement. Maybe he'll even try to improve his odds by arguing all three, and maybe his days of fighting in the United States are behind him now, regardless of what he says. But it doesn't matter. Not now.
Even if this wasn't the second positive test in Barnett's career, and even if the California State Athletic Commission didn't have one of the most famously disjointed appeals systems, the damage to Affliction's immediate future is now irreparable. Regardless of who gets tapped to replace Barnett against the world's best heavyweight, Fedor Emelianenko, the one thing we know about him is that he'll no longer rank among the top five, if he is indeed a heavyweight at all.
The leading candidate to replace Barnett at Affliction "Trilogy" is Vitor Belfort, who was once a great light heavyweight before becoming a mediocre light heavyweight before reinventing himself as a quality middleweight. He's extremely fast, has excellent hands and is competent on the ground. He's not a heavyweight, though, and unless he takes steps that put him at equal risk as Barnett of failing a pre-fight drug test, he isn't going to become one by next Saturday.
Affliction's vice president Tom Atencio said he's trying to come up with the best opponent he possibly can for Fedor, and I believe him. But when a replacement is needed to battle, arguably, the top MMA fighter in the world, there's a short list of guys who will make the cut. It's not like replacing a mid-level welterweight on the undercard; finding someone who can tip the scale the right way is only the beginning of the issue.
The big obstacle is that not only are the few suitable replacements for Barnett already under contract to the UFC, which would rather give Affliction money than one of its heavyweights, but also that Atencio & Co. have essentially built their promotion around an escalating series of Fedor-themed main events. The Russian juggernaut has headlined both of Affliction's previous cards, beating TimSylvia and then Andrei Arlovski, while Barnett put away two lower-tier heavyweights in Pedro Rizzo and Gilbert Yvel as part of the build-up to his meeting with Emelianenko.
But now that meeting is canceled, and Affliction is stuck. This is what happens to the best-laid plans in MMA, and this is the weakness inherent in being an upstart MMA organization.
Had this situation happened to the UFC, Dana White could have picked up the phone and called any number of replacements. When Frank Mir pulled out his UFC 98 bout with Brock Lesnar due to a knee injury, White had the luxury of scratching the fight and replacing it with a completely different title bout. He had the luxury of the deepest fighter roster in the business, and because his organization isn't built around one main event fighter he could mix and match however he pleased.
While Affliction's roster has great name recognition among hardcore fans, it is far too shallow for the tricky maneuvering of last-minute replacements. It can throw Belfort in over his head, or perhaps even get an actual heavyweight, like Brett Rogers, who proved himself with a knockout over Arlovski, but the fight will still be a consolation bout and a no-win situation for Emelianenko.
If he charges across the ring on Aug. 1 and knocks out his opponent, whomever that may be, with a single right hand in the opening seconds, it still won't be enough. If he does it blind-folded and drunk while singing the Russian national anthem in perfect pitch, then maybe fans will be impressed. Maybe.
But when it's all over, Affliction will have suffered greatly for the sins of Barnett. It'll also have learned the same lesson other struggling MMA promotions learned the hard way: A business can't be built around one man. There are too many things that can, and eventually will, go wrong.
Affliction may be realizing that now. But it's probably too late.