UFC's message: Don't get hurt
If you didn't know better, you'd have thought UFC president Dana White was talking about an act of God, some unavoidable misfortune that finds its way across the universe and zaps you right in the teeth. A tree falling on your house in the middle of the night. A meteor rocketing through the roof of your Camry as you zip along the highway. Nothing you can do.
"Seriously," White said to a group of reporters last Friday afternoon, "it's like getting dragged out into the parking lot and beat with sticks. It couldn't be worse for the kid."
The "kid" in that sentence is UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. The metaphorical parking lot stick-beating is the torn ACL that knocked him out his planned title defense against Urijah Faber at UFC 148 in July. Or rather, it's not so much the injury itself, but the chain of events that the injury set off. And it's not so much an act of God as it is an act of the UFC, though for MMA fighters the distinction can sometimes seem hazy at best.
The whole thing started, as these things usually do, with the best-laid plans. Cruz and Faber would serve as opposing coaches on this season UFC's reality TV show -- The Ultimate Fighter: Live -- then they'd close the book on their rivalry with a rubber match once the season was over. But Cruz's injury midway through the season meant he wouldn't be able to make the July 7 date. The UFC could either wait for him to heal up, and risk losing whatever hype the show had generated for the match-up, or else bring in a replacement opponent for Faber to fight. The fact that White was standing around in the Ultimate Fighter gym talking about Faber as if he'd just been run over by a bus should tell you which choice the UFC settled on.
There were other minor misfortunes heaped on the injured Cruz, as well. Because none of his fighters made it into the reality TV tournament finals, White explained, he wouldn't be getting one of those nifty free cars the UFC usually awards to both coaches. So there's another parking lot stick-whacking, just for good measure. He also wouldn't get to participate in what would have been the most lucrative fight of his career, and instead he'd have to watch from outside the cage as Faber and Brazilian bantamweight Renan Barao competed for an interim title -- a shiny UFC championship belt that looks exactly like the one Cruz owns, the one he earned by being the baddest man in the weight class for the last two years or so. Whack, whack, whack.
Sadly, this has become par for the course in the UFC. No matter how much praise is heaped upon the champion in each division, as soon as an injury keeps them out of action for more than six months the UFC pulls a replica belt out of some Las Vegas storage shed and offers it up to the next best option. It's understandable, in a way. Fight promoters have to sell pay-per-views and put butts in seats, and the easiest way to do both is to throw around words like 'championship bout.' Of course, asking people to pay money to see an interim champion is a little like asking them to show up on Broadway to see a cast full of understudies. The people who know aren't fooled. Not even a little bit. Besides, what's the point of even having a title if you can just create a new one whenever the champ gets hurt?
And, make no mistake, they do get hurt. There's Cruz, who's out with a knee injury. There's UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, who's been sidelined with the same thing since December. Then there are all the injured non-champs, like Vitor Belfort, who just pulled out of his UFC 147 main event with a broken hand, as well as a heap of heavyweights from last weekend's UFC 146 card who are waiting in line for X-rays and MRIs to find out just how long they'll be out of action.
That shouldn't surprise anyone. In a sport where alpha males pummel one another with fists wrapped in the barest sheath of leather, injuries are going to happen. Sometimes they happen in the fights themselves. That's unavoidable. Other times they stem from overtraining in gyms full of other UFC fighters, all pounding away on each other as if they're actually trying to injure themselves and each other. That part is totally avoidable, but still seemingly inevitable with the way MMA fighters insist on working one another over.
What's odd is not that professional fighters get hurt, but that the UFC seems to have so little patience for it. For an organization that goes to such great lengths to match the best against the best, it takes surprisingly little to convince it to settle for the best available. Again, this is a business, and I get that. There are dates on the calendar that need to be filled (probably too many of them, in fact, but that's a topic for another day), and you can't keep postponing fights every time someone pulls a muscle. At some point you have to go with whoever's healthy.
It's just that, how many times can you hand out a replica title as an award for being the best, non-injured fighter of the moment before you've unwittingly told your fighters and your fans that these titles don't mean much at all? How many metaphorical parking lot beatdowns can you deliver to your own champion -- the one who agreed to take the reality TV coaching gig that very few fighters with any decent options are eager to volunteer for -- before it starts to seem like wearing the belt isn't always all it's cracked up to be? The whole reason the championship is special is because there's only one. Churning out xeroxed versions might sell an extra pay-per-view or two, but it only reminds us that it was never the physical hunk of leather and metal that mattered in the first place.