For years and years, the UFC saw New York City, specifically Madison Square Garden, as its white whale, an elusive dream venue to stage fights.
Then, once New York finally regulated MMA in 2016, MSG became its crown jewel and home to its richest live gate, by far: $17.7 million for UFC 205.
Now, with UFC 230 set to be staged there on Nov. 3, less than six weeks from now, the sport’s biggest stage sits without a main event, looming as a potential embarrassment for the company.
The UFC coveted the credibility and spotlight that staging cards in New York City would produce. The problem comes when less than two years after finally getting there, it’s staring at the possibility of putting out a dog night in the most famous arena in the world.
It’s one thing if everything breaks bad – timing, injuries, suspensions, fighter politics – and you hold a weaker card in Calgary or something. Combat sports are built on unpredictability and sometimes matchups get decimated. It’s another if it happens in the city the company cares about most.
Right now, UFC 230 has no main event. UFC president Dana White has pulled some rabbits out of his hat through the years and there is still time, but due to injuries (current champions Daniel Cormier, Robert Whittaker, Tyron Woodley and Rose Namajunas are all currently sidelined) and timing (Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes are already headlining UFC 232 in late December) there aren’t a lot of obvious options. Jon Jones getting a reduction in his suspension for performance enhancing drugs and coincidentally becoming eligible to return to competition in late October sprung hope of him headlining the card. That, however, has been categorically ruled out.
“That isn’t happening,” White said last week.
The only potential fight of broad interest is a lightweight bout between Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz, who has proven to be a major pay-per-view draw but hasn’t fought since August 2016. The issue is, even as he continued to train, Diaz has maintained publicly he isn’t fighting “anyone,” let alone Poirier on that night.
That appeared to change Tuesday when, potentially realizing the predicament the UFC is in, both Poirier and Diaz added to the chaos by announcing on social media that they were now fighting in the main event for the newly created 165-pound division.
A new division? What? The UFC quickly squashed that. It has 155-pound lightweight and 170-pound welterweight divisions. Using boxing as an example, it has long rejected creating anything in between, saying too many weight classes confuses fans and devalues titles. So it’s a no on 165. At least for now.
Such a circus over the main event of a New York card is not at all how White and Co. expected it when they dreamed of getting to Madison Square Garden. White and his former co-owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, were obsessed with the city.
The problem was getting the sport legalized. New York proved to be the final state to hold out sanctioning mixed martial arts (UFC 7 was held in Buffalo back in 1995, before the sport was banned in most places).
No matter how popular the UFC grew, no matter how much White and Co. pleaded, lobbied and sued, they couldn’t solve their New York riddle. Powerful labor unions, at odds with the Fertittas’ employment practices at casinos they own, outmaneuvered the UFC in Albany politics.
It wasn’t until April 2016 that the UFC finally broke through. The first New York card was staged at MSG in November of that year, UFC 205, but by then, the Fertittas had sold their stake of the UFC.
A Conor McGregor-Eddie Alvarez lightweight title fight headlined a Madison Square Garden card with two other championship bouts, a nod to how important the UFC felt it was to make a splash in New York. It was a signature event for the company, a mountain climbed. White was understandably proud. The UFC has returned with numbered cards in Brooklyn (208, 223), Buffalo (210) and MSG (217), as well as smaller ones in Albany and Utica.
Now it’s staring at an empty bag and being played on social media by fighters creating new weight classes. The truth is, with almost nothing else possible, the UFC needs to find a way to get Diaz in the Octagon. While creating a weight class is a permanent solution to a short-term problem, rigged-up title fights are not new.
The UFC wants its pay-per-view cards to have a title fight as one of the main events. It occasionally stages non-title fights as the main, but it’s rare — Rich Franklin-Wanderlei Silva at UFC 99, Rampage Jackson-Rashad Evans at UFC 114 and McGregor-Diaz II at UFC 202 are famous exceptions. None needed a belt to sell.
As a result, interim belts are often on the line to make things look good, although the end result is the predicted confusion. Just last week when the UFC promoted the McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov main event at next week’s UFC 229 in Las Vegas, three belts were on the table at the news conference in Radio City Music Hall. The problem? Only Nurmagomedov’s lightweight belt was legit – the UFC had stripped McGregor of his two for inaction.
Diaz is one of the most popular and profitable stars the UFC has going – a step behind McGregor and Jones, but a proven box-office draw (both of his fights with McGregor did over one million buys). They haven’t figured out how to manage the mercurial Californian well. He hasn’t fought since that McGregor fight over two years ago.
At this point, making sure Diaz is fighting for a belt in the Octagon in early November may be the only way to save the card set to be staged in an arena the UFC once salivated over. While Diaz and Poirier getting their new weight class may prove to be a fantasy, the power they may hold right now is increasingly real.
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