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UFC Fight Night 124 on Sunday provided a decent amount of action and closed with a barnburner between Jeremy Stephens and Doo Ho Choi in the main event. Despite the back-and-forth headliner, Darren Elkins’ continued success and Kamaru Usman’s dominance, the real story involved what did not happen at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. There were two last-minute fight cancellations, as Zak Cummings and Uriah Hall experienced weight cut-related medical issues that prevented them from meeting Thiago Alves and Vitor Belfort in their respective bouts.
What does the Ultimate Fighting Championship do with fighters who have done everything they are expected to do by showing up well-trained, on weight and ready to go, only to find out the opponent they have been preparing to face has not followed suit? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer, as the promotion has shown very little consistency in the matter.
We’ve seen a wide range of responses. UFC 200 saw Daniel Cormier meet replacement opponent Anderson Silva in a non-title affair at 205 pounds, effectively stripping him of contracted incentives for main events and championship fights; Tyron Woodley accepted his show money and Reebok sponsorship payment after Johny Hendricks failed to weigh in at UFC 192; Tony Ferguson was reportedly awarded his base pay for a cancelled UFC 209 booking against Khabib Nurmagomedov; Ian McCall received show and win money after Justin Scoggins was not medically cleared to compete at UFC 201; and we have even witnessed full payouts get handed out to fighters responsible for cancellations, as Dennis Hallman was paid, with his proposed win bonus attached, when he was pulled from his UFC on FX 5 pairing with Thiago Tavares at the last minute.
However, Belfort has not been paid at all for what was supposed to be his retirement fight. The 40-year-old Brazilian took to Instagram to plead his case. In a long post that reiterated his intention to leave the sport following his next fight, Belfort demanded that he be compensated for showing up prepared to compete and asked his bosses, “Where’s the respect?” He has a point.
In response, UFC President Dana White appeared on Fox Sports 1 and insisted that Belfort chose not to fight. Apparently, “The Phenom” was offered a last-minute replacement for UFC Fight Night 124 or UFC 220 this Saturday in Boston. Belfort rejected both offers. Now, a rematch with recently dethroned middleweight champion Michael Bisping is rumored to be in the works for March. Without much verifiable information being made public, it’s certainly possible that Belfort was not paid because he declined the UFC’s overtures when Hall withdrew. If that’s the case, the promotion is adding another wrinkle to its inconsistent policies on fighters who have been abandoned by their opponents at the eleventh hour.
At the highest levels of the sport, eight- to 12-week training camps are carefully crafted to specific opponents. It’s safe to assume that Belfort brought in and paid coaches and sparring partners with Hall in mind. After weeks of training for a particular fighter, a sudden switch could prove problematic. For example, Rick Story saw his six-fight winning streak snapped when Nate Marquardt was pulled from their UFC Live 4 matchup in 2011. Story’s preparation was of little use, as former college wrestler Charlie Brenneman took him down repeatedly and scored an upset decision win. Story has never again replicated the success he enjoyed before the opponent swap.
Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson dealt with another piece of inconsistent policy in the aftermath of his postponed UFC 215 title defense against Ray Borg. When Borg’s inability to weigh in resulted in the bout being postponed, Johnson was not paid. According to “Mighty Mouse,” UFC officials told him he would not be paid because the match was going to be rescheduled for UFC 216 a few weeks later. This effectively extended his training camp and the financial costs associated with it while also potentially compromising his physical performance. While Johnson went on to submit Borg, retired middleweight Tim Kennedy cited a prolonged training camp for his performance against Kelvin Gastelum. They were scheduled to fight at UFC 205 before the bout was moved to UFC 206 a month later.
It’s clearly a wise practice for fighters to get strategic about their careers and carefully consider the pros and cons of accepting replacement opponents on short notice. How can a promoter expect its athletes to show up fully prepared in all phases of MMA while also making reckless decisions that could impact their future? Without something in place contractually, the UFC can hold the prize hostage from the prizefighter with the intention of piecing together haphazard matchups. When it comes time for these same fighters to negotiate new contracts, can we realistically expect those in power to factor in last-minute “favors” performed to preserve a fight card if the result was a loss?
Fighters like Belfort are put in a difficult position: Sacrifice the time, money and pain of a full training camp to see it end with no reward, or step in ill-prepared for the task at hand and risk your long-term health and livelihood. These are choices no high-level mixed martial artist should have to make, and a simple policy change would eliminate this Catch 22. Fighters known for their willingness to take on anybody anywhere at any time can still be presented with that option and get paid per their original bout agreement. However, expecting every fighter to adopt the Conor McGregor or Donald Cerrone approach is simply unrealistic and unfair. Wins and losses are crucial to lesser-known fighters trying to establish themselves, not to mention the costs associated with preparation; and fighters at the top of the food chain have too much at stake to be forced into making potentially foolhardy decisions.
Perhaps the solution is paying show money and forfeiting the win bonus. Maybe full payouts are warranted. The UFC could reimburse its fighters for extended training camp expenses. Whatever it decides to do should be written into contracts and made standard practice across the board.