Total Recall: The four big issues facing the UFC in 2013

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

by UnderGround Columnist Ralph Welch
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Back to the Future: The big issues facing the UFC in 2013
Columnist Ralph Welch looks at four of the biggest challenges facing the UFC in the year ahead.

  1. The War on Drugs

There’s an old saying that “time waits for no man”, yet that individual clearly hadn’t considered a therapeutic testosterone exemption. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) became the drug of choice for those looking to inject some artificial enhancement into their armoury in 2012. Stellar names such as Chael Sonnen, Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin have all been revealed as benefitting from the remedy that reverses the ravages of time and allows a fighter to train harder, for longer.

Mixed Martial Arts is a sport of fine margins. One slip, one unseen punch can have devastating consequences. Given the gaping holes in the current drug testing policy across the sport, it is unsurprising that some fighters seek a chemical boost to give them the razor-thin edge in such a perilous profession.

Disgraced former Balco founder Victor Conte, the mastermind behind a drugs culture in athletics that cheated hundreds of clean competitors out of prize money, estimates that at least 50% of MMA fighters are abusing Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). It’s a figure that doesn’t surprise those within the sport, thus emphasising the scale of the problem the UFC faces.

Whether it is testosterone, steroids or marijuana that they are ingesting, too many fighters are slipping through the rather flimsy net designed to keep the sport clean. Though the situation is improving slowly, a watertight drug testing system requires serious logistical and financial backing. At present, neither the UFC nor the athletic commissions are ready to make that commitment.

2. Injuries

The unprecedented spate of injuries that afflicted the UFC this year has undeniably damaged consumer confidence. Card announcements, once the source of feverish hype and speculation, are now greeted with distinctly dampened enthusiasm. The matches themselves look fantastic on paper, but fans are less confident that they will ever make it into the Octagon. Some observers have cited this as a key reason for occasionally sluggish ticket and pay-per-view sales in 2012.

There was no finer example than the infamous non-event of UFC 151, the first such occasion to be cancelled in UFC history, costing the Zuffa-owned brand millions of dollars. Afterwards, blame was projected in every direction: should Dan Henderson have been forthcoming about his knee problems? Should Dana White have approved a card that relied so heavily on a main event to keep it afloat? And should Jon Jones have accepted the short-notice fight against Chael Sonnen, a big personality who posed little risk to his title reign?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle of that triumvirate, yet few would dispute that at its heart lay a deeper question about how to keep fighters healthy.

Never short of a viewpoint, Dana White has opined that fighters need to train smarter rather than harder, thus preserving their fragile physiques ahead of a big fight. It’s a view that directly opposes the “drillers are killers” mentality of so many modern-day fight camps. Are these stables, stacked with hungry athletes looking to extract every ounce of excellence out of their minds and bodies, actually compounding the problem?

With great camps across the globe overseen by world-class coaching staff, there is no shortage of expertise on offer. We shouldn’t forget also that MMA is still a sport in its infancy compared to its contemporaries. With just two decades on the clock, all aspects of the sport – including training and conditioning – are still evolving.

Doubtless another year like this will promote some introspection. For now, we all move forward with our fingers crossed, hoping that the huge cards earmarked for early 2013 go ahead as planned.

3. Superfights

If Mixed Martial Arts learnt anything from boxing this year, it was to strike while the iron is hot. The right fist of Juan Manuel Marquez travelled a mere six inches before exploding on Manny Pacquiao’s chin, and an oft-mooted superfight with Floyd Mayweather instantly went up in smoke.

After George St-Pierre’s long-awaited return against Carlos Condit, attention turned to a superfight with the greatest fighter of all time, UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson “Spider” Silva. Both titleholders have dominated their divisions and Dana White can barely contain his excitement for a catchweight contest that would likely break the brand’s box office records.

Now it seems St-Pierre has eyes elsewhere and Silva seems reluctant to take a step up in weight to take on the pretender to his pound-for-pound crown, Jon Jones.

White believes wholeheartedly that big sums of money alone should provide the solution. Yet these superstars have already amassed fame and fortune. Whilst the number of zeroes on the paycheck will play their part, bringing together sizeable egos and reputations for a legacy-defining event is a painstaking process.

The UFC needs to start soon. The clock is ticking.

4. Nick Diaz

How do you solve a problem like Nick Diaz? The Stockton slugger with the sport’s most rabid fanbase still poses more questions than answers for his UFC paymasters. Even last week when Dana White announced a blockbusting St-Pierre v Diaz headliner for March in Montreal, the UFC President was forced to sheepishly admit that Diaz was not returning his phone messages. If Diaz won’t return calls with a multi-million dollar payday in the offing, it’s no surprise that many observers remain sceptical as to whether one of the sport’s most complex characters will even make it to the main event in Canada.

Officially, Diaz is still under suspension until February in any case, though even that process has been less than straightforward. When it comes to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the UFC traditionally prefers its fighters to accept their punishment with good grace, serve their time quietly and then return to the main event picture with their slate as unstained as can be expected (Alistair Overeem is a case in point).

Diaz, however, has attacked his suspension with the same ferocity that he greets his assailants in the cage.  Even now, his legal advisors are locked in talks with the NSAC over the validity and severity of his suspension. It’s a tactic that, like the man himself,  invites confusion and dismay in equal measure. Given his popularity, Diaz has the potential to make a huge amount of money for himself and his employers. Whether that potential is ultimately realised, is open to question.

With all of this going on, it’s interesting that in a piece of booking resembling a thinly-disguised insurance policy, a plethora of other welterweights have also been booked onto that March card. This includes the undisputed number one contender Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks. The division’s hardest hitter has complained vociferously that it should be he rather than Diaz that gets the next shot at St-Pierre’s crown.

He may yet get his wish.