Only in a sport as batshit as cagefighting could the main event fall through just 11 hours before the fight, writes Don Rowe from Melbourne.
Nothing matters and everything sucks, but even more so if you’re invested in the UFC. Fans awoke this morning to the news that middleweight champion and hometown hero Robert Whittaker has been hospitalised with a hernia and his title fight with American Kelvin Gastelum is off. Whittaker has now been pulled from two UFC events in Melbourne, and due to the quirks of the sport, is yet to officially defend his title after almost 18 months. The cancellation leaves the card, already lacking in star power outside of the headlining fights, resembling more a free-to-air event than a must-see pay-per-view.
There is one upside, with a caveat. Israel Adesanya’s fight with Brazilian superstar Anderson Silva is now the main event. Unlike most main events, however, the fight is three rounds rather than the usual five, meaning in practice nothing has really changed for the Kiwi. And while a victory over Silva remains just as important, the fight loses some urgency when Gastelum remains first in line for a crack at Whittaker regardless of the outcome.
That’s assuming the UFC doesn’t strip Whittaker, create an interim title or otherwise screw him over. It wouldn’t be the first promotional shenanigan – in December the organisation moved an event to an entirely different state on one week’s notice to work around a drug suspension for golden child Jon Jones. Pushing Adesanya to the front of the line would be relatively beige in comparison.
Whittaker’s removal points to other issues for the UFC. A journalist was ridiculed at the press conference Friday after pointing out to UFC president Dana White that UFC 234 is incredibly top-heavy, asking if the organisation had trouble convincing marquee fighters to fight so far from home. White replied with trademark abrasiveness, telling the journo to go watch The Bachelor. But the consensus among impartial fans is overwhelmingly on his side. There are still three Kiwis fighting this afternoon, but only Adesanya has name recognition outside of hardcore obsessives. The new co-main event features a middling lightweight facing a debutant, and the sole woman’s fight wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-afternoon regional card in some school hall.
Of course, name recognition doesn’t equate to entertainment, and the card has five or six sleeper fights that are absolutely worth watching. But, as UFC commentator Jon Anik let slip at the weigh in, this card was built around Robert Whittaker, with Adesanya’s expected victory over Silva in the co-main event setting up a trans-Tasman superfight before the end of the year. That looks to be a long shot now, and the pressure is on Adesanya to captivate when he fights later today – provided he doesn’t hurt himself walking to the cage.
In a sport this batshit, anything could happen.
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