(Kevin Marshall's opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Spike.)
Injuries have become a real problem for the UFC, as evidenced by the absence of UFC 151 this past weekend. The event was originally scheduled to be headlined by Jon Jones defending his Light Heavyweight championship against Dan Henderson, but was cancelled when Henderson had to pull out due to a partial tear in his MCL and Jones refused to take a replacement fight against Chael Sonnen on eight days' notice.
Lost in the ensuing fan outrage and controversy surrounding Jones's refusal to take the fight against Sonnen (see last week's In Defense of Jon Jones
) is the real problem, which is that the UFC is putting on too many events in the midst of what's viewed by many as an epidemic of fighter injuries. To call it an epidemic, though, might belie the possibility that this isn't an isolated phenomenon.
Losing a handful of fighters to injuries in consecutive events is bad luck. Losing them consistently and having them decimate cards, as has been the case for the last several months, may be indicative of a trend.
The trend has gone from shuffling cards to outright cancellations, and despite Dana White's attempt to lay blame at the feet of Jon Jones, the real issue is that they didn't have enough name recognition in the undercard to continue in the absence of the main event. That's surprising given that that just two years ago, they would have fights in the co-main event position that could headline any other pay-per-view.
Isolating the causes can be tricky, and there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus or definitive answer. There are, however, some obvious possible explanations.Overtraining
Dana White himself has acknowledged the issue of fighters subjecting themselves to hard grappling and sparring sessions with aggressive world-class teammates in preparation for a fight. Describing it as the "iron sharpens iron" mentality, he notes that years ago there used to be camps where maybe one or two elite fighters trained, but now many of the top fighters are consolidated into a handful of camps.
I partially agree with this theory, though I think there's also a problem with not just who they're training with, but how they train.
One of the tougher things to get fighters to accept is the possibility of overtraining. There's a mentality that the more time you spend physically training yourself into exhaustion, the tougher and more prepared you'll be. There's also the issue of pride, in that a fighter doesn't want to appear weak or lazy. The impetus, then, falls on coaches and trainers to ensure their fighters aren't burning themselves out in the weeks leading up to a fight. This especially applies to those that have to also take weight cutting into consideration. It's one thing to maximize preparation, but the human body has its limits, and they need to be respected.Too Many Events
The frequency of the events is an undeniable factor. The UFC has more fighters on its roster than they've ever had in its history, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily have more stars. In that sense, the UFC has become a victim of its own success. It is able to put on more events, but the increase in the number of events and fighters on its roster has the unintended consequence of many being lost in the crowd. This results in legitimate challengers, many of whom are arguably top five in their weight class, being largely unknown to all except the most die-hard MMA fans. That makes it difficult to, for example, replace a title match on short notice when an injury occurs.
It's also a matter of statistics and inevitability. The more events you put on, the more injuries are going to occur. Even if you only have one or two injured fighters per card, it's going to seem worse when you have six cards occurring within the span of eight weeks. It becomes a bit more than perception, however, when you increase the number of fights without a proportional increase in the roster. Again, even if you do, that doesn't mean you necessarily have more fighters with enough name recognition to sell tickets.
There's also the issue of preserving those few household names they have for when they actually need them. For example, the cards they put on Fuel TV have a very limited audience due to the channel's lack of availability on cable systems. These cards, then, should not have any concentration of name recognition and especially shouldn't have fighters on them that could be in the semi-main event of
more important cards with a higher visibility.Testosterone Replacement Therapy
It may seem like a separate issue, but the two are most definitely related. The number of fighters that are open about their use of TRT and are granted Therapeutic Use Exemptions speaks to the strain they put on themselves to remain competitive. It also speaks to the lack of respect and awareness fighters have of their own bodies' limits, as touched upon earlier.
Dan Henderson is a perfect example. Henderson is forty-two years old and has been competing in wrestling and combat sports for his entire adult life. To expect him to fight and train full-time is absurd, as is the expectation that he'll be able to withstand the rigors of a fight camp without the possibility of a major injury. And, as reported earlier this week, he did in fact get injured as far back as three weeks ago.
Henderson is one of many that has copped to Testosterone Replacement Therapy, a method employed by veteran fighters to "replenish" testosterone that is lost as a natural process of aging. This stubborn refusal to accept the biological realities of aging isn't just frustrating from a competitive standpoint, it's also potentially damaging to the long term health of fighters. TRT may provide a fighter with a competitive advantage in a fight, but it is not a cure-all nor is it a fountain of youth.
Henderson has learned this the hard way. Or, at least, we hope so, for his sake and others. Like any sport, MMA is going to result in wear and tear over time. The answer for fighters who have been fighting for over a decade and can't train and compete at the level that they used to is to accept and adapt, not to self-medicate.Guaranteed Health Insurance
One of the more controversial theories surrounds the UFC's new health insurance policy. Until recently, when a fighter got injured while training for a fight, the UFC did not automatically cover the expenses for his recovery. As a result, many fighters with injuries would fight through them in order to make the claim that the injury occurred during the fight itself. That would allow the injury to be covered by the UFC's fight agreement. The theory goes that when the UFC changed this so that it covered medical expenses for its fighters regardless of when the injury occurs, it resulted in fighters being more apt to pull out of fights, knowing that their bills would be covered.
There are two problems with this theory. One is the erroneous assumption that, even with the UFC covering medical expenses, it's financially beneficial for someone to pull out of a fight. Even under the current arrangement, withdrawal results in the loss of guaranteed money from the UFC, the percentage of the gate (depending on their placement on the card), endorsements, and bonuses. The other problem is that even if there's something to this theory, the worst case scenario is that fighters are taking better care of themselves and ensuring their longevity. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that changes need to be made. The UFC deserves all the praise in the world for its success and what it's done for the sport. On the surface, more events mean more entertainment for fans. However, the increase in the number of events has come with some obvious consequences that the UFC has to acknowledge and address. An increase in visibility and activity is an important part of the sport's development and acceptance, but it has to be done at a healthy pace.
Moreover, the UFC has to balance their financial success with protecting their primary resource: its fighters. These injuries don't just complicate matchmaking, they shorten careers. Fighters are, ultimately, the reason that people tune in.The UFC provides more for their fighters than they ever have, but at times they still treat them as an expendable resource that are beholden to them (see: the recent relations between Dana White and Jon Jones). While for political reasons they can't afford to publicly acknowledge that it's actually the other way around, they need to at least take the steps to protect their investments.Image credit: Jeff Bottari/ Zuffa LLC/ Getty Images