It’s funny, if you’re reading this on Saturday morning over a coffee or some breakfast, you weren’t supposed to be. You were supposed to be up and at 'em, clad in pajama pants and an old T-shirt, Fight Pass blaring while BJ Penn made his triumphant return to the UFC live from the Philippines.
The questions were supposed to be about how good he might be under Greg Jackson's tutelage, or whether he has anything left in the tank irrespective of who’s coaching him. Then he got hurt, the event got cancelled and the questions shifted focus to ponder why the promotion was offering such a weak card in the first place or how the collapse of such a card comes about at all.
BJ Penn @bjpenndotcom
BREAKING! #UFCManila https://t.co/WZXMF09j8d2016-10-6 17:48:07
There was a time when cancelling a card was an outrageous idea. The UFC was a far cry from boxing, where a single fight props up an event and an injury causes the whole thing to go in the toilet. The UFC learned from that mistake, focusing on strong undercards and fights that could replace a main event on short notice if required.
The show must go on, as they say. And it always would.
That was the case until UFC 151.
2012 was an unwieldy year for the promotion as it put off far too many events without nearly enough talent to sustain them. Some of it was buoyed by a new television deal and the needs associated with that, but some of it seemed to come from the stubborn belief that the boom period of the previous few years would have fans yearning to buy almost anything with UFC branding—fight cards included.
The 151 story is so infamous in MMA now that it’s essentially lore: Dan Henderson was to challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title, but he was hurt late in camp. The UFC scrambled to find a replacement for him and settled on middleweight contender Chael Sonnen, whom Jones refused to fight.
The card fell apart because no one in the world was about to pay pay-per-view pricing for Jake Ellenberger vs. Jay Hieron, and a heated, public feud between Jones and the UFC came about soon after. Some might argue it’s still ongoing, really.
It was the first time Zuffa had cancelled an event since taking over the UFC in 2001, and as much as the promotion tried to make Jones wear it, it had no one to blame but itself. It was a thin card, and Jones had no obligation to fight Sonnen on short notice. He actually eventually agreed to the fight and collected a dominant win at UFC 159.
It was almost two years before misfortune struck the UFC again to the tune of a cancelled event. UFC 176 was scheduled for August 2014 and was much deeper on paper than UFC 151. Names like Ronaldo Souza, Gegard Mousasi, Gray Maynard, Tony Ferguson, Derek Brunson and Bobby Green were all on the undercard and the main event was a featherweight title rematch between Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes.
Still, when Aldo went down with an injury the promotion felt there was no choice but to can the whole thing and move its fights to a number of surrounding cards—a strategy the organization had discovered and refined during the 151 fiasco. There was decidedly less public drama around the 176 cancellation, with the UFC using the word "postponed" instead of "cancelled" and stating that it simply couldn’t find an adequate replacement main event to justify moving forward.
Looking back, in a way the 176 cancellation is almost remembered fondly by fans and pundits. It bolstered roughly a half-dozen cards around it with rescheduled bouts, including a fight between Souza and Mousasi which headlined a card on free TV. Aldo and Mendes fought at UFC 179 a couple of months later and provided a Fight of the Year candidate that is still, to this day, one of the best fights in featherweight history.
All-in-all it was a loss in the literal sense, but perhaps not in the grand scheme of things.
That brings us all to this weekend and the lost Fight Night card. It’s not on the same scale and beyond the curiosity of Penn’s return, very few people will miss it even remotely. It surely won’t be remembered as any great loss and isn’t likely to provide unanswered questions like "would Dan Henderson have beaten Jon Jones?"
It’s more reasonable to believe this is nothing more than an event that didn’t need to happen being treated as such when its only attraction couldn’t make the walk. There may have been a time when that wasn’t acceptable practice for the UFC, but bigger events with bigger names have been scrapped, and that’s ushered in an era where there are no guarantees.
To that end, don’t expect this to be the last time we see it happen.