Hours before Saturday's UFC 213, the unthinkable happened.
Amanda Nunes, the UFC women's bantamweight champion and the A-side to the show's main event contest, was pulled from the card. The reason wasn't immediately known, but as soon as the word officially came out, battle lines were drawn.
"The doctor cleared her to fight...she said she doesn't feel good," said UFC President Dana White (h/t Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times). "It is what it is. You can't make anyone fight."
Details were still scant for fans and pundits, but longtime fans knew the direction this was going in. White has attacked fighters through the media in the past many, many times, with the implications that a fighter is "scared" as one of the go-to ways to slice their credibility. Shogun Rua, Demetrious Johnson and plenty of others have been on the receiving end of this treatment. And before Sunday morning, Nunes was among that lot.
"I asked the doctors what was wrong with her. She was medically cleared. She was physically OK. They found nothing wrong with her. But she didn't feel right," he said in another interview with MMAjunkie. Ben Fowlkes, a writer for that site, tweeted:
Ben Fowlkes @benfowlkesMMA
Agreed. Same would be true if she'd fought sick and lost. I doubt there'd be much sympathy for her on here then. https://t.co/8hJ00FrVoA2017-7-9 23:53:37
"She said, 'I don't feel right, I don't feel good.' I think that it was 90 percent mental and maybe 10 percent physical; I think a lot of fighters have had times where they don't feel right," he said at the post-fight press conference (h/t MMA Fighting).
It wasn't the vitriolic rant fans are used to from White, but the implication was clear. Nunes was good to go, but she's a coward. An irresponsible coward. A selfish, irresponsible coward that nearly killed the UFC's second-biggest event of July.
But while the UFC president is known for these kinds of actions, there was an unusual specificity to what he said. While White isn't above pretending that he's a medical expert in order to push his own narrative, he cited actual doctors as the ones that said she was good to go. That raised an eyebrow and Nunes all but confirmed White's larger claims in a public statement released on social media:
Amanda Nunes @Amanda_Leoa
It's a somewhat strange defense from Nunes, who came just shy of saying she withdrew from the fight just because she didn't want to compete at anything other than 100 percent. That begs the question: Was White, just this one time, actually right to publicly deride one of his fighters?
The discussion, naturally, starts with looking at what "chronic sinusitis" is. The Mayo Clinic describes it thus:
"Chronic sinusitis is a common condition in which the cavities around nasal passages (sinuses) become inflamed and swollen for at least 12 weeks, despite treatment attempts. ... This condition interferes with drainage and causes mucus buildup. Breathing through your nose might be difficult. The area around your eyes and face might feel swollen, and you might have facial pain or tenderness."
She went to the hospital on the day of the fight "off-balance" and "unable to breath." There is no indication that she specifically sought care from the doctors for the sinusitis and underwent blood testing.
While sinusitis may not sound like much, a nose that's swollen shut is extremely troublesome in day-to-day life, never even mind heavy athletic competition. Doctors cleared her to fight but, as UFC strawweight (and Nunes' girlfriend) Nina Ansaroff stated (warning, NSFW language) that means very little. Both in MMA and in many other sports, there is no shortage of stories about doctors being overeager to send an injured patient back into competition, and unfortunately, athletes are typically the only ones looking out for their own health.
Ben Fowlkes @benfowlkesMMA
Like most people, I wanted to see that fight. I'm bummed it didn't happen. But I don't buy that Nunes was just scared or hates making money.2017-7-9 18:14:08
Nunes is ultimately the only one that truly knew whether she was fight-ready and the fact that she was willing to pass on a payday opposite an opponent she has previously beaten needs to be looked at seriously.
That said, there is no question that even the worst case of sinusitis pales in comparison to the maladies other fighters have pushed through in order to compete. The UFC on Fox 1 main event, for example, saw both Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez compete with serious knee injuries and those sorts of tales are by no means uncommon.
Of course, on the flipside, not everyone was in the same position Nunes was in at UFC 213. While UFC on Fox 1 was a bright spotlight for the newly minted Velasquez while Dos Santos was set for his first title shot at the event, UFC 213 was doomed to be a pay-per-view dud, with or without Nunes.
The UFC has been inexplicably resistant to Nunes as champion, making no serious effort to put her in front of cameras despite the fact that she can be packaged to casual fans as "the woman who retired Ronda Rousey." Couple that with the company going all-in to promote UFC 214, which takes place later this month, and Nunes had no real financial incentive to push herself, especially when a loss would savage her income going forward.
This back-and-forth can go on indefinitely, though. Does Nunes have an unwritten obligation to fight on, given her main event status? Couldn't the UFC have made it worth Nunes' while to fight, even at a disadvantage? Why should the UFC let fighters ransom events for minor ailments? On and on.
Ultimately, these questions are impossible to answer definitively. But they also are somewhat tangential to the core issue here: Was White right to publicly run down Nunes for the UFC 213 main event cancellation?
The answer there is a definitive no. Even in the worst-case scenario, with Nunes cowering away from the challenge of Shevchenko, what does White gain out of letting the public know about this?
Nunes is still the bantamweight champion. The UFC is still going to be counting on her to sell tickets. She is still a valuable piece of the promotion at this point. Despite all that, White went out of his way to damage her reputation with fans in a move that, quite frankly, benefits nobody. That's not a good look from a fight promoter (whose job, in theory, is to promote fights).
The good news—or at least, not bad news—is that Nunes won't be gone for long. According to White, UFC 215 in September is a likely landing spot for her next fight. Where she ends up on the card and whether this causes any lingering tension between the two parties going forward will be an interesting topic heading into the event.