Maybe we’re all feeling a little bit like Alexander Gustafsson right now.
You remember how Gustafsson’s 2015 started, right? The erstwhile light heavyweight No. 1 contender rolled into a Jan. 24 title eliminator against underdog Anthony Johnson with sky-high expectations, only to get flattened—crushed, really—in two minutes, 15 seconds.
Gustafsson left the Octagon in tears in front of roughly 30,000 fans in his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden. He was probably still a little dazed, wondering how a thing that was supposed to be so great so quickly went so wrong.
Yep, that’s us.
Already reeling from a raft of recent bad news, Tuesday found us neck-deep with yet another positive drug test. This time it was Hector Lombard, pulled from a scheduled bout with Rory MacDonald at UFC 186 after some unpronounceable steroid turned up in his system.
All hail the new year, same as the old year.
Add Lombard’s positive test to the scrap heap of early 2015, which so far feels an awful lot like the 2014 we all wanted so badly to forget.
In retrospect, perhaps it was foolish of us to believe the UFC’s January schedule was so stellar it could undo the funk of the previous 12 months. We fell for the marketing scheme, the star-studded press conference, and even though we poked gentle fun at the dopey hashtag—#TheTimeIsNow—deep down we yearned for a stratospheric rebound.
And, hey, maybe things did improve for a moment. We got Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier, after all. We got the emergence of both Johnson and Conor McGregor as top contenders. We got the return of Anderson Silva and a healthy slice of crazy from Nick Diaz.
Along the way, though, things went sideways.
January turned from white-hot to a hot mess when Jones tested positive for cocaine. The furor and the fallout had barely subsided when Silva—the unanimous pick for greatest MMA fighter of all time—got flagged for steroids. Simultaneously, Diaz got popped for marijuana, though that just felt like a well-timed piece of comic relief by comparison to an otherwise heartbreaking news cycle.
Meanwhile, the injury epidemic we hoped would change with the calendar still shows no sign of letting up. A litany of ailments to fighters at or near the top of upcoming cards has already scuttled keenly anticipated bouts like Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort and hamstrung lesser events like Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 60.
There were smaller defeats, too. Kelvin Gastelum and John Lineker each missed weight for what seemed like the umpteenth time and were reportedly banished to heavier weight classes. Donald Cerrone extended his headline-stealing unbeaten streak in the uber-competitive lightweight division to seven fights, but he did it via an iffy judges’ decision over Benson Henderson.
In the end, the month we hoped would take our minds off MMA’s many nagging problems only ended up exacerbating them.
Now, here we are—mired in the mid-February doldrums, with the UFC’s next real can’t-miss events suddenly feeling as though they’re months away.
Johnson’s shot at Jones is reportedly targeted for May but hasn’t officially been scheduled yet. Jose Aldo’s featherweight title defense against McGregor isn’t until July, and considering Aldo’s well-established penchant for injury, we’re all walking on eggshells just hoping that pairing hangs together.
In the interim, Ronda Rousey’s return against Cat Zingano will top a fairly pedestrian UFC 184 card on Feb. 28, and Anthony Pettis’ lightweight title defense against the tough but unheralded Rafael dos Anjos goes off at March 14’s UFC 185. A twin-title bill now tops UFC 186 in April, but the sudden absence of Lombard vs. MacDonald robs yet another pay-per-view of arguably its most intriguing matchup.
And those, we’re almost scared to admit, are the high points.
When Henderson moves up in weight to face welterweight prospect Brandon Thatch on short notice on Saturday, it’ll kick off a lengthy stretch of Fight Night events featuring somewhat dubious headline attractions.
This run includes Frank Mir taking on Antonio Silva on Feb. 22, Demian Maia fighting Ryan LaFlare (yes, in a main event) on March 21, Chad Mendes facing Ricardo Lamas on April 4 and Mirko Cro Cop returning to rematch Gabriel Gonzaga on April 11.
The two real bright spots in that underwhelming streak could be the as yet unconfirmed Frankie Edgar-Urijah Faber bout on May 16 (if indeed it happens) and Luke Rockhold’s fight against Lyoto Machida at UFC on Fox 15 on April 18. Both will be good little pieces of matchmaking, though neither is the sort of fight you want to be the de facto anchor of your entire spring schedule.
It should be noted that—including Saturday night’s card—about half of the six shows mentioned above had main event fights subjected to change due to injury or unforeseen events. Still, the next few months figure to be a sobering reminder of why we spent much of 2014 debating the issue of oversaturation.
Just like last year, we’ll have to wade through an awful lot of chaff just to get to the good stuff.
At some point, though, perhaps this punch-drunk daze of one bad story after another will pass. Perhaps we will get to see a few of the fights that truly interest us, and maybe they'll even come and go without scandal.
It's starting to feel irrational to continue to hope, but perhaps the time can still be now.
Honestly, though, we’re ebbing dangerously close to a point where we’ll have to change that hashtag.