It’s time for the folks at the UFC to begin crossing their fingers.
A pattern has developed this year that could derail any plan CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, President Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva have of turning mixed martial arts, and the UFC in particular, into a mainstream sporting event. High-profile fighters -- many of them titleholders -- are succumbing to prefight injuries at an alarming rate.
Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre became the latest fighter to fall victim to the injury plague after he suffered a knee injury Tuesday that forced him to pull out of his UFC 137 title bout Oct. 29 against Carlos Condit. That fight was slated to headline a pay-per-view card at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
While another intriguing welterweight fight -- B.J. Penn versus Nick Diaz -- has been moved to headline status, message board posters all across the Internet are urging everyone to boycott the event entirely.
UFC 137 remains a solid card; it can even be argued that Penn-Diaz potentially offers more excitement than St. Pierre-Condit. But the loss of St. Pierre highlights a problem that might spell big issues for the UFC as it prepares to hit network television next month and in 2012.
Lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and challenger Gray Maynard put on an exciting fight Oct. 8 at UFC 136. But the bout was originally slated to take place months earlier. Edgar and Maynard were to decide their third meeting at UFC 130 in May, but both fighters suffered prefight injuries. The injuries not only pushed their fight into the fall, but put other lightweight contenders in limbo.
The list of high-profile bouts that came unglued due to prefight injuries is lengthy. A knee injury suffered in practice pushed Rashad Evans out of his long-awaited showdown in March with then-light heavyweight champion Maurico Rua. Jon Jones stepped in a little more than month after submitting Ryan Bader to face, and eventually defeat, Rua.
Jones would reveal a hand injury after becoming champion that put his first title defense on hold. A hand injury would later postpone Evans’ second shot this year at the 205-pound title.
A few days ago, former interim heavyweight champ Shane Carwin announced he injured his back while training. The injury is expected to sideline him until next year.
The constant loss of highly visible fighters has to hurt UFC pay-per-view revenue. UFC limits the financial pain because of its deep talent roster. But no matter how much UFC stacks its card for Nov. 12, it can’t afford to have either heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez or top contender dos Santos come up lame before their title bout.
White and the UFC are putting their reputations on the line that night with the promotion making its network television debut. Fox has strategically advertised Velasquez-dos Santos in prime spots during recent NFL games. Millions of people who never heard of Velasquez or dos Santos, and have not seen an MMA bout, are being exposed to the sport and its fighters.
Curiosity is peaking, and those who tune in next month expect to see two of the biggest, toughest men on this planet. High-ranked lightweights Clay Guida and Benson Henderson won’t cut it on that night.
UFC needs Velasquez and dos Santos to remain injury-free. But there is little the promoter can do other than keep its fingers crossed.
The reason? Professional mixed martial arts training is demanding. As the sport becomes more technically advanced, fighters are forced to work on many disciplines. But there two disciplines that make fighters very susceptible to injury during training camps -- wrestling and boxing.
“When you mix the two [boxing and wrestling], you have wrestlers who are worried about getting hit, so they are flinching,” Edgar’s boxing trainer Mark Henry told ESPN.com. “Then their legs are exposed and their back is exposed.
“A lot of these guys are waiting for a punch, then their legs are getting hit. And they’re not ready for that blow to their knee. They’re not lowering their level and preparing for that shot to the leg, because they think there’s a punch coming high.
“When you mix boxing, kicks in the standup and wrestling, it’s a recipe for getting hurt.”
This has to be worrisome news for UFC. Wrestling is the primary discipline for Velasquez. He is without doubt putting in extra time working on his takedown techniques. But Velasquez must also continue to fine-tune his improved boxing.
For Velasquez’s coaches and teammates at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., it’s training as usual. And that means going at it hard and never taking shortcuts during training sessions.
“If you’re concerned about injuries, they will happen,” Velasquez’s trainer, Javier Mendez told ESPN.com. “If you prepare properly and everything goes according to plan, freak accidents can still happen.
“The nature of MMA is that there are so many different disciplines. But you can’t go into it with a safety-first mentality. The fighters have to prepare for a fight and they have to prepare properly. The most important part for us as coaches is to get our fighter ready to win.”
Thus far, no news has come from either heavyweight’s camp suggesting physical ailments have occurred. And no news is great news for the UFC, especially with Velasquez returning to the Octagon for the first time since Oct. 23, 2010, when he lifted the belt from Lesnar.
A little more than three weeks remain before Velasquez and dos Santos enter the cage for their highly anticipated fight on network television.
UFC, its decision-makers and every fan of this sport can only cross their fingers and hope the rash of injuries that have plagued the promotion this year has come to an end.