The Ultimate Fighting Championship has three annual cornerstone events, all held in Las Vegas: fight cards in May, July and the end of December.
All three are centered on popular Las Vegas vacation dates. The May card is held on Memorial Day weekend. The July event takes place during Fourth of July week and is coupled with the UFC's version of WrestleMania. International Fight Week features a Fan Expo and other fan-centered events, and it is designed as the ultimate destination event for hardcore UFC fans.
The December card takes place as close to the final weekend of each year and is traditionally known as the UFC's end-of-year event.
Publicly, the UFC will tell you it doesn't favor any one event over another. This stance is understandable; you don't want fans in other cities around the globe feeling slighted.
But take one glance at prior main events for these cards, and you'll see they hold a special place in the UFC's increasingly busy events schedule.
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman (and the subsequent rematch). Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 2. Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez. Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem. Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans.
All were considered big fights, and all were featured in May, July or December.
Which is why, given the circumstances, I'm impressed with the work the UFC has done in rescuing this year's version of the Memorial Day card, UFC 173.
You know the back story, but here's a brief primer: Vitor Belfort was supposed to fight Chris Weidman, but then the Nevada Athletic Commission banned testosterone replacement therapy. As a result, Belfort pulled out of the fight and was replaced by Lyoto Machida. But then Weidman suffered a minor injury, and the fight was moved to UFC 175 in July, which left UFC 173 with a non-appealing main event of Junior dos Santos vs. Stipe Miocic.
UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby quickly went to work. On Thursday night, the promotion announced that Renan Barao will defend his bantamweight title against T.J. Dillashaw. Fan response was lackluster, as Barao—despite being one of the best fighters in the world and an absolute joy to watch in the Octagon—isn't exactly a big draw.
But then Friday rolled around, and the promotion announced a welterweight bout between Jake Ellenberger and Robbie Lawler, per MMA Junkie. Ellenberger was scheduled to face Tarec Saffiedine at UFC 172 in April, but the Belgian suffered an injury. Ellenberger was quickly matched with Lawler, who is coming off a career-best performance in a title-fight loss to Johny Hendricks earlier this month.
And just like that, a card that appeared to be one of the UFC's weakest offerings in recent memory is now, at the very least, moderately interesting.
Barao vs. Dillashaw. Dos Santos vs. Miocic. Ellenberger vs. Lawler. Mizugaki vs. Rivera. Varner vs. Krause. On paper, it isn't the best card of all time. Not by a long shot.
But given where things stood just 24 hours ago, I'd say we must give kudos to Silva, Shelby and Dana White for taking a card that appeared dead in the water and making it something worth looking forward to.
Dillashaw will have a tough time against Barao, but the Team Alpha Male product is tough and progressing quickly in all facets of the fight game. Dos Santos vs. Miocic could represent a chance for the former heavyweight champion to take a step back into title contention, or it could be the night Miocic leaps from prospect to serious heavyweight threat. And Ellenberger vs. Lawler has all the makings of a violent fight that will end with someone lying unconscious on the canvas.
Matchmaking is not simple. It is easy for us to sit at home and discuss which fights the UFC should or should not make, but we do not take into account contractual situations, injuries and scheduling. In reality, the business of matchmaking is far more difficult than Silva and Shelby make it appear.
It won't be the biggest event of the UFC's calendar year. But UFC 173 is yet another example of the matchmaking team thinking on their feet, moving pieces around and trying to create the best cards possible for UFC fans in attendance.
At the end of the day, how much more can we ask?
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