UFC's growth leads to a rash of injuries

The list of high-profile fighters who were once on and then subsequently off the bill of Saturday's UFC 149 at Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome is staggering.

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Featherweight champion Jose Aldo was injured and his main event bout against Erik Koch was postponed. Former light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was bumped from the card after his opponent, Thiago Silva, was injured and pulled out.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira wasn't sufficiently recovered from an arm injury he suffered in a loss to Frank Mir in December and had to withdraw from an announced match against Cheick Kongo.

Michael Bisping and Thiago Alves were also on the card, but were yanked because of injuries. There were plenty of other fighters who were scheduled but couldn't make it – quality fighters like Bibiano Fernandes, George Roop, Claude Patrick and Siyar Bahadurzada – likely making UFC 149 the most cursed card in the promotion's history.

"This one wins," UFC president Dana White said of it earning the dubious honor of most defections due to injury. "This is the winner. We lost nine to injury and we had to move two other fights, so I would say yes, this was, this is the craziest card of all-time."

Part of the reason has been the UFC's dramatic growth. There are far more cards with far more fights than there were even five years ago.

In 2007, the UFC put on 19 events. UFC 149 will be the 19th event of 2012, with the likelihood that the total number of events will wind up somewhere in the low 30s this year.

In all of 2007, the UFC put on 171 fights, averaging exactly nine fights a card. Assuming all fights go off as planned on Saturday, which isn't exactly a safe assumption given the card's history, the UFC will have staged 211 fights this year, or 40 more than it did in all of 2007.

At this point in 2007, the UFC had staged 98 fights, meaning that in just five years it has more than doubled its number of fights.

The UFC is averaging 11.1 fights per card this year. If it winds up the year with 32 cards, it would end up with 355 fights.

That's extraordinary growth by any measure, but such growth comes at a cost. More fights mean more opportunities for injuries, and more injuries mean more card-shuffling and fewer big names per card.

Clearly the development of stars hasn't kept pace with the increase in the number of events. The UFC has had back luck with its biggest stars, many of whom haven't fought much recently.

In the last 12 months, welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, arguably the company's most popular and biggest-selling star, has not fought. Middleweight champion Anderson Silva has fought twice.

Welterweight Nick Diaz, who was growing into a big drawing card, has fought twice in the last year and won't fight again in 20012 because of a suspension.

Heavyweight Alistair Overeem has fought once in the past year. Fellow heavyweight Shane Carwin has been out for 13 months. Champion Junior dos Santos has fought twice.

Boxing promoters don't have to deal with such flux, because when their stars are hurt they almost always cancel or postpone entire cards. Fight cards in boxing are routinely referred to by the identity of the star in the main event, like, "the Pacquiao fight" or "the Mayweather fight." Typically, little attention is paid to the undercard. Boxing promoters operate on the assumption that the main event sells tickets and pay-per-views and they spend most of their time and money promoting it that way.

That's not the way the UFC does business. When it announces a card, the card goes on, regardless of who is hurt, except under very rare circumstances. It also promotes all of the fights on its cards and not just the main and co-main. It's news in MMA whenever a single fight is made for a UFC card, even if it is a non-pay-per-view bout. The undercard bouts in boxing generally are ignored.

When White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the UFC in 2001, they focused on building the brand at the expense of building around a particular fighter or fight.

White's goal was to make deep cards with a series of quality matches that would appeal to hard-core fans. He has long believed that fight fans turn out to see a string of great fights, and that is unquestionably true.

The difference, though, is that the big fights only come when there are major stars involved. The casual fans are the ones who make a card successful on pay-per-view, and it takes stars to make a show a big hit on pay-per-view.

UFC 148, which was held July 7 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, became one of the most successful cards in company history because of the intense interest in the main event between Silva and challenger Chael Sonnen. The UFC did a brilliant job marketing the fight and even casual fans were caught up in the hoopla of the feud between Silva and Sonnen.

White has steadfastly refused to release pay-per-view figures, but he said UFC 148 sold more pay-per-views than any card in company history other than UFC 100. It did a U.S.-record $7 million gate and pay-per-view sales are believed to be around 1 million.

The company could mitigate its injury bug a bit and thus increase the star power for all of its cards by cutting back on the overall number of events it stages. If there are, say, three fewer cards, that is three fewer main events matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby need to put together, making more fighters available to strengthen other cards.

These are the problems that come with developing a sport that is, relatively speaking, new on the landscape. The UFC is still trying to gain mainstream acceptance and, while it's making progress all the time, it's not there yet.

The result is that there are going to be some cards that lack in star power. Eventually, if and/or when the sport hits the mainstream, such issues will be a thing of the past.

For now, though, White will simply have to accept complaining from fans about the lack of big names on some of his shows as the cost of doing business in a developing sport.

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