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The buildup to UFC 223 on April 7 was anything but ordinary. The nail in the coffin for a perpetually cursed marquee matchup was hammered in at the Eleventh Hour. The biggest star in the sport found himself the subject of public scorn and felony charges to match the exclusive jewelry provided by the New York Police Department. As the dust barely began to settle from that, the replacement main event fell out during weigh-ins and several replacements were discussed until “Raging” Al Iaquinta was promoted from the undercard to a title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
At the center of the post-Conor McGregor happenings was the New York State Athletic Commission. It made the final call on crucial aspects of the fight card. Michael Chiesa wanted to fight regardless of the facial cuts he received as a result of the now-infamous flying dolly. The NYSAC ruled him ineligible. Ray Borg detailed a stressful financial situation that serves as evidence that he likely would have competed against Brandon Moreno had the commission not intervened after glass shards were flushed from his eyes. Similarly, Max Holloway was in the midst of an unforgiving weight cut when the NYSAC deemed him medically unfit to fight. All of these were understandable calls that are in the best interests of the long-term health and safety of the fighters.
However, things went awry soon after. Former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis was reported to be the last-minute replacement for Holloway. His official weight of 155.2 would eliminate him from being eligible to fight for the title. The Ultimate Fighting Championship reportedly refused to meet the Milwaukee native’s asking price, and he passed on his opportunity to cut the additional 0.2 pounds. In a comical twist of irony, Paul Felder was told that the NYSAC wouldn’t allow him to fight for the championship because of his place in the UFC’s self-imposed and highly questionable rankings. The MMA Gods continued with their demented sense of humor, as Iaquinta, who has been at odds with UFC brass for several years and also officially weighed in at 155.2, was placed in the spot. The UFC opted to announce that had Iaquinta won he would be considered lightweight champion regardless of the commission’s ruling.
Considering the extreme circumstances surrounding the situation, this was the right call to make from a logical standpoint. Iaquinta, Felder’s original opponent, made weight with the one-pound allowance factored in for a non-title fight, making him a lightweight in any other booking. Additionally, he weighed in wearing underwear, which commonly make the difference in fractions of a pound. Also, when it looked as if Felder, who did make an official 155, would step in after the failed negotiations with Pettis, the scale was taken away, preventing Iaquinta from getting additional time for a second attempt at making weight. It is more than reasonable to assume that Iaquinta would have easily been able to shed 0.2 pounds if given the opportunity to do so. However rational the decision was, it still sets an uncomfortable precedent from which the UFC and other promoters should steer clear.
While logic, reason and competence are often questioned in regards to athletic commissions -- in its short time sanctioning professional MMA, there have been plenty of blunders with New York’s regulation -- they exist for a reason that is vital to the function of the sport. The NYSAC may have made the wrong call in preemptively not recognizing Iaquinta, but they did make the right calls with the other aforementioned decisions. This is simply a case of taking the good with the bad.
When Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta first bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship from Semaphore Entertainment Group, a gargantuan effort was made to get the sport regulated to preserve mixed martial arts itself. That included adding weight classes and limiting the ruleset beyond banning eye gouges. Early purists of the sport were strictly against these changes and felt it compromised the product they had come to love. Yet it was necessary to keep the “human cockfighting” moniker and cable TV restrictions from wiping out the sport. MMA had to take the good with the bad.
The new presence of athletic commission drug testing came to the forefront in the aftermath of UFC 36. After Josh Barnett defeated Randy Couture and became the youngest champion in UFC history at the time, a positive test for multiple banned substances led to his being stripped. Despite the inconvenience to the promotion, the UFC fell in line and respected the commission’s findings. When the suspension of Chael Sonnen after UFC 117 called the surefire blockbuster rematch with then middleweight champion Anderson Silva into question, the UFC was undoubtedly disappointed. However, it simply booked Silva in a different bout and rebooked the rematch when the regulation issues played out. In order to take advantage of the benefits of a sanctioned sport, the unfortunate results of sanctioning are collateral damage.
The often-quoted attitude of early Zuffa-era UFC officials “running toward regulation” should not be lost. Willfully ignoring the NYSAC’s decision to not recognize Iaquinta as the 155-pound titleholder had he defeated Nurmagomedov should not become a regular habit despite whatever inconvenience it might have caused for the company.
Skirting regulation is something that fight promoters have successfully accomplished for decades. Events have been held on Native American reservations that don’t have proper commissions. Similarly, Japan has long been held as a haven for fighters who have run afoul of drug testing with United States-based promotions. If the premier brand in combat sports decides to ignore regulators on a consistent basis, expect an avalanche effect. Expect more ridiculous and potentially dangerous rogue decisions to follow.
Imagine if suddenly PED suspensions became obsolete, as promoters simply schedule bouts outside regulated areas. Looking at you, Bellator MMA. Imagine the blatant disregard for medical findings. Imagine promoters not even bothering to have the necessary financials and insurance in order before putting on events.
Promoters are in the business of making money, and benevolence is not something to be expected. Running shows with fewer regulations is cheaper and could add to the bottom line. Smaller shows which otherwise might attempt to run more legitimately may opt for the easy way out. With its handling of Vitor Belfort before UFC 152 and the talk surrounding Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, the UFC has shown it is more than capable of playing by its own rules when given the wiggle room. When the new ownership has taken on over $4 billion worth of debt and has reflected a desperate need to pay towards it with staff cutbacks and fighter pay controversies, these are unfortunately very real concerns.
The UFC and athletic commissions across the country avoided an interesting situation when Nurmagomedov emerged victorious at UFC 223. NYSAC Executive Director Kim Sumbler made it clear that the commission would not have recognized Iaquinta had he won and that other states would have to decide for themselves. A groundbreaking complexity would have only been magnified as more states would be required to make rulings when the already highly disputed lightweight title was to be defended.
It is true that athletic commissions have not had spotless records in handling the sport. However, their role is essential to the continued presence of combat sports and the physical and financial well-being of the fighters that compete. Getting comfortable with dismissing them whenever it’s convenient is opening a can of worms that could do irreparable harm.