Lesnar’s Bad News Could Be Good News for The UFC

“You were supposed to be this colossus. You were this great, legendary thing…”-Vizzini, The Princess Bride

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a bit of a fuss being made about the H1N1 “don’t call it the swine” flu. It’s affecting a few people from what I understand, and as a result, I’ve been privy to more than a few discussions about both flavors of the flu. I couldn’t recall if I’d ever had the flu, and I was told the following: if you wish for death, you’ve got the flu. Watching the first fight from the current season of The Ultimate Fighter was about as close as I’ve come to wishing for death (theirs more than mine), so I suppose that means I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the flu to this point in my life.

Brock Lesnar, not as fortunate.

News broke early this week that Lesnar was pulling out of his fight with Shane Carwin, originally scheduled for UFC 106 on November 21. The report cited Lesnar’s inability to train due to “flu like symptoms.” Specifically, Lesnar had informed his coaches and training partners that he felt constantly exhausted and was said to fatigue early into training sessions. These symptoms, according to various accounts, lasted between one and three-and-a-half weeks.

Lesnar’s attempt to fight through his ailment is admirable and rather stunning. It’s one thing to ignore the symptoms of an illness when you’re some dope who sits in front of a computer for ten hours each day (hi there). Allowing the virus to sustain itself for a week or more can kill a person. Brock not only did that very thing, but he did so while pushing himself to his physical limits in training for a UFC Heavyweight title match. Remarkable.

A cynic would argue that, had Lesnar not been so stubborn for so long and gotten himself some Tamiflu early on, we could all still look forward to watching him defend his title on November 21. That’s a reasonable position to take, but there is a silver lining to this cloud. It will, however, require some patience.

While UFC 106 will take a hit, UFC 108 will enjoy a much needed boost. The January 2 show is now scheduled to include Lesnar’s defense against Carwin. Realistically, this is the match that should have been scheduled to headline the 2009 year end event, which happens to be taking place in early 2010. The Ultimate 2009ish, as I assume the show will be called, follows a trend of historically strong events to close out, or in this case open up, the calendar year. If the idea is to keep that tradition alive and continue to build it as the must-watch event of the year, it makes all the sense in the world to have the sport’s biggest star as its headliner.

Sure, it’s not ideal to lose a guaranteed million-buys show, but pushing it off a couple of months while putting on a show capable of drawing 500,000 or more buys is not exactly a doomsday scenario.

In fact, this scenario is nearly identical to that surrounding Brock’s last fight, which was originally scheduled for UFC 98 before ultimately being forced onto the biggest event in UFC history, UFC 100. It seems to me the change worked out pretty well for both UFC 98 (635,000 buys) and UFC 100 (1.6 million buys). But let’s not kid ourselves: UFC 108 isn’t going to approach 1.6 million buys. However, the combination of Lesnar v. Carwin and Rashad Evans v. Thiago Silva, the currently scheduled semi-main, is likely to earn the UFC another million-plus buy rate.

UFC 106 is less of a sure thing. While it is likely to approach the buy rate of UFC 98 (Machida v. Evans, Hughes v. Serra), there’s a greater chance that 106 will do the lower buy rate of the two shows. The newly announced semi-main event, Josh Koscheck v. Anthony Johnson, will mean very little to the buy rate while placing a lot of pressure to draw on the main event, non-title match. Fortunately, the re-match of Tito Ortiz v. Forrest Griffin features two high-profile fighters who have both come a long way since their first fight, in which Ortiz earned a split-decision victory.

Griffin, no longer the wide-eyed newcomer fresh out of the original “Ultimate Fighter” house, is a recent Light Heavyweight champion. Ortiz, on the other hand, is coming off of back surgery and returns to the UFC after an 18-month hiatus. Now the main event, the buy rate for Ortiz v. Griffin II will tell us whether or not Griffin’s recent meltdown following his loss to Anderson Silva will affect his popularity (probably not) and to what degree Tito Ortiz is still viable, both as a contender at Light Heavyweight and as a draw. 500,000 buys is a conservative estimate for the event.

Not only is the UFC is left with two shows that should generate a sum total of at least 1.5 million buys, but they are also left with a lot of options.

Dana White has said that he would like to see Lyoto Machida re-match Mauricio “Shogun” Rua as part of UFC 108, and there has been talk that Anderson Silva would defend his Middleweight title against Vitor Belfort on that show as well. At least one of those matches will be moved to bolster UFC 109 on February 6, which presently does not have a scheduled main event. The ideal scenario would be to move both matches to UFC 109. The tandem of title matches would make for a compelling pair of main event caliber matches, while either of those matches on its own would be unlikely to do strong business.

The return for pairing those matches on the same show is likely greater than splitting one off as a headliner on its own and leaving the other as part of an already strong UFC 108. As an added bonus, this would allow the UFC to push the return of Georges St. Pierre, rumored for UFC 109, to a subsequent event, likely ensuring an additional strong buy rate to start the year.

While it’s unfortunate that the UFC will end its year with more of a whimper than their previously scheduled bang, it’s difficult to shed a tear when thinking about the not-so-distant future. It’s ironic that this pandemic, this viral outbreak that’s causing so many people to lose their minds, is responsible for what may wind up as the most successful start to a year enjoyed by the UFC. To think that because Lesnar’s next title defense will be so early in the year he is all but ensured to fight at least three times in 2010, you can’t help but be optimistic.

It’s more than adapting to circumstance; it’s the taming of the flu.

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