Lefko on UFC: Fighters at UFC 161 must deliver

Roy Nelson gets a knee to the body by Frank Mir at UFC 130. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Winnipeg is not going to be disappointed.

Those were the exact words uttered by Tom Wright, the UFC’s director of operations for Canada, Australia and New Zealand, during a media conference call Tuesday to promote UFC 161, June 15 at the MTS Centre.

The event sold out almost as quickly as tickets went on sale because the UFC has never had a card in Winnipeg. The card has been hyped up as one of the biggest events in the city of Winnipeg, but if the enthusiasm has started to sag just a little it is understandable. What had been advertised or scheduled has changed form because of injuries, the running thread throughout 2012.

At the halfway point of 2013, injuries are starting to become a factor again. It certainly has impacted UFC 161, and if the people who eagerly bought tickets are starting to experience the letdown that Calgarians felt last year it is understandable.

The UFC saddled up to Calgary last July for the first time amid great anticipation, but UFC 149 turned to abject disappointment because injuries whittled away what was going to be a promising card. As one fighter after another went by the wayside, people were starting to call it the Calgary Curse.

The UFC was not about to scrap that card, nor did it have any intention of offering a refund. There is always a caveat any time you buy a ticket to a live show — it is subject to change. In the case of the UFC or any mixed martial arts promotion, it is almost guaranteed. As Wright succinctly said, fighters get hurt.

But doing his best imitation of UFC president Dana White, Wright noted that UFC 161 has a bunch of former champions, a bunch of Canadian fighters and the first-ever women’s bout in Canada.

“It is what it is and we’re going to move forward and have a great night,” Wright said.

That is not a guarantee. Look what happened in Calgary. When the final bout of the evening ended — a five-rounder that saw Renan Barao beat Urijah Faber by unanimous decision to claim the interim bantamweight title, a chorus of boos drowned out any of the cheers that there may have been for the winner. It may have been the greatest night of Barao’s career, but few in attendance were in a celebratory mood.

White said he didn’t think the fight deserved the booing, claiming it was a great technical bout and that Barao clearly dominated Faber. People who follow MMA would have recognized that and lauded Barao for his effort.

Barao was supposed to be the headliner for the Winnipeg event, but a foot injury resulted in the removal of his fight with Eddie Wineland.

But when the UFC comes to a city with a show for the first time, some are there purely to see a spectacle, not necessarily because they love and appreciate the sport. White was admittedly embarrassed that the fights on the main card that preceded the main event came up flat. That more than anything produced the booing.

White promised to bring the UFC back to Calgary and put on a better show, but he knows that is not a certainty. Even if the collective group of fighters is top-notch that doesn’t mean the show will be great.

Ultimately, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is about the fighters and their willingness to get in the cage and produced excitement. It has become apparent as the UFC constantly whittles its roster that it isn’t just about winning; it’s about putting on a show. If a fighter loses but gives his/her all, it factors in who stays and who is cut from the company. It isn’t just about three strikes and you’re out. It’s about who delivers energy and, more than anything, entertainment.

UFC 161 doesn’t look that bad on paper; certainly it has more marquee names than UFC 149.

Heavyweight Roy (Big Country) Nelson is worth the price of admission alone. Nelson embodies the spirit of the warrior, even if he doesn’t resemble it in terms of his physique. Nelson took this scheduled bout against Stipe Miocic having fought as recently as April 27 at UFC 159. He absolutely destroyed Frenchman Cheick Kongo by knockout midway through the first round and moved one step closer to a possible title fight.

The Round Mound of Pound rarely disappoints in victory or defeat in terms of his willingness to engage. His bout with Miocic is now the co-main event for UFC 161 because a back injury forced Antonio Rogerio Nogueira out of his scheduled fight with Mauricio (Shogan) Rua.

Chael Sonnen, who refuses to quit, wanted to step in on short notice and used Twitter to indicate his willingness. Sonnen would have made it entertaining for people who haven’t seen his act, but he’s looked bad in his last two fights, both title shots. Passport issues scrapped the idea of Sonnen fighting on the card, while Rua has been taken off it, resulting in one less fight.

Rua was also one of the fighters removed from UFC 149 after his opponent Thiago Silva pulled out of their matchup with an injury.

The main event features onetime UFC light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson, both of whom are at crossroads in their careers. Evans lost to Jon Jones by unanimous decision two fights ago in a highly-publicized bout of former friends and training mates and then lost a unanimous decision to Lil Nog in his last bout.

Evans indicated on the conference call that he’s not even thinking about a shot at a title if he wins. Clearly his focus is purely on stemming his string of losses.

Henderson laboured in a loss in his last fight, back in February against Lyoto Machida in the co-main main event of UFC 157. It looked as if he was still bothered by the injury that forced him out of UFC 151, which was scrapped, the only one in the history of the company. Even though Sonnen was willing to step in on short notice, Jones’ camp wanted no part of it. Even if some people felt Henderson deserved the win, both he and Machida did not deliver as expected.

Both he and Evans will be expected to put on a much better show at UFC 161.

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