Appearing on the UFC Unfiltered podcast this week UFC President Dana White dropped the news that Ronda Rousey will not be fighting at UFC 205 when the UFC makes its long-awaited return to New York City in November. Ronda’s future in the UFC—When will she return? Will she return at all? Does she still want to be a fighter?—has been up in the air ever since she lost her bantamweight title to Holly Holm last November, but despite swirling rumors to the contrary, White made it clear that the mystery surrounding Rousey’s continued life as a fighter will not be solved at Madison Square Garden on November 12.
"She's definitely not fighting in New York," White said. "I'm actually going to start building the New York card this week."
The question becomes then, who will be part of the card for the New York event, an event whose cultural significance—unlike, say, UFC 100, whose meaning was largely chimerical, an illusion built on civilization’s fascination with round numbers—is profound? After all, New York City is the former fight capital of the world, Madison Square Garden is the site of many of the most significant boxing matches of all time (Ali/Frazier I and II, Joe Louis vs. Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson), and New York was the last bastion of state-sponsored MMA blindness in the country. An occasion such as the long-awaited and triumphant return of MMA to New York after 20 years wandering in the darkness demands all the fanfare and star power a fight promotion can muster. Unfortunately this week’s news that Ronda Rousey, arguably the biggest star MMA has ever known, will not be bringing her power to the MSG fights is just the latest in a series of unfortunate turns that will most likely leave the UFC hobbled on its biggest-ever night.
First there’s former light-heavyweight champion and New York native Jon Jones, who, until his well-documented and repeated collapses, was being groomed by the UFC as the poster child of the promotion’s triumphant return to New York. After becoming the youngest champion in UFC and arguably its most dominant ever, Jones was going to be human embodiment of everything that return stood for and of the massive leaps and bounds a once-loathed sport had made into the mainstream. He was MMA’s future, its golden child. But Jones’ positive drug test results one day before UFC 200 seemed to be the nail in the coffin of that great dream. Even now, with reports and rumors that the former champion may be returning to the Octagon sooner than we thought, no one (outside of the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the Nevada State Athletic Commission, perhaps) actually knows when and if he’ll be back, and besides, at this point the bloom is off the rose. Jones may still be the greatest fighter in the world but he’s no longer the poster child for the rise of MMA.
And then there’s Conor McGregor, Rousey’s only true competition for biggest star ever, a charisma-production machine just coming off his biggest and most lucrative win ever, an Irishman with dreams as big as America who has already stated his desire to headline a show in New York, a town whose Irish roots run deep and whose noise and vitality and money-lust fit McGregor like a tailored suit. We just learned that McGregor likely won’t able to fight at UFC 205, having been given a medical suspension of up to six months by the NSAC following his win over Nate Diaz last weekend. Which means the earliest we’ll see McGregor back in the cage is probably February, two months too late to bring his impossible magnetism to bear on Madison Square Garden, a venue that demands magnetism and will swallow whole any event that doesn’t possess it.
So what’s a promotion to do, faced with the very real possibility of arriving at Madison Square Garden after nearly 20 years of scraping and hoping and fighting without any of its biggest stars? How do you put together a card that reflects the size and pageantry of the occasion without Rousey, Jones, or McGregor? What kind of middling impact would the original Dream Team have had on the world if Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird had not shown up in Barcelona? Ask Frank Sinatra or Vito Corleone about arriving in New York. It’s not just about success. Success can be had anywhere. It’s about blowing up the world and creating a new one from scratch. It’s not enough to simply arrive in New York; you must rise to the occasion. And how does one do that with all one’s biggest stars on the sidelines? In a lifetime full of promotional magic, UFC 205 may prove to be Dana White’s biggest trick yet.
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