Nestled between the excitement and expectation of upcoming mega-cards UFC 205 and UFC 207 sits a black cloud of uncertainty. Perhaps the only damper on what should be a huge final quarter for the UFC in 2016, that cloud takes the form of UFC 206 in Toronto. The much-maligned card currently looks to be a misfire at risk of bombing badly at the box office and on PPV. It has Canadian fans up in arms, threatening a boycott. It has an absolute lack of compelling bouts outside the main event and one or two other fights. Even with a couple of bouts still to be booked for the card, it is an underwhelming event that feels like a Fight Night headlined by a title bout, nothing more.
In short, UFC 206 is the middle child of UFC PPV cards. Unloved, unwanted and frankly forgettable.
With so many positives to look forward to in the coming months for UFC fans, just how did it come to this? Well, that’s a good question. UFC 206 features a title fight between light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson, a rematch of a fairly exciting fight from several years ago. It has a stellar pairing in Cub Swanson and Korean Superboy Doo-Ho Choi. There’s a promising light heavyweight tilt between local hero Misha Cirkunov and the rising Nikita Krylov. After that? Well, there’s a hodgepodge of Canadian talent, and little else.
Therein lies part of the problem. The business model of stacking foreign cards with local fighters has been failing the UFC for some time now, and trying to pull it off for a numbered event is pure folly. Canada was called the “Mecca of MMA” by UFC President Dana White in 2010 following great results in the country. Mismanagement of events in the nation saw each subsequent show past 2011 draw less and less interest, however. Much of that could be blamed on injuries, with cards like UFC 149 (Faber vs. Barao) and UFC 161 (Henderson vs. Evans) absolutely devastated.
Much of that could be blamed on injuries, with cards like UFC 149 (Faber vs. Barao) and UFC 161 (Henderson vs. Evans) absolutely devastated. Calgary, in particular, was a moment of shame for the UFC, with White frequently noting that he “owes” the Alberta city. UFC 186 in Montreal turned out to be a bust as well. Headlined by flyweight champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, it marked the low point of PPV cards in the modern era, and had to contend with legal issues surrounding the contractual status of star Rampage Jackson, who fought in the co-main event.
Yet while injuries are excusable, bad booking is not. The UFC continued to over-rely on local talent on its Canadian cards, despite Canadian fans being a fairly educated bunch in regards to mixed martial arts. And despite many of them being driving distance from cards in New Jersey and elsewhere, particularly New York, where MMA is now legal. Sure, events like Ottawa’s Fight Night this past Summer sold out quickly, but that was a town that had never played host to a UFC show. Toronto? Well, that’s another matter.
There’s an argument to be made that Canadian fans would be happy only if Georges St. Pierre was on the card, but that argument really doesn’t hold water. Yes, GSP set a record for attendance at the Rogers Centre (that locals still prefer to label the Skydome) back in 2011, and yes, his involvement would have made the card a sure bet. In fact, it feels very much as if the UFC put all their eggs in one basket, banking on the former welterweight champ to appear on the card, regardless of any claims White may have made to the contrary. Surely, this lackluster affair could not have been their intention, but the inability of the company to come to terms with one of its biggest stars seems to have left UFC 206 in limbo. Still, with proper booking, a lack of GSP would not have been an issue.
Look no further than the UFC’s last visit to Toronto: UFC 165. That broke the trend of flagging UFC cards in the nation. Jones vs. Gustafsson is known as hosting possibly the greatest light heavyweight title fight of all-time, but it also, wisely, relied on international stars. Beyond Jones vs. Gus, there was Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland in the co-main event, heavyweights Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrone squaring off, and Khabib Nurmagomedov facing Pat Healy on the main card. The only Canadian among the top five bouts was Francis Carmont, and the show did just fine at the box office, with over 15,000 fans in attendance for a $1.9 million dollar gate. Further down the card? Current contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and would-be flyweight contender Wilson Reis.
In short, UFC 165 was booked smart. Over three years later, UFC 206 was not. Even Daniel Cormier is worried it will be overlooked. Yes, it’s buried between two huge events, and the surrounding weeks are littered with smaller shows. There’s likely a drain on talent as a result — but does UFC 206 really require seven of nine announced fights to rely on Canadian fighters? Fans want to see the best. If they wanted to watch local talent, they could go to local shows, something the UFC doesn’t quite seem to grasp (the state of regional MMA in Ontario these days is another matter, mind you). Viewers on TV? They just want good fights, but you need names to draw them in.
How real is the perceived backlash against this show? Well, despite tickets having gone on sale a week ago, there are still plenty of good seats left. Scalpers seem to be playing it safe, marking up the cheap seats well under 50%. That’s unheard of for a market like Toronto, although to be fair, other UFC events have seen similar situations. Regardless, the feeling is that the UFC has overlooked UFC 206 instead of stacking it, which is what many expected after the promotion had been away from its biggest Canadian market for years.
Of course, there’s still time left to fix things. The UFC could pull off a Hail Mary and manage to come to terms with GSP. Michael Bisping looks to be campaigning for that fight pretty hard. Until something is announced, however, UFC 206 is a Daniel Cormier injury away from being the next canceled UFC card. It’s in desperate need of name value at a time when most of the top names in the UFC are tied up elsewhere. Nick Diaz remains a slim possibility. Some of the bigger heavyweight names might give the show a boost. Beyond that? Well, if the main event gets scrapped for any reason, as things stand, the show might not go on.
As the middle child, mind you, it doesn’t seem like many would even miss it.