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UFC 213 on verge of losing fight it most desperately needs

Cody Garbrandt poses for photographers during an event for UFC 207, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Las Vegas. Garbrandt is scheduled to fight Dominick Cruz in a mixed martial arts bantamweight championship bout Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Heading into one of the most important dates of the calendar year, the UFC had a suitable, albeit historically underwhelming, card set for International Fight Week on Fourth of July weekend.

A time of the year that has previously hosted blockbuster fights like UFC 100 (Lesnar vs. Mir and St-Pierre vs. Alves), UFC 189 (Mendes vs. McGregor and Lawler vs. MacDonald), UFC 200 (Tate vs. Nunes, Lesnar vs. Hunt and Aldo vs. Edgar), Fourth of July weekend is often circled by many a mixed martial arts fan as a point in time promising some of the best action they’ll see all year.

This year’s iteration was slated to feature some fairly anticipated matchups, none more than Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw. Though it was never officially labeled the headliner (the promotion mysteriously had that slot vacant on its website at time of publication), Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw brought fans everything they could ever want in an MMA fight.

Two talented fighters? Yep. Championship gold at stake? You betcha. Inherent drama between two former teammates turned heated rivals? Absolutely.

On a night that was bound to feature a rematch between Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko, Robbie Lawler vs. Donald Cerrone, Fabricio Werdum vs. Alistair Overeem and Anthony Pettis vs. Jim Miller, it was Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw that had most fans grinning from ear to ear as the distance between the present and July 8 grew shorter.

And yet, with less than two months to go before that fateful date, Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw appears to be on its last legs. Word got out that the champion was dealing with a back injury — one that was mostly unresponsive to stem cell treatments. The UFC has gone to great lengths to salvage its potential main event, sending Garbrandt to Dana White’s preferred doctor in Germany to help alleviate what pain exists in “No Love’s” back.

White may be confident the German specialists will be able to cure Garbrandt of his problems, but Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting reports the odds are slim that we’ll actually see the two bantamweight fighters square off on July 8. Helwani also states the UFC is in the process of contacting other fighters to potentially headline the event, though nothing is set in stone.

The UFC already put a good portion of its eggs into the basket that was UFC 211, bringing numerous highly anticipated fights (championship or otherwise) into the fold for a thrilling night of action in early May. But for as grateful as fight fans may be to receive such a generous helping of top-notch Octagon action, they weren’t necessarily expecting it — not in the same way they’re anticipating it for early July year in and year out.

The promotion itself created a gaping hole early on by not dubbing Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw as its main event for UFC 213, generating the suspicion that something more special was (and still is) at play. Whether that “something more special” will actually manifest by July 8 remains to be seen, but not having it whatsoever will make Garbrandt’s absence from the card even more noteworthy.

At time of publication, the only title fight not in jeopardy for UFC 213 is Nunes vs. Shevchenko. Despite headlining two of the biggest pay-per-views in UFC history (200 and 207), we’re likely safe to assume that Nunes had little to do with those metrics. UFC 200 was stacked to historic proportions, and UFC 207 marked the return of Ronda Rousey. Nunes, despite all her talents, was not the draw in either situation. She won’t be the draw for UFC 213 either.

UFC 213 needs help, but there’s really no telling what — or specifically, who — may be available to help carry the load. The strawweight champion recently fought, the flyweight champion is not a draw, the bantamweight champion is hurt, the featherweight champion competes one month prior, the lightweight champion is chasing a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, the welterweight champion has no opponent available, the middleweight champion is hurt, the light heavyweight champion fights later that month and the heavyweight champion fought just one week ago.

You then consider the idea that Nate Diaz isn’t interested in fighting for less than a handsome sum, Rousey is unofficially retired, Brock Lesnar is on suspension and Georges St-Pierre may not be ready in time for July, and suddenly you realize what sort of trouble this event may really be in.

Fourth of July weekend may not bring its annual fireworks show this year; not for the fans enthused by violence inside the Octagon anyway.

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