Technically speaking, I was a fan when UFC 24 rolled around.
Kevin Randleman's first UFC heavyweight title defense was set to take place a month before I wrote the story that scored my first paycheck as a mixed martial arts reporter. Passionate as I was, I called around San Diego, where I attended college, to find a place, any place, showing Randleman's fight against dangerous young heavyweight Pedro Rizzo.
Eventually a sports bar informed me that it dared to be one of the few establishments carrying the UFC in the spring of 2000. I have this vivid memory of feeling like the only person in the place who gave a damn about these cage fighters. So, as this was my only option, I enjoyed a platter of nachos while watching one muted television set tuned to a night of fights in Lake Charles, La.
The evening rolled along with little fanfare. "Crazy" Bob Cook, a familiar face these days alongside American Kickboxing Academy fighters, made his lone Octagon appearance, which turned out to be the last time he stepped in a cage, and choked Tiki Ghosn. Less than a year before he would be crowned UFC champion, Jens Pulver was featured on pay-per-view for the first time. He was spry and determined while pummeling David Velasquez with punches.
All that was filler, though. I'd sought out a TV to see Randleman take on Rizzo. It was time. Or it should have been time. There wasn't any sound, but it was crystal-clear based on an interview taking place backstage that something was off. I begged a waitress to turn up the volume. She did, just in time to catch on that Randleman, somehow, some way, slipped on pipes! Fell! Cracked his head! Was in an ambulance on his way to the hospital? The fight ... off!?
This was utterly shocking -- even for Semaphore Entertainment Group, UFC’s original promoter that was on its last legs, doing things on the cheap, struggling to get by and keep its head above water.
I'd have felt ripped off if I actually had a chance to pay for it; nonetheless it was embarrassing to like this stuff.
Looking back on the episode 12 years, hundreds of events and many millions of dollars later, it's easy to laugh. Especially since the fallout was mild compared to similarly odd (though thankfully rare) events in this wild sport. Randleman fought Rizzo two cards later in what stands out as the least interesting championship bout in UFC history. That was as bad as it got.
It’s not as if a fight night was cancelled, a la UFC 151 or Affliction’s third card, which was supposed to feature Fedor Emelianenko versus Josh Barnett. The ramifications there were far larger, in part because the sport had moved beyond the nether regions it existed in during the early 2000s. Barnett’s failed steroid test was still stunning, as was Affliction Entertainment’s decision to close up shop and never promote again.
Ken Shamrock’s day-of-the-fight cut prevented his main event versus Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson from airing on CBS. Say what you will about the fight -- it was a farce -- but people would have tuned in. Instead, Slice was knocked out in 14 seconds; the promoter, ProElite, went under, and CBS hasn’t dared to wade waist-deep into MMA again.
Sometimes these things are serious and sometimes they’re not. For all the high-profile instances of promoters or fighters failing at their jobs, there are sadly numerous less noteworthy situations. Fighters get screwed on the regular in MMA. They get flown to far-off locales and left fending for themselves. They put in 8, 10, 12 weeks' worth of training, pay nutritionists and trainers and get nothing in the end. Promoters invest capital to sell a card, only to see fighters or shady partners subvert their efforts.
The cancellation of UFC 151 was stunning because that sort of stuff just doesn’t happen to Zuffa. These episodes were the domain of lower-tier brands, of lower-tier promoters and executives, of lower-tier operators.
Well, not anymore.
The lesson of UFC 151 and every other “what in the world just happened” moment in MMA is this: Sure things don’t exist, most especially when you’re talking fight sports.