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Where five-round main events get dicey

In Houston a couple of weeks back, there were some people talking about collector’s items, namely an original UFC 137 poster of Georges St. Pierre versus Nick Diaz.

These people were Zuffa employees, so what they were really saying is that they have dibs on all the cool stuff that we don’t.

But this reminded me of some of the media that snapped up the UFC on Versus 4 programs in Pittsburgh -- the one with the ill-fated Nate Marquardt versus Rick Story on the cover. When bad things happen, people see collectibles (and matchmaker Joe Silva sees headache medicine). Would anybody remember Billy Ripken if it weren’t for that 1989 Fleer card, the one with some choice words on the knob of the baseball bat?

Obviously, GSP/Diaz didn’t come off. Turns out neither did the next iteration, that of Carlos Condit versus GSP, only that poster didn’t have a comical backstory about missed news conferences and surly, digressive videos from the streets of the 209. That one was altered because of an ordinary knee injury suffered by St. Pierre just two weeks out. Whereas the first poster is cool because it ultimately ended up in musical chairs and equally intriguing match-ups, this one isn’t because it just loses a big fight.

It's all similar to the Brock Lesnar/Junior dos Santos fight of UFC 131, and Rashad Evans/Jon Jones for UFC 133. Any fight can be scotched or altered, at any time, for any reason. Some of them can be repaired or reworked, but no fight is invulnerable. In fact, if 2011 is a gauge, we shouldn’t take for granted that any particular fight will actually happen until we see the fighters emerge to their walkout music. Chance doesn’t use discretion -- a lot of times the fight being altered/nixed is the card’s headlining bout.

Which is, again, the complication with five round non-title main events. Nothing should be taken for granted, yet in this scenario that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Back at UFC 131, Dana White told the media that going forward, all main events would be five-round affairs. This was hinted at well before then, but what made it tricky was when he added “no exceptions” to the equation. Even if a fight is pulled on short notice, and another is bumped to the main event, or one fighter is replaced on short notice by another?

“No exceptions,” he deadpanned.

Granted, the ideology probably hadn’t been thought all the way through at the time. But it will have to be now, because since then and even before, all we’ve seen are exceptions. It’s unfair to ask fighters who are training for three rounds to go in for five on a couple of weeks' notice. And it’s unreasonable to have all fighters prepare for five rounds “just in case.” If a main event falls through, or if a fighter is replaced on relatively short notice, a non-title fight shouldn’t be anything other than a three-round fight, no matter in what order it appears on the card. With MMA’s biggest critics using hindsight to make their arguments, it just segues too easily into controversy.

The latest is GSP/Condit giving way to Penn/Diaz. In this case, Diaz’s manager, Cesar Gracie, lobbied immediately for a five-round fight. Penn even gave the old "why not" when it came around to him. Both guys have had experience in extended fights as former/current champions, but verbally agreeing to do two extra rounds is pretty Wild West for a professional setting.

The problem is that it’s a psychological/physical adjustment that could end up having repercussions in the end. Diaz competes in triathlons; Penn has had instances of fading. What if Penn took two out of the first three rounds and then gassed for the last two or got subbed out in the fourth or fifth?

As this sport grows, careers shouldn’t be treated so willy-nilly with on-the-spot handshake agreements. In a roundabout way, the careful management of careers is one of the reasons we’re seeing fighters drop out of bouts -- they don’t want to fight at anything less than 100 percent.

And it’s hard to fault them.

In the end, Dana White did the right thing by declaring UFC 137’s new headlining bout between Penn and Diaz a three-round tilt. In this case there were exceptions, and in the fight game exceptions and allowances are too often muddled. If the original main event is signed for five rounds and all goes perfect, it should be five rounds. Why not? But if things are altered en-route to getting there, the solution should be to default to three.