Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
AP/Press Association Images Anthony Pettis is due to face Max Holloway in the main event.
# Fight night
UFC 206 at risk of being overshadowed by MLS and Conor McGregor absence
How the event is shaping up after disaster struck at yesterday’s weigh-in.

TORONTO IS A town that reverberates to competition, always ready to go all-in for the next major event. This week, Canada’s most populous place has noticeably buzzed louder and longer as the clock counted down to Saturday night.

The chilling white of winter finally blew in off the Great Lakes this week, bringing snow and cold that cuts to the soul, but the sporting spectacle coming in with it has helped keep the locals’ fire burning.

That event is not however UFC 206, the first pay-per-view card to hit the country in almost two years, at the Air Canada Centre tonight but the MLS Cup final, a mere couple of kilometres down the road. Mixed martial arts may have conquered New York last month but a few weeks later its been left in the shade here. In the process, its Conor McGregor-sized problem has again been laid painfully bare.

A card that has lurched from one disaster to another (even after being given some fresh impetus by a Notorious-related intervention) hasn’t been helped by Toronto FC’s progress to a first-ever decider — at home no less — against the Seattle Sounders on the very same night. But it has rarely helped itself either.

There was no little irony Friday morning while the MLS were ramping up their final pre-match preparations with some back-slapping, across town at the lakeside Westin Hotel, Anthony Pettis, one half of a stand-in headline act, was sending UFC 206 deeper into the mire. By missing the 145lb limit for an interim featherweight title showdown with Max Holloway, Pettis put the tin hat on a hellish production.

After the wild success of McGregor’s New York takeover, the UFC’s new owners have seen their $4.2 billion baby given one hell of reality check here. Hype-building events have been humbling — there were barely 100 souls in attendance when Pettis, Holloway, Cowboy Cerrone and others performed public workouts downtown on Wednesday.

A fighter Q&A and the ceremonial weigh-ins at the ACC yesterday were just as low-key. Tickets — as many as you fancy — are readily available at face value and lower. A penny for McGregor’s thoughts. While we’re at it, a penny too for those of Georges St-Pierre, Canada’s fighting godfather who has hung as heavily over this week as his successor in the slot of leading man of the UFC.

When not busy turning his knuckles white holding an ever-fraying card together at the seams, Dana White has spent the rest of his time in Toronto putting out fires lit in part by St-Pierres last week with the latest foray of an attempted fighters’ union. It could have all been so much rosier. How exactly did we get here? On a rumbling bus of wrong turns.

For so long, Toronto held a vaunted position in the sport. In 2011, UFC 129 at the cavernous Rogers Centre — home of baseball’s Blue Jays — saw 55,724 fans smash the organisation’s attendance record. It was a number and a night that endured, until late last year when Ronda Rousey’s ill-fated mission to Melbourne saw the record broken by a couple of hundred.

Canada had for a spell been some of the most fertile hunting ground for White and the Fertitta Bros. From the turn of the decade UFC held nine pay-per-view cards here in the space of three years. There’s been just two since 2013.

All of which would leave you reasonably expecting that they’d have put a particularly focussed effort into this long-awaited return. Instead they stumbled and bumbled their way into a car crash of a card. Negotiations for St-Pierre’s desperately awaited octagon comeback were messy, coming to nothing and leaving Daniel Cormier’s defence of his light-heavyweight strap against Anthony Johnson as main event by default.

On another day, it was a clash that would make for a respectable bill-topper. But when GSP, and potential opponent Nick Diaz, had been teased to the Canadian public for so long, it was never going to cut it, especially not with the casual fan. A fortnight out, it went south too — Cormier forced out through injury — and things really went off the rails.

The new UFC regime is spearheaded by Ari Emanuel’s giant Beverly Hills talent agency, WME-IMG. You think they’d know a thing or two about crisis management. It was hard to tell. The first true test on their watch sparked panic and saw them turn to the first person they could seemingly think of — McGregor — to get them out of a hole that he’d had nothing to do with.

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Just two weeks after he’d made the history they’d been hyping the hell out of for almost a year and secured a second simultaneous championship belt in New York, they stripped the Dubliner’s original featherweight title from him, handed it to Jose Aldo Jr and announced that Holloway and Pettis would now headline UFC 206 with another interim championship belt borrowed from the megastore, given a quick polish and thrown on the line.

McGregor had ‘relinquished’ his featherweight crown, we were told. We had only the Fox Sports broadcasting team’s word for this as that was how the news was delivered to the world. It was a panicked solution plucked from thin air and inflated with hot air.

On Tuesday afternoon, as fighters arrived into Toronto and adjusted their bodies to the cold, McGregor’s social media accounts showed him striding to a private jet — apparently bound for somewhere warm — with his two titles, a piece of gold draped over each shoulder.

Tonight marks the first pay-per-view card since his ‘give me equity’ ultimatum post-fight in New York. He may tune in to see it struggle in the shade of a football match. More likely he won’t. Either way, his own featherweight title won’t be far from reach.

“No way, Conor wouldn’t have given up the belt willingly,” Pettis himself told The 42 on Thursday, hours before missing the cut and with it a chance at gold, interim or otherwise in what nonetheless shapes as a fascinating battle with a red-hot Holloway. “Damn, I wouldn’t give up the belt. But hey, the UFC is a show that holds for nobody. It’s a show that just goes on.”

Maybe so. Yet as this week has so plainly proven, without its all-pervasive leading man, it’s not nearly the same kind of show.
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