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Is Expanded Insurance Really to Blame for Injuries?

By on July 19, 2011

I understand that fighters get hurt. That makes perfect sense considering that they hurt one another for a living. Still, at some point the injuries pile up so much that you officially pass the threshold of “unlucky” and end up in “WTF” territory. We’re there right now, as a matter of fact.

As if it’s not enough that Tito Ortiz (of all people, Tito’s healthy while everyone else is injured) has had to step in on late notice to fight Rashad Evans (due to an injury to Phil Davis), now the Rich Franklin-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira fight has been scrapped altogether, as Lil’ Nog had to pull out and there was nobody available to replace Franklin. And as if that wasn’t enough, now we hear that Alistair Overeem will be out of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix because the next round is in September, not October as previously thought and he doesn’t feel he’ll have enough time to recover from his broken toe and prepare adequately.

What the hell?!?

I know, I get it: you want to shrug and say “It’s not rocket science, these guys get hurt. That’s Dana White’s explanation from his Twitter account, essentially. Nothing more to see here, right? I could accept that if there was an injury here or there like usual. Look at the reality of the situation, though.

The reality is that out of 14 UFC events this year (counting next month’s UFC 133), only five have been able to avoid major changes due to injuries. Now, I’m not counting any injury as a “major change”, I’m just talking title bouts, main events and co-main events, here. Can we still pretend that this is business as usual when just under 1/3 of 2011’s UFC cards have been able to feature the advertised main events and co-main events?

Even though we’ll never change the fundamental problem with a sport like this (fighters get hurt because fighting is dangerous, duh), when the string of injuries is excessive even by MMA standards, you have to start wondering we’re having all of this trouble with fighters pulling out of fights.

Then, you remember that this year, Zuffa introduced expanded fighter insurance that covers not only injuries sustained in competition (which were already covered), but also injuries sustained in training. I’m not the first to notice that we’ve had a lot more fighters pulling out of fights due to injuries sustained while training since those types of injuries have started getting covered by Zuffa’s insurance.

However, I don’t think that’s the entire issue. Can I deny that some of these withdrawals wouldn’t have happened without the new insurance policy? Of course not. It’s common knowledge that fighters (cough, Shogun, cough) in the past have gutted through an injury in training and fought anyway, maybe in part because if the injury seems like it came from the fight, treatment/surgery would be covered by insurance.

Still, fighters are a tough and determined bunch. Oh, and there’s that other little thing that if they don’t fight, they don’t get paid. That’s why Hermes Franca and others have turned to steroids like drostanolone (which can help you recover from injuries quickly) in order to avoid pulling out of fights. It’s also why fighters have regularly fought through injuries. When you only compete two or three times per year as it is, missing a fight is a pretty big dent to your annual income.

Which comes to my point. You can’t just blame the new insurance coverage for the ridiculous amount of injuries that have led to fighters pulling out of big fights this year. In my opinion, the cause is actually three-fold. There’s the insurance, sure. But there’s also the fact that the stakes are higher than ever now. You have to look at two other factors when understanding why fighters may opt to pull out of fights with greater frequency than before: increased fighter pay and increased competition for roster spots.

You may say, “Wait a minute, if fighters are getting paid more, doesn’t that mean they’ll be more likely to fight through injuries and collect that paycheck?” Sure, if they’re short-sighted. But there’s also the competition for roster spots to account for. Since it’s widely understood now that almost no one is safe from getting the axe if they drop a few fights in a row, fighters are much more cautious about going into fights in anything but peak physical condition.

Do you think Nogueira wanted to face a tough opponent like Franklin while on a two-fight losing streak at anything less than 100 percent? Of course not. What would await Nogueira if he lost a third straight fight and got cut? Anyone care to ask someone like Gabriel Gonzaga if a promotion like Reality Fighting can match even a portion of the $67,000 he was getting just to show up and compete when he was in the UFC?

It’s a cold, cold world outside of the Zuffa banner for high-level MMA fighters, and even though nobody wants to miss a big payday that only comes a couple of times per year, dropping out of a fight is much better than losing one too many fights due to a nagging injury and trying to work your way back by fighting in small organizations for ten grand a pop.

Tito Ortiz realized this, and was vilified for it. He got over a half million dollars for the Ryan Bader fight, which he fought with his back to the proverbial wall. Yet, previously he was ridiculed for dropping out of a planned third fight with Chuck Liddell because he had yet another back injury. If he had toughed it out and gotten beaten a third time by Liddell, though, where would he be now? Would he even be in the UFC? Would the decision to “do the right thing” and fight through the injury have cost him a million dollars or more in lost opportunities after being cut from the roster?

By fighting injured against top-notch opponents, fighters may get an extra payday but take a chance of adding another loss to their records in an organization where two or straight three losses will get you the boot. Once that happens, you’re looking at scraping by and trying to rack up wins while making a fraction of the money you were making in the big show on the hopes of being summoned again by Zuffa. Oh, and that sponsorship money that you were getting for fighting on Spike TV and pay-per-view? Good luck getting that kind of dough when you’re competing in Shark Fights.

Now that there are no major competitors that can pay anything close to what Zuffa does, fighters have to be much more careful about how they approach their careers. Sure, having insurance that covers training injuries makes it much easier to pull out of fights, since previously you would have lost a payday and possibly had to pay for medical bills out of your own pocket. However, I think the biggest factor is that the stakes are higher than ever. Nobody wants to fight at less than 100%, lose their cushy UFC roster spot, and endure the harsh realities that await MMA fighters who aren’t employed by Zuffa.

Until Zuffa provides its fighters with a little bit more job security, no one is going to be in a hurry to step up and fight at less than 100%.

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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