As MMA fans we’ve become accustomed to news of fights being canceled.
The very nature of the sport means that injuries are an ever-present threat, while strict drug-testing procedures, weight-cutting issues, illnesses and other unforeseen circumstances are all potential pitfalls that can take a fighter out of action at a moments notice.
With the benefit of hindsight, some scrapped fights have more historical significance than others though, and that will be the focus of this article as we look back at dream fights that fell through the cracks and left us wondering what might have been, cancellations that unexpectedly shifted the course of a division, and others that would sound the death knell for entire organizations.
Michael Bisping vs. Gegard Mousasi
2016 has been a remarkable year for Michael Bisping, who achieved a long-time dream by winning the UFC’s middleweight title, and he owes at least part of his success to two fortuitous fight cancellations.
It all began December of 2015 when it was announced that UFC Fight Night 93 in the UK would be headlined by Bisping and Gegard Mousasi, only for the match-up to be unexpectedly canceled just weeks later.
In a break from the norm this wasn’t due to illness or injury, but rather because the UFC had decided to pair Bisping up with Anderson Silva instead.
That would prove to be a fateful decision as despite almost being KO’d at the end of the third round, Bisping would rally to defeat the aging Brazilian legend by unanimous decision.
That appeared to be a career-defining moment for the Brit, but it led to even bigger things just a few months later when the UFC were forced to scrap a middleweight title rematch between Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman at UFC 199 due to an injury.
On just 10 days notice Bisping stepped in to rematch Rockhold for the title, and again ‘The Count’ seized the opportunity with both hands, shocking the world by KO’ing his rival in the opening round to become the new champion.
Now Bisping also has a successful title defense under his belt and is looking ahead to his next fight, but you can’t help but wonder how things would have played out if the UFC had stuck with their original plan to match him up with Mousasi instead of Silva back in February.
Conor McGregor vs. Rafael dos Anjos
After winning the featherweight title with a 13 second KO victory against Jose Aldo, ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor grabbed yet more headlines by revealing that he would now move up to fight for the lightweight title against Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 197 (later renamed UFC 196).
It seemed like a risky move given that Dos Anjos was blasting through the best the 155lb weight class had to offer at the time, but we’ll never know what would have happened in that fight as the Brazilian champion was forced to pull out less than two weeks from the event due to a broken foot.
The fight cancellation would have a huge impact on both men’s careers.
Dos Anjos missed out on what would have been by far the biggest payday of his career, and to add insult to injury he’d then go on to lose his title in a much lower profile fight with Eddie Alvarez at UFC Fight Night 90 a few months later.
As for McGregor, he made a bold decision to move up to welterweight to fight Nate Diaz on just 10 days notice to remain the headline attraction at UFC 196, and suffered a shock submission defeat in the third round.
The McGregor Vs Diaz match-up had caught people’s imaginations though, which resulted in UFC 196 becoming the biggest pay-per-view of all time with 1.6 million buys, while a rematch between them at UFC 202 a few months later broke the record again to the tune of 1.7 million buys, making both fighters extremely wealthy in the process.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Randy Couture
Back in 2007 Randy Couture send shockwaves around the sport when he announced he was resigning from the UFC, citing the promotion’s failure to sign Russian heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko as the biggest reason.
A few months later Couture appeared convinced that a historic superfight with Fedor would take place in 2008, though he’d have to wait out his UFC contract first.
The upstart Affliction promotion were in pole position to host the fight everyone wanted to see, and they even went as far as to shoot a commercial with the two fighters and had Couture enter the ring to call out Fedor after he defeated Tim Sylvia.
However, plans for the dream fight eventually had to be binned after a long and costly legal battle with the UFC eventually forced Couture to back down and return to the promotion.
That was a massive blow for Affliction who had been counting on that money-spinning fight, and they’d go out of business the following year after a replacement match-up with less hype between Fedor and Josh Barnett also fell through.
Afterwards, the UFC threw money at Fedor in an attempt to have the fight with Couture take place under their roof, but instead he signed for Strikeforce.
The perfect time to host the fight with both fighters still at the top of their game had now passed, with Couture losing his heavyweight title in a fight with Brock Lesnar, while Fedor’s long unbeaten run came to an end in 2010, leaving only lingering thoughts of what might have been.
Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock
By October of 2008, former backyard brawling YouTube sensation, Kimbo Slice had become an enormous draw in MMA, with his previous fight with James Thompson at Elite XC: Primetime having peaked at a staggering 6.51million viewers on CBS.
For his next fight at Elite XC: Heat, the 3-0 brawler was paired up with an MMA legend in Ken Shamrock, who at that stage was well into his 40’s and had lost his previous five fights.
On paper it looked like being a winnable fight for Slice, but the cat was set amongst the pigeons when Shamrock reportedly suffered an eye injury during a sparring session the night before, and that led to the Florida Commission refusing to let him fight.
Panicking Elite XC execs scrambled to find a replacement backstage and eventually settled on former UFC fighter Seth Petruzzeli, who had also been scheduled to fight on the card.
That seemed like a much more dangerous fight for Kimbo and it didn’t take long for that to prove to be the case, with Petruzelli TKO’ing the star in just 14 seconds.
Some of Slice’s mystique undoubtedly evaporated that night, and seeing their cash cow slayed proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the Elite XC promotion, who folded shortly afterward.
Almost seven years later, Kimbo did finally face the now 51 year-old Shamrock, TKO’ing him in the first round.
Jose Aldo vs. Anthony Pettis
In February of 2013, Dana White announced that after some initial resistance from Jose Aldo, the featherweight champion would be making his next title defense at UFC 163 against No.1 lightweight contender, Anthony Pettis.
This was a surprise move as Pettis had just defeated Donald Cerrone by TKO and seemed on course for a shot at the 155lb belt, but he’d become impatient and didn’t want to wait on that opportunity.
However, before people could get too excited about two of the top strikers in the world squaring off against each other, the fight was canceled due to Pettis suffering a knee injury.
That twist of fate actually ended up working out well for Pettis as it forced him to remain at lightweight, where he’d go on to win the title next time out by defeating Ben Henderson at UFC 164, while Aldo would continue to rule the featherweight division for another couple of years.
Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva
Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva was an obvious fight to make given that a rivalry had been building between the two for several years, but getting them into the Octagon to settles their differences proved harder than anyone had anticipated.
The two were initially booked as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3, where their bad blood spilled over into a brawl on set, started by Silva.
They would be given an opportunity to finish what they’d started on TUF at UFC 173 in May of 2014, though that was then pushed back to the TUF Brazil 3 Finale a week later, and then to UFC 175 the following month due to Silva having injured his back and hand during the confrontation with Sonnen.
There was a feeling that the match-up was jinxed, but nobody could have predicted what happened next, with the fight being scrapped altogether after Silva ran out the back door of his gym to avoid a random drug test, resulting in him receiving a lifetime ban (later reduced to three years).
It then emerged that Sonnen had also failed two separate drug tests around the same time as his opponent, testing positive for a range of banned substances including HGH, EPO, hCG and Anastrozole, resulting in a two-year suspension.
Not only did the fight cancellation leave fans without a resolution to the long-lived feud between the two, but it also effectively ended the two big-name stars time in the UFC, with both having since been released from their contracts.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson II
The first fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 was a five-round thriller that is regarded as one of 2013’s fights of the year.
The Swedish challenger had pushed Jones harder than any of his previous opponents, and some fans even believed he’d done enought to win on points, making a rematch almost inevitable.
Fan interest in the fight was so high that they voted to have Gustafsson feature on the cover of the ‘EA Sports UFC’ videogame alongside Jones in 2014, and one of the biggest rematches in 205lb history was scheduled to headline UFC 178 that September.
However, a month out from the fight Gustafsson faced the nightmare scenario of having to pull out of the blockbuster fight he’d been calling so passionately for due to a torn meniscus.
It was a devastating blow for ‘The Mauler’, and that missed opportunity would cost him dearly, as to this day the rematch hasn’t materialized, and his own form has slid since, losing two of his next three fights.
Meanwhile, Gustafsson’s loss was Daniel Cormier’s gain, as he was drafted in to replace him against Jones, and despite losing he would later claim the vacant title, which he still holds at the time of writing.
Fabricio Werdum vs. Cain Velasquez II
Fabricio Werdum produced an upset win over Cain Velasquez at UFC 188 to lift the heavyweight title, but with the former champion’s camp blaming his loss on difficulties coping with the altitude in Mexico City, it was only a matter of time before they’d step into the Octagon together again.
The rematch was all set to headline the UFC 196 event on Superbowl weekend in February of 2016, but with just a couple of weeks to go Velasquez pulled out due to a back injury, and Werdum also abandoned ship a few days later citing a knee issue.
The fight cancellation had major ramifications, with the UFC eventually taking a big financial hit by opting to rebrand what’s traditionally one of their biggest PPV’s of the year to a ‘Fight Night’ show on free TV due to the weakened line-up.
With Velasquez out of action for some time, Werdum would instead go on to make his first title defense against Stipe Miocic at UFC 198 and was KO’d in the first round.
Werdum and Velasquez will now finally meet for a second time at UFC 207 in December, but this time there won’t be a title on the line.
Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber III
With both fighters holding a win over each other, bitter rivals Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber were all set to conclude their trilogy of battles in the co-main event of UFC 148 in July of 2012.
First off though, the two would star as coaches on ‘The Ultimate Fighter: Live’ on FX, and it was during that season that Cruz suffered an ACL injury that left him with no option but to pull out of the fight.
Cruz lost out on a small fortune due to that call-off, as he would have taken a champion’s cut of the PPV revenue at the UFC 148, which drew close to a million buys thanks to the main event rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen.
That was a bitter pill to swallow, but even worse, Cruz would spend the next three years sidelined due to more career-threatening injury setbacks.
As for Faber, he’d lose a fight with Renan Baro for the interim bantamweight title, paving the way for the Brazilian to become the undisputed champion during Cruz’s absence.
The two rivals did eventually fight for a third time in 2016, four years after the originally scheduled bout, but by that point Faber was 37 and on the tail-end of his career, and he’d lose out to Cruz by unanimous decision to settle the trilogy once and for all.
Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler III
Following a drawn out contract dispute with Bellator, Eddie Alvarez returned to the promotion in late 2013 to rematch his rival Michael Chandler, who’d taken the lightweight tile from him a couple of years earlier in a ‘Fight Of The Year’ match-up.
The second fight was another classic, and this time it was Alvarez who emerged on top via split decision, setting up a third fight between the two to establish who was the best once and for all.
Pulling out all the stops to capitalize on this major trilogy fight, Bellator announced that they were going to make it the headliner on their first ever PPV event at Bellator 120 in May of 2014.
However, just a week before the event a spanner was thrown in the works when Alvarez pulled out due to having suffered a concussion in training.
Not only did Bellator miss out on hosting one of their biggest ever fights, but it also led to Alvarez reiterating that he no longer wanted to fight for the promotion, which resulted in them finally releasing the unsettled champion from his contract a few months later.
That paved the way for Alvarez to go to the UFC, where he’d go on to become their lightweight champion, while Chandler has since reclaimed the Bellator title.