Don't look now but the UFC's early weigh-ins are quickly becoming the best source for drama in sports.
A month ago we all waited breathlessly for over an hour as UFC lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov failed to appear in the basement of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to weigh in, precipitating both the cancellation of his fight the following day with Tony Ferguson and the breaking of our hearts. The drama that day came from an absence, from a lack, from a deep silence that created an almost unbearable sense of hope and anticipation.
The drama at today's early weigh-ins for UFC 210 in Buffalo had much more to do with scandal and controversy, possibly even conspiracy. It all started about five minutes before 11EST, the official cut-off time for tomorrow night's event. At that point neither reigning light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier nor his challenger, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, had made an appearance, and for several tense minutes it looked like neither of the men would be able to make weight and yet another UFC main event would have to be scrapped in 2017.
Then all of a sudden there was Cormier, looking drawn and drained and seeming to stumble as he made his toward the scale. At 10:57 he dropped his sweat pants as two UFC officials lifted a towel in front of him and he stepped onto the scale. 206.2 pounds. 1.2 pounds over the limit. Cormier, looking as a dejected and distraught as one could, grabbed the towel and barely managed to drape it around himself as he stepped off the scale and returned to the backstage area. Surely the fight would be called off, everyone thought, or at least changed to a non-title fight. No man can lose a pound in three minutes.
At 10:59, though, Cormier reappeared, still naked and still holding that towel. He walked straight to the scale. There were now two towels covering Cormier's lower body, one being held by UFC officials and another one inexplicably behind it being held taut by a member of Cormier's own team. And as Cormier was being weighed, officials from the New York State Athletic Commissions either didn't notice or didn't care that Cormier had his hands on those towels and appeared to be leaning on them: a clear violation of commission rules.
This time—less than three minutes after the first time—Cormier was right on weight: 205 exactly. Cheers went up in the room, Cormier made a triumphant fist, and his towel-holding teammate grabbed him in a celebratory bearhug. What miraculous weight loss! But the question was now hovering all over that room: Why was Cormier allowed to hold onto that towel when he was weighing in the second time? Surely it could be argued that leaning on a towel could take a small amount of weight (say, 1.2 pounds?) off a fighter's bulk, no? And since when are mixed martial artists allowed to be touching anything during a weight cut?
Well, ask NYSAC Executive Director Anthony Giardina and he'll tell that they're not, and that Cormier didn't, no matter what we and the rest of the world say we saw.
"[Cormier] wasn't holding the towel the second time," Giardina told reporters right after they had just watched Cormier holding the towel the second time. When one of the reporters said he had video of Cormier holding the towel, Giardina was unmoved. "Either way," Giardina argued, "he weighed in 1.2 pounds less the second time. And he weighed in 205 exactly."
What?!! How does a UFC champion get away with holding onto a towel during weigh-ins in plain sight? And how is the executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission the only person in the world not have seen him do it? And what does he mean "either way"? Doesn't one way involve abiding by the rules while the other way doesn't? Is this merely more evidence of early sloppiness in New York MMA regulation, or is something more sinister going on? A fudging of the rules to make sure a main-event title fight goes on as planned, perhaps? Collusion? Scandal? A conspiracy even?
Amazingly, today's weigh-in drama didn't stop there. At the very moment Cormier vanished again into the dressing room, surrounded by his barking supporters and UFC officials, "Rumble" Johnson appeared from the other side of the room and with literally no time to spare before the end of the weigh-in period jumped on the scale and made weight easily, clearing the bar by 1.2 pounds.
So let me get this straight: Cormier comes in 1.2 pounds over, disappears, and comes back two minutes later weighing exactly 205 pounds? Meanwhile, his opponent, who was nowhere to be seen until the last possible moment, comes in exactly 1.2 pounds under the limit? Doesn't this all seem a little suspicious? Or is the drama of early weigh-ins turning me into a paranoid Deep State MMA truther?
Amazingly, there was still more drama to come. Just minutes after the Cormier madness, UFC newcomer Pearl Gonzalez was pulled from her main-card fight with Cynthia Calvillo because the NYSAC discovered she has breast implants, which are not allowed under commission rules due to "concern over rupture." Now, you can argue the fairness and legitimacy of that rule all you want (our own Sarah Kurchak addressed the issue of breast size/breast implants and their relation to weight-cutting and health and safety concerns two years ago), but the mystery remains as to why the NYSAC would wait until after Gonzalez had cut and made weight and after she passed all her commission-approved medicals to break the news. Add that to the mystery of Cormier's towel and Johnson's magical last-second 1.2-pound-under appearance and it's hard not to wonder at the moves and motives of the New York State Athletic Commission. Maybe it's just young and full of growing pains and struggling with the subtleties of rule enforcement. Or maybe it's something more. Maybe we're being cursed for being the last state in the union to legalize MMA. Maybe this is our punishment.
UPDATE: Several hours after being removed from UFC 210, the New York State Athletic Commission has medically cleared Pearl Gonzalez after reviewing her case with a physician.