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Analysis: Can heavyweights break International Fight Week curse?

UFC can’t catch a break with annual Fourth of July weekend card

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UFC 200 fighter Daniel Cormier makes a comment during a press conference on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 in this file photo.

A thud echoed through the Pearl at the Palms at the conclusion of the UFC 226 news conference Thursday afternoon, quieting several hundred fans as they realized light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier had crashed to the ground.

Cormier tripped over some equipment onstage, and in the few seconds before he was helped up, everyone’s minds must have been filled with a similar sentiment — not again.

A freak accident to force Cormier out of his main event, heavyweight title bout with Stipe Miocic Saturday at T-Mobile Arena would have been the final confirmation needed to conclude there’s a curse afflicting International Fight Week.

Less than 24 hours before, the card’s other scheduled title fight fell through when featherweight champion Max Holloway was pulled from a matchup with Brian Ortega due to prolonged concussion symptoms. It marked the fourth straight year that the UFC’s annual July spectacle has lost a headliner in a championship bout less than 10 days before fight night.

Alas, Cormier was OK and came out to pose for a stare-down photo with Miocic after briefly disappearing backstage. UFC President Dana White managed to crack a small smile, a stark contrast to moments earlier when he looked terrified while offering Cormier a hand.

A memorable battle with historic implications between Cormier and Miocic seems like the only thing that can save International Fight Week’s swoon at this point. Losing it would have been devastating.

“It’s one of these crazy things,” White said about Holloway a few minutes before Cormier’s fall. “You’re dealing with human beings. People get sick, things happen. It’s unfortunate but there’s nothing you can do about it. We’ve done everything we can possibly do to try to limit this.”

Fights fall through all the time in mixed martial arts, but rarely are they both high profile and last minute on a seemingly continuous string at the same event. Even when they do fall through, fans tend to forget about the cancelations long-term if the fight card still delivers.

That hasn’t been the case the last two years at T-Mobile Arena. UFC 200 was one of the most highly anticipated events in promotional history two years ago, but the consensus was it didn’t live up to expectations.

Last year’s UFC 213 was even more of a slog.

White said the UFC purposely loaded up this year’s card so it could endure a last-minute injury like Holloway’s if necessary, and by the looks of the bout sheet, that’s true. A super fight between Cormier and Miocic is the biggest non-Conor McGregor event the promotion could make between active fighters.

And a second heavyweight feature, between two heavy-handed sluggers Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis, looks like a stronger-than-usual co-main event despite only assuming the position after the shake-up.

“The reality is, these guys are all great guys who are sitting up here for International Fight Week and it’s a big deal for them,” Cormier said. “But this is where I’ve lived. I’ve lived in these moments since I first started fighting.”

Even before his spill, Cormier looked miniature onstage next to Miocic, Ngannou and Lewis — and they let him know about it. Well, at least Lewis did.

Cormier got a huge reaction from the fans when he revealed he was on the receiving end of some playful trash talking right before the press conference.

“I’ve already got a challenge in the back,” Cormier said. “Derrick Lewis told me he was going to knock me out right before we walked out here.”

Lewis nodded his head and laughed before giving his reasoning for the threat.

“He disrespected that Popeye’s chicken on a commercial a few years ago,” he cracked.

That explanation drew an even louder roar from the audience. White and the UFC have to hope the Cormier and Lewis trade punches in their respective fights Saturday as well as they did barbs on Thursday.

And until then, they might have to resist the temptation to cover them in bubble wrap. A pair of great heavyweight fights is the only thing that’s going to slow rumblings about the International Fight Week curse.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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