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After another cancellation, UFC looks for answers to fighters' health issues

A day after UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway was pulled from the UFC 226 co-main event with concussion-like symptoms, the cause of his condition remained mystifying to his team and company officials.

“Obviously,” a blow to the head, “is a possibility, but the coaches saw nothing in training,” Holloway manager Brian Butler said of Holloway’s slurred speech, drowsiness and altered vision.

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“They had some hard sparring, but at no point did anyone notice that Max got rocked … there was nothing obvious that happened.”

Instead of seeking a 13th consecutive UFC victory in an anticipated meeting against unbeaten, No. 1 contender Brian Ortega of Harbor City, Holloway became the latest in a string of big-fight cancellations that have plagued the UFC’s past year and the annual International Fight Week event.

“It’s impossible to ensure what happened to Holloway doesn’t happen,” UFC president Dana White said. “You’re dealing with human beings. People get sick, things happen. It’s unfortunate … we’ve done everything we can possibly do to try to limit this.”

To emphasize the point seconds later, White watched UFC light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier trip and fall over a speaker as he sought to leave Thursday’s news conference, briefly limping away before returning with a glare of anger while facing off with his Saturday main-event opponent, heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.

“You OK?” White asked Cormier, who nodded yes.

Counting last July’s UFC 213, when women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes fell ill on the morning of her scheduled main-event title defense, nine of 14 pay-per-view cards have lost either a main-, co-main or former-champion fighter due to injury or weight issues.

Holloway has now been involved in three of those episodes. He missed a March title defense against Frankie Edgar with a foot injury, then volunteered to replace interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson (blown-out knee ligament walking through a parking lot) a week before an April 7 title fight.

Holloway, however, was deemed medically unfit to fight during the day-before weight cut by the New York State Athletic Commission.

That was the card decimated by injuries and cancellations thanks to former two-division champion Conor McGregor throwing a hand truck through the window of a bus carrying several UFC fighters in Brooklyn.

Saturday’s event had the potential to return the conversation to the fights, but earlier this week, Holloway required emergency room treatment for his condition, according to his manager, and an MRI was conducted.

“The UFC did everything in its power to get the tests expedited,” Butler said. “We were waiting on the tests to come back, and [UFC] said, ‘Keep an eye on him. If he’s getting better, we continue on … until we get the tests back.’ As we were waiting on the test results, the symptoms continued, so we said, ‘I don’t care about the test results, we’ve got to make a call as a team.’”

Holloway was overcome by tears as his team convinced him not to fight, the injury tentatively classified as sub-concussive.

“We’ll fight Ortega at some point,” Butler said. “Way too early,” to know precisely when, as White promised Holloway “will go through every type of testing there is until we figure out what’s wrong with him.”

Meanwhile, Ortega (14-0) rejected an offer to fight San Diego’s fourth-rated featherweight Jeremy Stephens (28-14) for no additional pay. Ortega agent Ed Soares was booed by the news conference crowd in announcing the decision was final.

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Soares said he offered for Ortega to fight Stephens for the interim belt at Staples Center on Aug. 4, but he doesn’t expect that to happen. Stephens has a July 28 bout in Calgary scheduled.

“How can you expect Brian to train for two completely different fighters?” Soares said. “Jeremy Stephens has probably the most powerful hands in the division, and if anyone has a puncher’s chance, it’s him.

“Brian trained specifically for Max Holloway, invested a lot of money and time into this. He’s not afraid of anything … but the reality is this is just UFC 226 to the UFC. This is Brian’s whole life. He wants that belt.”

Fighters struggled for solutions, with light-heavyweight Khalil Rountree calling unexpected cancellations “the nature of the beast … training involves punches and kicks. You can’t prepare without doing it, unless you plug into ‘The Matrix.’”

Top-10 middleweight contender Uriah Hall suggested, “Maybe they should start having a guy on deck as insurance in big championship fights. That’s a great idea.”

Soares countered, “There is a replacement fighter: Jeremy Stephens. But everyone but us knew he was the replacement.”

Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, a stablemate of Stephens in Chula Vista, said a card’s top fighters must strive to script their training toward minimizing injury risks in the two weeks before a fight.

“You are somewhat carrying this card and the card itself is counting on the views for your fight, not the FightPass prelims, no offense,” Cruz said.

“Once I get to fight week, I’m all in,” unless the injury is major. “Maybe Max had one of those. We can’t sit here and pretend to know.”

Boatload of bout troubles

UFC pay-per-views have been struck by a steady number of prominent fighter injuries or weight issues since last year’s UFC 213 at International Fight Week in Las Vegas. Here’s a recap:

UFC 213: Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes hospitalized with illness on the morning of her main event, withdraws versus Valentina Shevchenko; men’s bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt withdrew in May with a back injury.

UFC 215: Flyweight title challenger Ray Borg withdraws on morning of fight with illness.

UFC 216: Scheduled pay-per-view fighter Paige VanZant pulls out from fight with Jessica Eye with back injury.

UFC 218: Lightweight title challenger Frankie Edgar out of main event with back injury three weeks before the event, forcing a rematch (and repeat loss) by Jose Aldo versus champion Max Holloway.

UFC 219: Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz breaks arm seven weeks before planned bout.

UFC 221: Interim middleweight champion Robert Whittaker injured after full champion Georges St-Pierre relinquishes belt with colitis, leading to overweight Yoel Romero knocking out Luke Rockhold in the main event.

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UFC 222: Max Holloway suffers a leg injury one month earlier, forcing women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg to return for a main-event title defense just over two months since her taxing five-round victory, and featherweight replacement Brian Ortega knocks out Edgar.

UFC 223: Interim featherweight champion Tony Ferguson tears a knee ligament walking through a parking lot one week before his main event. Holloway is summoned as a replacement and is declared unfit to fight in weight cutting. Khabib Nurmagomedov wins the lightweight belt against deep replacement Al Iaquinta after two other fighters were injured by Conor McGregor’s hand-truck attack of a UFC bus.

UFC 225: Romero misses weight again and Whittaker wins a narrow decision for the full middleweight belt.

UFC 226: Holloway withdraws from co-main event with concussion effects.

UFC 227: Planned pay-per-view fighter Rockhold ruled out of Staples Center card in August after suffering June leg injury in training.

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