UFC looks to retain public interest after cancellation of UFC 176

The UFC suffered a rare setback this week when it announced the cancellation of UFC 176, only the second cancelled pay-per-view event in the organization’s history. Featherweight titleholder Jose Aldo, whose championship defense against Chad Mendes was set to headline the event, was forced to withdraw from the fight last week with shoulder and neck injuries. With the August 2 date less than a month away, UFC elected to cancel the event rather than rush to find a replacement main card, partly thanks to the lack of recognizable names on the undercard. They simply couldn’t justify hosting the event when the biggest draw in a night of relatively low-key fights was no longer in play.

Aldo-Mendes II will have to wait

Aldo-Mendes II will have to wait

The Aldo-Mendes title fight looks like it may be rescheduled for the already-planned PPV event at the end of October in Rio de Janeiro, the site of the grapplers’ first meeting in 2012 in which Aldo KO’d Mendes in the first round. The Ronaldo Souza-Gegard Mousasi bout – a matchup of former Strikeforce champions which was reportedly nearly promoted to the main card of UFC 176 before the event was officially canceled – will become the headliner for UFC Fight Night Connecticut on September 5. Bobby Green will now fight Josh Thomson on the undercard of UFC Fight Night San Jose in two weeks, while Green’s scheduled opponent Abel Trujillo will square up with Ross Pearson at UFC Fight Night Bangor on August 16. The remaining fights on the card will be distributed among several upcoming events, in addition to those fights already scheduled:

UFC Fight Night Bangor – August 16
Gray Maynard vs. Fabricio Camoes
Jussier Formiga vs. Zach Makovsky
James Vick vs. Walmir Lazaro

UFC Fight Night Tulsa – August 23
Tony Martin vs. Beneil Dariush

UFC 177 – August 30
Danny Castillo vs. Tony Ferguson
Derek Brunson vs. Lorenz Larkin
Shayna Baszler vs. Bethe Correia

The news comes at a tough time for the UFC, which has lost huge draws like Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Cain Velazquez, and Rashad Evans to injuries this year. Jon Jones, Chris Weidman, and Ronda Rousey can only fight so often, after all. Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole has a great analysis of why these fighters haven’t yet discovered how to command the attention and the dollars of the injured superstars, and what they can do to change that.

Rousey in particular is an interesting case. The women’s bantamweight champ has only one drawback: she’s TOO dominant. She’s head, shoulders, and torso above every other woman in her class, as evidenced by the 16 seconds it took her to knock out Alexa Davis in her fourth straight title defense at UFC 175 last week. Rarely do her fights last much longer than one minute. Simply put, she’s boring to watch because nobody can compete with her.

Which is why UFC head honcho Dana White is now focusing on throwing some real competition at his new money maker. After signing boxer and undefeated MMA fighter Holly Holm, who many people think will be the first real challenge of Rousey’s career, White claims to be close to inking a contract with the legendary Gina Carano as well. Carano, of course, is the women’s MMA pioneer and idol of Rousey who hasn’t fought professionally since 2009. A Carano-Rousey matchup playing up the storyline of Carano’s return to the octagon would predictably launch PPV buys and ticket sales through the roof. While we impatiently await the returns of GSP and Silva, and the appearance of a real competitor for Jon Jones, the women’s division may soon put a rear naked chokehold on public interest.

The Best NHL Cities in North America

When the Los Angeles Kings again hoisted the Stanley Cup last month, there was some grumbling within the hockey community. Who were these guys who had suddenly become the most successful franchise of the past half-decade? Do people in LA even like hockey? Sure, The Trade that brought Wayne Gretzky to the West Coast kicked off some degree of hockeymania in the 1990’s, but that’s a relative term. The truth is simple: of the many things with which LA is associated, hockey is not one of them – the blue collar culture of the sport just doesn’t mesh with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. So where on the continent is the sport most popular?

HONORABLE MENTION

Chicago: Since they share a hometown with some of the most storied and successful teams in each of the Big Four leagues, you’d understand if the Blackhawks were somewhat overlooked. And yeah, lots of fans disappeared around the turn of the millennium when the team made the playoffs once in 10 years under legendarily awful owner Bill Wirtz, who seemed like he was intentionally driving fans away. But Chicago doesn’t seem to have shown exclusive dedication to any particular team in its history the way other cities have (see: Boston/NY), and with the Hawks’ recent resurgence following the takeover by Wirtz’s son and the drafting of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago has turned into a hockey city once more. Plus, cheering throughout the National Anthem at Hawks’ games is one of the coolest traditions in sports.

Minneapolis: In terms of the NHL, Minneapolis-St. Paul doesn’t boast much: they lost their original team, the North Stars, to Dallas after three decades of mediocrity, and their expansion team the Wild had largely been an afterthought until the last few years. But hockey itself is a religion in the Twin Cities, demonstrated by the fervor for high school and college hockey over the long winters. With the Wild building upon the backs of young superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, expect Minneapolis to take its place near the top of this list in the coming years.

Just another day in Philly

Just another day in Philly

Philadelphia: If you want blue collar, look no further than the City of Brotherly Love. The Flyers are one of the most successful expansion teams with the league’s second-best alltime winning percentage (57.8%, behind only Montreal), and fans love the physical style of play which gave rise to the nickname Broad Street Bullies. They come up short on trophies, however, not having won since their back-to-back championships in 1975-76. This combination of regular season success and playoff shortcomings has made Flyers fans some of the hungriest and most rabid in the league.

5-4. New York/Boston: These natural rivals are home to two of the most intensely passionate fan bases on the continent. Fans in both cities have remained loyal from their Original Six days through poor ownership and championship droughts to their current revivals. In contrast to Chicago, both are normally thought of as baseball towns, seemingly pushing the puckheads to the side, but a packed MSG and TD Garden are among the most ferocious venues in sports.

3. Toronto: The Canadian hub may have found more recent success from its forays into MLB and the NBA, but hockey always has and always will reign supreme. After co-dominating its first half-century of existence with hated rival Montreal, the Maple Leafs have fallen by the wayside, stuck in a 47-year championship drought. And yet the Leafs are still the league’s most valuable franchise, with its relentless fans continuing to cram the Air Canada Centre as loud as ever, knowing that this will be the year they turn things around. When the Leafs finally hoist the Cup once more, Canadian life may just grind to a halt for a weeklong celebration.

2. Detroit: When you think hockey in the United States, you think Detroit. Probably the NHL’s most popular franchise, possibly its most consistently excellent, home of both great entertainment and great puck, the Red Wings have truly earned their city’s “Hockeytown” moniker. If you combine so much success – 23 straight playoff berths and counting, with four Stanley Cup wins over that stretch – with such tradition (anyone up for some octopus throwing?), it’s impossible not to win the hearts of an entire city. Detroit easily takes the crown of Best Hockey City, if not for…

1. Montreal: Simply put, Montreal is hockey. The superlatives speak for themselves: Longest-running franchise (older than the NHL itself). Most successful team (they’ve won ONE QUARTER of all Stanley Cup championships). For crying out loud, the Canadiens spurred a culturally significant riot in 1955! And as much as I hate to admit it, there may not be a more electrifying sports atmosphere than a Bell Centre playoff crowd. This is high praise coming from a Bruins fan: Montreal, you guys know hockey.

The NHL End of Year Awards

The Cup has been hoisted, the parade has been marched, and the Los Angeles Kings are NHL champions – again. But the ticker tape had barely settled when the offseason kicked off with a bang: a wave of contract extensions, firings, hirings, and general activity has swept through the league over the past few weeks. (The new champs have been at the center, with playoff hero Jonathan Quick undergoing wrist surgery while his front office rewarded Marian Gaborik’s dominant postseason with a seven-year contract.) Before we fully close the book on 2014 and look to the future, however, let’s review some of the year-end awards, the bulk of which were handed out this week.

Sid the Kid is back

Sid the Kid is back

Hart Trophy (MVP) – Sidney Crosby’s name has been etched into this trophy since midseason, and there was no last-second surprise here. The Kid bounced back from a couple injury-plagued years to notch the fifth 100-point season of his career, and in doing so captured the MVP and the Art Ross Trophy (points leader) for the second time each. The pure playmaking ability of a healthy Sidney Crosby is unparalleled in the league today and with his landslide victory (128 of 137 first-place votes for the Hart), he was rewarded for it. Sid gets more than his share of criticism – lacks toughness, plays dirty, subpar defense, all those embarrassing recent playoff exits – but when it comes to overall influence on the game, there’s none better.

Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) – This trophy can carry different meanings year by year. Sometimes it’s awarded to the most dominant scoring defenseman, like PK Subban last year; sometimes it goes to the baddest defensive presence in the league, like Zdeno Chara in 2009. With Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks’ alternate captain and the anchor of one of the league’s best defenses, you get the best of both worlds. Keith finished with 61 points despite finding the net only six times, and his 55 assists led all defensemen. His coast-to-coast speed and quick stickwork make him a ferocious defender who can streak down the ice and turn a takeaway into a beautiful setup pass for a teammate. He’s a huge reason Chicago finished with this year’s fourth-best goal differential.

Selke Award (Best Defensive Forward) – …And here’s the reason Boston finished with the best differential, the only team to score a full goal per game more than they allowed. Patrice Bergeron is the epitome of a complete player: the best defensive forward in the league, possibly the best faceoff man, and nothing shabby in the offensive zone either. This year he notched the most faceoff wins, led his team with 30 goals while dishing out 32 assists, and had the second-best plus/minus rating in the NHL, allowing him to retake the Selke from the unwilling grip of Jonathan Toews. Of course Bergy will be the first to tell you that it all means squat after getting ungraciously bounced from the second round of the playoffs, but the recognition is still appreciated for the heart and soul of the Bruins.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie) – In probably the most uncertain of the major awards, Tuukka Rask edged out Semyon Varlamov in a battle of brick walls. There was a good case for Varlamov to take it home – despite facing over 2000 (!) shots on goal, he made 100 more saves than the next closest goaltender and still ended up with the third-best save percentage. Tuukka may have benefited from the better defense but his overall dominance all season long was enough to beat out Varlamov, who even came in fourth in MVP voting. Those league-leading seven shutouts didn’t hurt, either.

Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) – Another runaway winner, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon left nothing up for debate, tallying 63 points and leading all rookies in virtually every statistical category. Last year’s #1 overall pick made an immediate impact with his five game-winning goals and clutch play, and at only 18 years old he’s drawn comparisons to Wayne Gretzky’s rookie year. He, Varlamov, and Coach Roy are the reasons why the Central Division has suddenly become the scariest in hockey.

Adams Award (Best Coach) – Yes! The legendary former goalie, notorious hothead, and all-around crazy person Patrick Roy exploded onto the coaching scene with his former squad and took home the well-deserved hardware. Signing with the second-worst team of last year and immediately leading them to a division title over forces of nature Chicago and St. Louis – is that good? Roy delighted hockey fans when he nearly fought opposing coach Bruce Boudreau in his VERY FIRST GAME, and never looked back. He coached Varlamov to a season for the ages, capitalized on the talent of wunderkind MacKinnon, and generally blew expectations out of the water. Look for the Avalanche to stay dangerous while this guy is steering the ship.

Kings Look to Close Out the Stanley Cup Finals With a Sweep

After an incredibly hard fought postseason that has seen 12 of the 14 series reach a Game 6 and half of them reach the hallowed ground of a Game 7, the Los Angeles Kings are poised to break out the brooms in Madison Square Garden tonight. In their quest to finish the first sweep since the first round and to avoid flying cross-country for another game, the Kings will again turn to battle-hardened goaltender Jonathan Quick to do what he does best: keep the puck out of the net at all costs. This year, however, he finally has a dangerous offense around him to take some of the weight off his shoulders, which is probably why the Kings find themselves sitting pretty with a 3-0 lead.

Henrik "Spider Monkey" Lundqvist

Henrik “Spider Monkey” Lundqvist

So how exactly did we get here? Despite what the win-loss column says, this series has been anything but a cakewalk for LA. The first two games were the reason we watch playoff hockey: multiple two-goal leads evaporating, three overtime periods, back and forth battles with both goalies standing on their heads to make saves, and the Kings pulling out two wins despite not leading for a second of game time. Game 1 featured a frenzied attack from the Kings who peppered Henrik Lundqvist all night, forcing the netminder to consistently sprawl out for his 40 saves. After LA erased a two-goal deficit in the second, Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick did their best impressions of brick walls for nearly 40 minutes of game time until “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams snuck the deciding goal past King Henrik in overtime.

Game 2 was one of the most exciting games of the playoffs. Both teams traded scoring chances and power plays all night and the Kings again stormed back from multiple deficits, including a 4-2 score they obliterated in the third period on the strength of a highly controversial goal from Dwight King followed by the equalizer off the stick of playoff beast Marian Gaborik. We needed two overtime periods to finish this one, and the nine total goals obscured how well both goalies played again.

We headed into Game 3 expecting more of the same – high-flying offense warring with the best goalies in the game, a close game with a comeback thrown in for good measure – but instead we got more of a traditional playoff win, and an outcome reflective of Los Angeles’ dominant 3-0 record. Rather than the Kings’ frenetic offense swarming the ice, they did just enough to win, scoring three goals on only 15 shots. Rather than a goalie battle lurking under the offensive explosions we got a clear-cut winner, with Quick playing out of his mind to pitch a 32-save shutout. (That’s not to say Henrik was the “loser” – his low save percentage for the game doesn’t mirror how well he played. Blame/credit some unlucky bounces.)

And now here we are, approaching a game in which the Rangers find themselves backed into a corner – sound familiar? New York, and Lundqvist in particular, has played some of their best hockey in elimination games, and I don’t see that changing tonight. Yes, Los Angeles has played incredible these last few weeks. Yes, they have the “clutch” gene that’s so necessary in these high stake games, judging from their uncanny knack for comebacks and last-second heroics. And yes, they finally looked thoroughly dominant in Game 3, with their heralded goaltender, lockdown defense, and perfectly efficient offense firing on all cylinders simultaneously. But if you don’t think Lundqvist will win one game by himself in the friendly confines of MSG, you haven’t been paying attention this year. The way he’s been playing this series, he’s due for a classic Henrik performance – something like one goal and 39 saves, including three that will draw audible gasps from the crowd, with his offense doing just enough for the win. The Kings are too all-around excellent this year not to hoist the Cup, and they will probably do so before the week is out. But not before the Rangers make it difficult for them with a 2-1 win tonight, forcing the exhausted teams back to the West Coast this weekend. And if that happens…well, let’s just get through tonight and then we’ll see.

What the Academic Fraud Allegations Could Mean for UNC and the ACC

The University of North Carolina basketball program suffered yet another blow this week when former star Rashad McCants claimed that he benefited from favoritism and special classes in order to remain academically eligible while playing at UNC. ESPN’s investigative program “Outside the Lines” reported that McCants said that he was encouraged to enroll in sham classes that required no attendance and only one term paper per semester in order to pass, and that tutors even wrote papers for him occasionally. These claims come after a decade of suspicion of the athletic department at Chapel Hill, as the basketball and football programs have been the subjects of multiple investigations and reports regarding possible academic fraud since at least 2006.

Rashad McCants ponders his upcoming final exam

Rashad McCants ponders his upcoming final exam

McCants’ former teammates and coach have vehemently denied the claims but there have been enough stories over the past several years to warrant a second look. An internal probe by the university in 2012 found attendance irregularities in classes that were popular with athletes, a former school reading specialist resigned this semester after releasing a study claiming that 70% of UNC basketball and football players read below an eighth-grade level, and the football program is still on probation after being suspended from the 2012 postseason due to academic fraud. Plus, McCants’ unofficial transcript from his college days shows that of his 18 classes in African-American Studies – the program that has come under heavy fire as the home of these bogus classes – 16 resulted in grades of B or higher, including 10 A’s. Of his 10 classes outside the program, none resulted in better than a C. Maybe he just really, really liked African-American Studies, but the truth probably falls closer to the moral gray area.

So what does this mean for the parties involved? All it would take is a politician with spare time to take an interest in the case – think the George Mitchell report in the MLB steroids scandal – and this thing could be blown wide open. If there’s truth behind the rumors, UNC could be in for tough roads ahead. Along with university administrators and professors losing their jobs, the basketball program could face any number of sanctions: postseason suspensions, loss of scholarships, the vacating of wins, seasons, or their two national titles in the past decade, the first of which was won with McCants as their second-leading scorer. This would not bode well for the immediate future of the program.

…But it could be great for the rest of the ACC. UNC is coming off its first consecutive years without a conference title under Roy Williams, finishing with double-digit losses in both seasons, and last year they didn’t crack the AP Top 10 for the first time in Williams’ tenure. This is about as close to a “slump” as you’ll get for this program – it’s nearly impossible to match the prestige on Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels’ fifth-ranked recruiting class this year might mean an immediate return to national prominence – but there’s a group of hungry teams waiting for their chance to pounce. The already ultra-competitive conference underwent a shakeup this decade with the addition of Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Miami (who nabbed a surprising conference title two years ago), and just last year annexed premier programs Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame from the powerhouse Big East. Throw in the defending champ Virginia, dangerous mainstays Maryland and Wake Forest, and oh yeah, the arch nemesis Blue Devils, and UNC can’t rest on its laurels. With Williams at the helm and the history and resources of the program behind it, the Tar Heels will never have a problem recruiting, but a few years away from the postseason or without those all-powerful scholarships could provide just enough space for another contender to squeeze in.

As for Williams’ legacy, it will take something pretty drastic to do much damage. He steered the program out of the post-Dean Smith turmoil (again, a relative term) with a pair of national titles in his first six seasons, matching the number that the legendary Smith claimed over his 36-year run. He’s forced his way into the discussion of UNC greats in just over a decade, and his tenure at Kansas was nearly as impressive. But it’s hard to imagine that a coach of his magnitude doesn’t know every detail of his players’ lives, particularly their eligibility, and McCants claims that Williams actually directly guided him into the fraud classes. We’ve watched the asterisk that’s attached to the names of John Calipari and other excellent coaches who have been sanctioned persist despite incredible success, and Williams could soon have one as well. It won’t erase those two championships, however, and it certainly won’t keep the Heels down for long.