Just as the stock market tumbles and we all watch our nest eggs shrink like Nicole Ritchie on a bulimic binge, MMA picks September to merge, loan, and even cooperate with each other the same way businesses and corporations have since the birth of the free market economy. First Affliction announced the genesis of a co-promotion with Golden Boy Boxing for a hybrid MMA-boxing event that will either be sheer genius or utter folly depending on how they handle it. Then Zuffa retaliated by merging the WEC’s heavier weight classes into the UFC-a move that was long rumored and overdue. But then the game took a new turn when Affliction fostered a “Survivor-esque” alliance when they loaned two of their heavyweights to EliteXC for this weekend’s card, which was lacking in the general interest department. Following their lead, the American Fight League loaned three of their fighters to Ironheart Crown for a show in November in what they called an “Affiliate Promoters Program.”
Suddenly MMA sounds like a real industry with companies employing previously untried and somewhat drastic measures to ensure their financial solvency. It’s not surprising given the bigger picture in America where your average Joe (meaning you folks reading this) has less disposable income to spend on entertainment and is looking at reducing his pay-per-view bill. But is it really a sound financial strategy or a short-sighted cash grab that’s bound to backfire?
To Loan or Not to Loan?
Jared Shaw at EliteXC must have sent up the Bat signal because Tom Atencio at Affliction surely came to the rescue. Facing the prospect of another mediocre showing on prime-time TV and the loss of their patron saint, CBS, EliteXC was in dire straits and still are. But Affliction’s agreement to loan Andrei Arlovski and Roy Nelson to the struggling promotion for a heavyweight matchup could shore things up, albeit temporarily. That’s good looking out but it may come back to bite Affliction in the ass if EliteXC actually survives through the end and turns a profit. But what do you expect when two small kids are backed up against the wall with a big, bald bully hovering over them. Will it make a difference? Not immediately since Nelson is unknown to the curious MMA fan and Arlovski hasn’t headlined an event in a long time. But if the two have a slugfest like Arlovski and Big Ben Rothwell had at the first Affliction show, it certainly won’t hurt. Will it rub off and become a common tactic among MMA promoters? Apparently it already has.
Following in their footsteps is the small time promotion, the American Fight League. In an apparent gesture of good will they loaned three fighters to a promotion with a much cooler name, Ironheart Crown, for their November 8th show in Chicago. Good for them, but all they’re really doing is watering down their own titles. This may provide exciting fights in the short run, but in the long run it’s a bad strategy. What good is it to be the Ring of Combat welterweight champion if another promotion can bring in their best guy and strip the title away at will? Phil Baroni jumps around from show to show like a bad case of VD on a Navy ship, so what value is it to say he’s the middleweight champion of Furious Fury Fighting Championships if Joey Villasenor can come in and knock him out? None. I’m all for great matchups, but if anyone can fight anyone, then belts mean nothing. The UFC’s titles will be the only ones with value because fighters have to actually work their way up through a division to earn them (unless your last name rhymes with Mesnar and you look like a white Hulk). If your goal is to make a quick buck then bringing in outsiders on loan from another organization is a good move. But if you want to stay out of the MMA graveyard, take a lesson from the banking industry and avoid overextending yourself on loans.
Cooperate and Graduate
Even though they’ve only staged one show, Affliction has the potential to challenge the UFC as long as they play their t-shirt making cards right. Although they experienced a dip in public confidence after postponing their second show, they have major financial backing in Donald Trump, big name fighters who are disgruntled with the UFC, and a relatively savvy businessman at the helm who seems to have a few aces up his sleeve. Tom Atencio has proven he knows how to insure himself against the “sophomore slump” that is killing EliteXC by siding with Golden Boy Boxing and chasing a new idea that will either end up as a cash cow or an albatross around his neck.
This sport is littered with the detritus of good ideas-the Yamma Pit, BodogFight, and the IFL to name a few-that left many men crying in a fetal position. But a crossover promotion of boxing and MMA has the potential to be very successful because boxing fans are potential MMA fans who just need a taste of the action to get addicted. Affliction is betting they can steal boxing fans right out of their seats and put them into the MMA pay-per-view demographic by showing them how two-dimensional their sport is. It could work, and if it does, they’ll establish a small foothold on the UFCs Normandy beach.
Sportfight and Strikeforce should keep a wary eye on this cooperation and take copious notes. Those two regionally-oriented promotions are enjoying success on a small scale and could be a serious thorn in the UFCs side if they were to enter into a similar cooperative agreement with each other or with local boxing promoters.
But the juggernaut of MMA has never been passive in the face of threats and now is no different. The UFC rained on Affliction’s parade by announcing that UFC 93 will be on January 17th. Now let me check my calendar..what else was on that day? Oh yeah, Affliction’s second show! If I were Atencio, I wouldn’t panic because every dire situation holds an opportunity.
If this is going to be the UFCs normal M.O. (and it is), Affliction could use it to their advantage and schedule a show when the UFC has no one available, although that’s a tall order with the depth of the UFCs talent pool.
Predicting when fighters are ready to go is easy, so Affliction could force Dana White’s hand by figuring out when the UFC’s champions aren’t available due to training, recovery, suspensions, or favorite uncle’s birthdays. Ultimately there will be a week where all the belt holders and marquee names are unable to fight, which is when Affliction should strike. The UFC will counter with either a lame PPV card, which wouldn’t be cost-effective, or a free Ultimate Fight Night on Spike TV that just can’t compare to Fedor vs. Barnett. That takes away their PPV audience and forces them to spend money on free TV at the same time.
Make Mine a Merger, Please
On to the bane of capitalism…the merger. Zuffa’s merger of the WECs heavier divisions into the UFCs is a good thing for the heavyweights because there simply isn’t enough talent over the 205 pound mark to warrant two separate organizations and even combined it’s hardly any better, although I still think Big Nog is one of the best in the world bar none. For the light heavy’s and middleweights, the merger will deprive them of a crucial proving ground to sharpen their skills, a venue to showcase their talents, and a comfortable place to call home for those who just can’t cut it in the big show. Steve Cantwell and Doug Marshall are good fighters but their ability to make an impact on the UFC’s LHW class is limited at best and now other light heavy’s like them have fewer opportunities to improve before getting into the octagon against the best in the world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it forces fighters to get good or get going, especially in a talent-rich weight class that’s not hurting for marquee names.
But this denial of a proving ground could have the exact opposite effect for the welterweights and lightweights, which overlaps in both organizations. It’s inevitable that the WEC will become the Bush League for the UFC in these divisions and anyone wanting fame and fortune will have to get through the WEC first before realizing their octagon dreams. Fighters who prove themselves in the WEC will be brought up to the show and equally dispatched when they’re not performing. Why? Because the UFC will always be pay-per-view while the WEC will remain free TV. Do you really think Dana White is going to risk his best fighters for a show that only makes around $200K in advertising revenue when he could use them on pay-per-view and make $4 million? If you answered yes, then you have never taken Business 101.
White knows how to make money and putting GSP on free TV won’t do it. In the immediate future (the next two years), we could see some very exciting events, such as Carlos Condit making a run toward GSP’s belt and Jamie Varner, Rob McCullough, and Donald Cerrone shaking things up against KenFlo, Roger Huerta, Sean Sherk, and BJ Penn. Likewise we could easily see Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Thiago Alves, or even Jon Fitch get sent down to the WEC if they experience a losing streak.
In a few years the divisions will stabilize and become an upper and lower league, but until then the fights could be spectacular. For these weight classes, the merger opens doors for the talented while slamming them shut for the mediocre and non-performing.
It’s an exciting time to be an MMA fan. The future looks bright, the sky’s the limit, and nothing can stop us. I’m sure those words were never uttered in a Wall Street boardroom a year ago.
I’m just sayin.
Kelly Crigger is a freelance MMA writer and author of the book “Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank of Mixed Martial Arts” which you can purchase by clicking here. Contact him through his website at IntoTheSharkTank.com