He was late. I had a seven o’clock beer-and-chicken-wing appointment with S. Marcello Foran, the CEO of the Ultimate Warrior Sports Development-the parent company of upstart MMA promotion UWC – Ultimate Warrior Challenge. It was seven twenty and the two beers I’d downed weren’t doing my empty stomach any favors. My head, however, was considerably pleased.
The UWC had completed four successful shows, but it was just a week after the high profile demise of EliteXC and everyone in the sport was scrambling to make sure their decomposing body didn’t stink up their own operation. The Shaw family had proven once again that bad decisions and poor planning kills MMA dreams. EliteXC’s banishment to the promotion boneyard alongside BodogFight and the IFL was causing ripples throughout the industry, but if Foran was nervous about those developments when he arrived at the Fairfax, Virginia barbeque house, he didn’t show it.
“Everyone gets what’s coming to them,” he said sipping a cocktail. “You have to ask, where did they get their knowledge about doing MMA shows other than boxing? I don’t have all the answers, but I’m learning and evolving all the time, which is key to survival in this sport. Did they?”
Foran is a seasoned businessman who started and owns UltimateVIP International a VIP Luxury Lifestyle and Event Entertainment Company and presides over several other successful companies. That alone sets him apart from so many other promoters who get into MMA because they watch the sport or want to make a quick buck (do you hear me Calvin Ayre?). A native of the DC area, Foran has a friendship with MMA pioneer John Lewis, a co-founder of the now defunct WFA – World Fighting Alliance and former trainer of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. He also has a kid brother Marcus Foran who’s a professional MMA fighter training with Greg Jackson in Alb, NM, so he was flanked by MMA in his personal life before he ever debated getting into the business. In 2006 Foran decided to jump into MMA and started UWC – Ultimate Warrior Challenge based in the Washington D.C. area, but without the Doctor Evil “I’m going to rule the world!” attitude.
Some people learn from success and others through abject failure. Savvy businessmen mix both and add a dash of historical lessons learned by others to make a recipe for success. Here’s the UWC’s recipe:
UWC rule #1-Start small and establish credibility. Sounds easy right? How many promotions have gone too big too early and survived? The UWC has no plans to branch out from the east coast this year and publicly states a simple desire to be the best show in the Washington DC – Mid Atlantic Region and possibly the east coast one day.
“The first show we did in Florida was like a ship in dry dock to see how to do it right and establish the show,” Foran says. “The first few events were all about establishing a level of expectation, developing the infrastructure, and getting credibility. We focused on taking care of the fighters, the trainers, and everyone so they leave there saying good things about us.”
It could have been easy for the UWC to let success go to their head attracting 5000 fans to their events. Early on Foran had a glimpse of grandeur that faded quickly and we should all be glad that it did.
“In the beginning we had plans to make a play for big name fighters like Fedor, Ortiz, and Couture but then Mark Cuban and Affliction came along. Looking back on it, though, I’m so glad that they did because now I see that it’s better to keep it at this level and grow it slowly.”
UWC rule #2-Surround yourself with a balance of good businessmen and MMA contacts. One of the reasons so many MMA promotions fail is because they load their higher ranks with people who knew MMA, but had never seen the inside of a “Business 101” textbook. The UWC is stacked with two types of people-those with business and marketing skills and those with MMA credibility, such as Luke Thomas, Omar Olumee, and consultant John Lewis.
“John actually talked me out of it,” Foran said. “He was a voice of reason saying go small, small, small, and then grow it. Don’t try to go big so quickly. When we first started John helped me with direction and I looked up to him as a mentor with his long time history as fighter, promoter, and trainer to some of the biggest names in MMA, and with that advice I would take my marketing, business skills and sheer determination to grow the UWC.”
UWC rule #3- Showcase a mix of local talent and national names. Local fighters are the meat and potatoes of the UWC, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for bacon bits and steak sauce. The fight cards feature east coast products, but with a mix of young guns from nationally known camps, like Greg Jackson’s MMA, Lloyd Irvin, ATT, FIT NHB, and others. With that model, the UWC fans get to see solid MMA action and an opportunity to see marquee names that they would otherwise have to road trip to the west coast to get a glimpse of. The UWC’s third show also had young fighters from notable gyms on the card who brought their marquee trainers with them. So while Zach Light was fighting in the cage, Rampage Jackson was in his corner.
“We’ve been fortunate that we can have these big names like, Rampage, Shogun, Arlovski, Hermes Franca, Carlos Condit, Urijah Faber, Brandon Vera, and others as our guest at the shows,” says Foran. “We know there has to be a certain balance between entertainment and great fights.”
But the big names are just a means to an end. “Their presence helps us grow awareness and gain exposure for MMA as a sport in the DC area, which is really what we set out to do from the start, while the local talent pool keeps them coming back” said Foran. It’s ingenious marketing and the end result is a loyal fan base and a consistent stage for the mid-Atlantic fighters to get better on. “We want to build our own fighters that rise up through the ranks and become UWC champions. We want to showcase the top local guys and hone their skills before they go off and conquer the rest of the world.”
UWC rule #4-Grow the organization in between the live shows. Foran knows how to make the most of the down time between events when other promoters count their money and pat themselves on the back. He makes professional DVDs of the shows and distributes them to networks and mass media outlets to get the word out about the UWC. It shows his dedication to the job and leads nicely to rule number 5.
UWC rule #5-Get a mass media deal. With just four shows completed the UWC is already being broadcast on FSN – Fox Sports Network’s Sunsports and SportsSouth through Fightzone TV, Comcast Sports Network’s Mid Atlantic Region, and satellite coverage due largely to Foran’s untiring efforts to get out there and spread the word about his organization. But the big feather in his cap is Sherdog.
“Honestly I would take Sherdog over a TV network anytime because I see a great opportunity to use the internet to gain massive exposure quickly, and they were willing to take a chance on the UWC” he says. “With Sherdog hungry MMA fans can come onto the site at anytime and watch it. They also have a worldwide audience and brand name recognition.”
Their arrangement with Sherdog to promote and stream UWC shows “LIVE” around the world and make them available for download and viewing anytime for free, and the hiring of a credible MMA journalist (Luke Thomas – Editor and Chief of BloodyElbow.com and Host of the MMA Nation radio show) have introduced the UWC to a whole new audience and pushed their boundaries far beyond the east coast. The end result was a professional product and a wider fanbase.
UWC rule #6-Exercise financial efficiency. Incredibly the UWC has a total deficit of less than 1% of the fifty plus million EliteXC spent, and that’s for all four of its shows and yet still maintains a polished and professional image. That’s extreme frugality with a big show feel, that’s almost unheard of in MMA today. You won’t find Foran and his crew needlessly spending money like EliteXC, which was widely ridiculed for blowing lavish amounts of cash on expensive office suites and costly live events. “All things being equal I believe the UWC has grown farther in a shorter amount of time, spending less money than most.”
“It pains me to see the way EliteXC wasted money. If you gave me ten percent of the venture capital some of these other shows started with there would be no limit to what I could build,” Foran says. “If we were to fail it will be for different reasons than those other shows. You will never see the UWC in a position they put themselves in,” he says of the UWC’ s finances. “We will stay in the MMA game as long as we are making progress from show to show and reaching our goals. I like to say, you can’t buy love, you can’t buy happiness, and you certainly can’t buy what it really takes to build a great MMA show.”
UWC rule #7-Maintain a positive relationship with the UFC. Foran has met Joe Silva, vice president of the UFC for talent relations who attended his DC show last April, and wants to stay on good terms with the juggernaut of MMA. Foran also hopes to catch the eye of Dana White one day in the near future. “I believe one of the reasons so many marquee names have been able to make appearances at UWC events is because we are not trying to threaten the UFC in anyway, we are actually promoting them, and it’s also because the UWC knows what their place is and wants to keep the lines of communication open. If you’re a small and talented Tech Company you don’t threaten Bill Gates and Microsoft, you work hard, do a good job, and build something of value and eventually you may get a tap on the shoulder. I don’t care what anyone says, without the UFC laying the ground work we aren’t sitting here having this conversation and I’m not getting the opportunity to be a part of MMA history”, said Foran. Foran has no grandiose plans of conquering the UFC and is perfectly content with his position as regional show and whatever else the future brings.
“We’re not competition for the UFC. We’re not even thinking about it,” he says. “My goal in MMA is to be a positive and productive part of this great sport. MMA is still a young sport, but it’s growing exponentially and money is not the only thing that’s going to make you successful. I look at the people who are doing the best and try to follow their example and learn from the mistakes they made. Without naming names I would like to give a special thanks to all those that showed us what not to do.”
The people who are doing the best (and don’t have the letter U in their moniker) are Scott Coker’s Strikeforce and Matt Lindland’s Sportfight. Sportfight is the best show in the Pacific Northwest and is widely regarded as one of the best in the country at showcasing regional talent. Scott Coker’s Strikeforce is also highly respected and has earned praise from Dana White and Foran himself.
“Everyone who comes [to the UWC] leaves feeling like it was worth coming and wants to come back. Strikeforce is like that. They’re the only ones with real longevity because they’ve taken their time and built their organization correctly.”
Like Foran, Coker just wants to put on a good show, has a network deal, and uses creative marketing to get his organization the exposure it needs (MMA at the Playboy mansion-brilliant!). Strikeforce pioneered the tactic of showcasing local talent and recognizable names, but there are some differences. Strikeforce has had more frequent shows-sixteen in two years versus four in a year for the UWC-and has bigger attendance numbers, though that can be attributed more to market demographics than anything (San Jose has a larger MMA fanbase to draw from than the DC area). Strikeforce has also hosted MMA tournaments, which the UWC doesn’t have any plans for as of this article.
MMA fans on the west coast have a veritable smorgasboard of events to choose from. Those of us on the east coast-not so much. The UFC has only visited this side of the Mississippi twice in the last three and a half years. While Cali is rolling in UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce action, we get…the Yamma Pit. The UWC is filling the void for those of us stuck in the first time zone of the day and though it’s a risky venture in today’s economy, Marcello Foran isn’t worried.
“It may be more of a risk to start from ground zero and build an MMA show and build stars of that show, but if it works, then it will make us much more viable and credible.”
In a day when so many promotions fail, the UWC has a sound base, a long-term vision, decent funding, and best of all no pretension. It’s easily the best MMA promotion in the mid-Atlantic coast region and possibly all of the eastern US. For a guy who’s clearly as passionate about MMA as Marcello Foran, I can forgive his tardiness.
For more information on UWC, S Marcello Foran, and UltimateVIP International log on to www.uwcmma.com and www.2BVIP.com
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