(Do you wanna be a f***in’ global magnate?)
Dana White dropped a bomb on the mixed martial arts industry and community Sunday when he announced that Zuffa had purchased Strikeforce. The UFC President been critical of the promotion before (see: Strikefarce) and reversed course quickly before as well (see: Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture). But while those close to the company were talking openly about the purchase for weeks, White & Co. managed to keep a lid on the deal until today and his announcement left MMA fans and pundits momentarily speechless. That moment was fleeting as people started weighing in on issues ranging from whether or not there would be UFC vs. Strikeforce superfights and if the companies would exchange fighter contracts. While these are valid questions, the conversation is focusing too much on immediate implications while ignoring the underlying causes for and far-reaching consequences of the purchase. So I humbly offer my analysis of why this deal went down and what it means for the fight game.
White mentioned several times in the 20-plus minute long interview that if UFC is to seriously pursue it’s plan for global expansion it needs more fighters, more staff, etc. On it’s face, the deal seems to offer Zuffa little in this regard; Strikeforce has never promoted a show outside of America and while it does have a number of noteworthy fighters under contract, its roster is quite limited compared to that of UFC. What Strikeforce can offer is access to Japanese fighters and close ties to influential figures in the flagging Japanese MMA industry. It’s no coincidence that as Japanese MMA is crumbling – DREAM have yet to announce a show and World Victory Road all but announced the end of its Sengoku series – Zuffa acquires an American MMA promotion that has close ties to K-1 and DREAM promoter Fighting and Entertainment Group. White’s blunt, macho approach plays well in the Middle East and the America’s, but he acknowledges that working in Japan has been problematic. In Coker, Zuffa now has a representative who can smooth ruffled feathers in the Land of the Rising Sun, and it can use Strikeforce as a neutral advance party to establish a foothold for live events in Japan. Add in the fact that Strikeforce can bring marketable Japanese stars like Satoshi Ishii (#21 Heavyweight), Shinya Aoki (#4 Lightweight), Tatsuya Kawajiri (#10 Lightweight) to the table and Zuffa will be able to make a much softer landing in Nippon.
Another point that White stressed during the interview was that the UFC and Strikeforce would continue to operate separately, even negotiating against each other for the same fighters. While this may be true for the term of Strikeforce’s current broadcast agreement with Showtime, White will not hesitate to pull the trigger on any decision that serves UFC’s short, medium, or long-term goals. If we learned anything from Zuffa’s ownership of WEC, it’s that the company will tolerate brand confusion among consumers as long as it serves a purpose. To test the market for sub-155# weight classes, for example, or produce shows in tertiary markets that can’t support UFC shows, or tie up air time on cable channels that are interested in broadcasting MMA. But at the end of the day, UFC is such a dominant brand that a majority of fans never really knew what WEC was, just as many fans of “UFC fighting” don’t know what a Strikeforce is or what it does. It’s naive to think that we’re more than a few years away from eulogizing Strikeforce as Zuffa transfers the fighters and staff it wants to UFC and retires the brand to the realm of nostalgic t-shirts.
The greatest long-term consequence of the dealt may be the disappearance of the MMA middle class, so to speak. There will be countless local shows, an amalgam of regional promotions airing on HDNet Fights, Bellator, and UFC, exponentially larger than any of its competitors, if you can really call them that. Fans are already speculating about the future of marquee fighters like Nick Diaz (#6 Welterweight), Paul Daley (#10 Welterweight), and Josh Barnett (#6 Heavyweight), and Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Dan Henderson (#2 Light Heavyweight), each of whom ran afoul of the UFC while under its employ. But no amount of personal animosity will prevent White & Co. from making a deal if the money makes sense, and frankly, everyone has a price. When the UFC is the only big show in town, a lot of fences will be mended. Either that or there will be a lot of people left out in the cold.
The purchase should also eventually allow Strikeforce’s world class talent to compete under the UFC umbrella. Dream matchups for Gilbert Melendez (#3 Lightweight), Ronaldo Souza (#3 Middleweight), Gegard Mousasi (#8 Light Heavyweight), Mo Lawal (#11 Light Heavyweight) as well as Fabricio Werdum, Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion, DREAM Heavyweight Champion, and K-1 Grand Prix Champion Alistair Overeem, Antonio Silva, and Fedor Emelianenko – #2, #3, #4, and #9 respectively in FIGHT!’s Heavyweight Rankings – can be made on UFC cards and seen by millions world wide. Soon enough, there won’t be discussions about whether or not Melendez or Overeem can hang in the Octagon, because the proof will be in the pudding.
Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce probably left a number of fighters, managers, and fight promoters with a queasy feeling. MMA’s monolithic entity just got bigger by subtraction, removing it’s largest competitor from the field for the second time in the last five years. But if White’s statements about how his personal problems with M-1 Global and Showtime won’t prevent Zuffa from having healthy relationships with them is any indication, we might be witnessing the start of an era in which the UFC President picks his public battles more judiciously. With guys like Lorenzo Fertitta, former WEC exec Reed Harris and Strikeforce honcho Scott Coker playing diplomat to White’s gunslinger, the Baldfather will be free to act as the charismatic, fan-friendly face of the organization and Zuffa will be able to make deals with anyone, regardless of prior history or personal animosity. Agents, managers, and fighters will lose a lot of leverage when negotiating deals, but fans are always of two minds about fighter pay; every fan wants a fighter get his or her due, but only a small number of us get behind fighters when their contract disputes keep us from getting the fights we want to see.
Of course this is all speculation and only time will tell how the deal will shake out and what effect it will have on the sport. But based on the UFC’s recent history and current trajectory, it’s safe to assume that we’ll be seeing more fights in more places (both geographically and in terms of video delivery). We may see a further homogenization of the sport but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Excepting Major League Baseball’s outfield walls and the trapezoidal international basketball lane, all of the major sports are played in spaces with identical dimensions. Consistent rules, venues and branding are essential for the sport’s continued rapid growth and the continued disintegration of Japanese MMA and Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce set the stage for that.