First it was Royce vs. Ken on closed-circuit pay-per-view. Then came Forrest vs. Stephan on basic cable. Now? It’s the UFC vs. everybody else, coming to you live on enough channels to give your TiVo a nervous breakdown.
Welcome to a new era of MMA.
First, a recap. In 2005, Dana White and Spike TV revolutionized mixed martial arts with the advent of The Ultimate Fighter reality series, which introduced the channel’s historically frat boy-esque demographic to the world of organized ass-kicking. The results were rapid and dramatic. TUF skyrocketed up the Nielsen charts and Spike began airing live, high-quality UFC cards. What had once been a fringe subculture whose following in the U.S. consisted of fi ghters and a small but dedicated army of diehard fans had now become a mainstream attraction. New gyms began popping up in strip malls all over America. Guys like Chuck, Tito, and Randy became household names, and dudes could throw out terms like rear-naked choke and Thai clinch around their girlfriends without getting slapped in the face.
By the end of 2007, UFC championship bouts were regularly covered by the national news outlets, and the brightest stars had graced the covers of ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Men’s Fitness. As Dana White would tell any reporter who’d listen: “We’ve arrived.” Not since Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, and the rest of the Dogtown Z-Boys showed the world how to catch air with a piece of plywood and some polyurethane wheels had any sport ever gotten so big, so fast.
Not surprisingly, fans and journalists weren’t the only ones who caught wind of what was going down. Spike and the UFC may have gotten the ball rolling, but a bevy of broadcasters have teamed up with one or more of the savvy new MMA promotions to get a piece of the pie. While the empire created by Dana White and the Fertitta family shows no sign of ceding its title to any of the young upstarts, it’s impossible to deny that the UFC is no longer the only game in town. They may have the best overall roster of fi ghters and biggest brand recognition in the game, but things are about to get interesting.
Among the numerous broadcast channels and promoters looking to make a dent in the UFC viewership, the biggest player is EliteXC, a partnership between respected boxing promoter Gary Shaw and ProElite, an online MMA community run by veteran TV producer Doug de Luca. “The UFC has done a spectacular job of branding itself and getting good fi ghters,” says Shaw. “I wanted to move closer to their right rear bumper and draft off them.”
Shaw and his partners leveraged their relationships early and wisely. EliteXC’s fi rst event, a match between past-their-prime stars Frank Shamrock and Renzo Gracie, aired on none other than Showtime in February 2007. The fi ght itself was nothing to write home about. Midway through the second round, Gracie won by disqualifi cation after Shamrock threw a bunch of knees to his head.
Gracie/Shamrock may not have lit up the message boards at hardcore fan sites like Sherdog or MMA Weekly, but that was never Shaw’s plan. “I’m not trying to win over the hardcore fans; I don’t read the blogs,” says Shaw. “I am trying to put on entertainment value for the fans and bring more people to the sport. I keep telling my team, don’t worry about the names, worry about putting on the great fi ghts, and getting us some attention.”
To distinguish themselves from the UFC’s stacked roster of badasses, Shaw has engaged in a little old-fashioned showmanship to help draw fans. He enlisted a former WCW champ as the organization’s resident color commentator, and has given a substantial amount of airtime to women’s fi ghts, which are usually headlined by the beautiful and skilled Gina Carano. To help spice things up, Shaw has also enlisted a number of entertaining but limited brawlers like Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett and Tank Abbott.
While some of EliteXC’s matchups may have left much to be desired, even the purists have to admit that the organization has made a concerted effort to sign a number of established fi ghters and maybe even a few future superstars. The organization’s current roster includes a number of universally ranked and respected fi ghters, including Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, Robbie Lawler, Antonio Silva and Ninja Rua.
The crowning jewel in the EliteXC crown may also represent its biggest gamble. Kevin Ferguson, aka Kimbo Slice, is a 34-year-old backyard brawler whose rise to fame came via the Internet, when fans nearly overloaded YouTube to watch videos of his illegal, bareknuckled backyard brawls. He has exactly two pro fi ghts on his record, both against wildly overmatched opponents with losing records (Bo Cantrell and Abbott). Still, Slice has showed undeniable knockout power in both fi sts and decent boxing technique.
Slice’s thin resume hasn’t stopped Shaw from aggressively promoting him as the face of the franchise. He may only have a few months of proper training under his belt, but he’s got star quality, along with a 240-pound frame, bald dome, and Afro-chin strap beard that makes him look more like a WWE star than a professional martial artist. And that’s exactly how Shaw likes it.
“Kimbo is more famous than Fedor—not among hardcore fans of course, but among the general public,” according to MMA guru Bas Rutten, who also happens to be Kimbo’s trainer. “And the critics are absolutely right – he hasn’t really fought anybody yet. But if you look at the fi ghts that he’s had, it’s clear that he’s out there to knock somebody out. This guy trains as hard, if not harder, than every other guy I know.”
On May 31, EliteXC will broadcast what may end up being the most viewed live event in the history of mixed martial arts, when Slice headlines a card on none other than CBS. This will be the fi rst EliteXC fi ght aired in a multi-year, multi-fi ght contract with the network. Shaw has also been engaging in an ugly public spat with White, who hasn’t shied away from nasty personal attacks. “I think I have done a spectacular job at making these guys bigger stars than they could ever be in the UFC,” says Shaw. “I’m a real promoter. I don’t promote Gary Shaw, I promote Kimbo. Dana White promotes Dana White.”
EliteXC isn’t the only mixed martial arts promotion to ink a network deal or sign legitimate talent. Strikeforce MMA, which has co-promoted Frank Shamrock’s bouts with EliteXC on Showtime, has been airing its own half-hour highlight/fi ghter profi le show on NBC (aptly titled Strikeforce on NBC) at 2:30 a.m. on Saturdays since early April. “NBC saw value in our product and in our experience in the business of live martial arts events, so we were able to work out a partnership with them,” says Strikeforce’s Michael Afromowitz. “This is obviously a monumental step for both our company and the sport of MMA, as it will be the fi rst weekly MMA series on one of the major networks that reaches 110 million homes.
Strikeforce, which been the exclusive provider of martial arts content to ESPN for the past thirteen years, launched its MMA arm in 2006, and its roster already consists of an impressive array of big-time talents and well-known names, including lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez, Phil Baroni, Cyborg Santos, Renato Sobral, Bob Sapp, Kazuo Misaki, and Joe Riggs. It has also signed a four-fi ght deal with Mark Cuban’s HDNet. Strikeforce/EliteXC’s most recent event, the March 29th middleweight championship fi ght between Shamrock and San Shou master Cung Le in their hometown of San Jose, drew an impressive $1.1 million in live gate revenue.
While Spike remains the 800-pound gorilla, thanks to its exclusive deal with the UFC, and Showtime has
the best brand recognition among the public, the most active channel in town is HDNet. In addition to Strikeforce, HDNet currently has deals with Dream, a new Japanese promotion, and the increasingly popular International Fight League. HDNet is also the home of Inside MMA, an excellent, SportsCenter- style weekly highlight show.
And if Mark Cuban’s aggressive approach to fi lm production and the NBA are any indication, don’t expect HDNet to aim low. “We already have more live fi ghts than all the other networks combined,” boasts Cuban. “Our goal is to partner with smart people and help develop the sport.”
Cuban hasn’t exactly set his sights low. He recently signed UFC heavyweight champ-inexile Randy Couture, and has been aggressively pursuing a super fi ght with Fedor Emelianenko, the scariest (and best) big man on the planet. If that happens, UFC brass—which pursued but couldn’t sign Fedor—won’t be smiling.
While Cuban isn’t as direct in criticism of the UFC management as Gary Shaw, it’s clear the budding MMA mogul wants to offer top fi ghters an alternative to the exclusive contracts and controlled payday policy of the UFC. “The athletes are under-marketed and their careers have been placed second to the goals of the promoters,” says Cuban. “I think that by partnering with multiple promoters, we can optimize fi ghters’ careers and build their brands. When that happens, HDNet is in a position to have great fi ghts. This also puts us in a position to cement our position as MMA’s number one TV network.”
While Cuban may have a point, something tells me that Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, and the rest of the UFC superstars aren’t exactly complaining about their situation. But one thing is clear—they’re about to have a lot more options. “I’m very happy with where everything is going,” says Rutten. “I think that in a few years, there are going to be three, maybe four organizations, just like there are in boxing. But right now, the UFC is defi nitely the Kleenex of mixed martial arts. It’s bigger than everything. But people are beginning to realize that there are other organizations out there with real quality fi ghters.”
Whatever the future may hold, one thing is clear: it’s time to program that TiVo.