“NO, KILL IT,” HARRIS SAYS.
The light turns off — killed. Harris sits under the chandelier house lights at Body English after the WEC 42 weigh-ins. He rests his right ankle over his left knee. His fine suit cuts no corners, and his full head of gray hair is youthfully combed back. It has been nearly three years since Ultimate Fighting Championship’s parent company, Zuffa, purchased WEC and handed its co-founder, Harris, the tools to turn it from a respected regional promotion to an elite national promotion.
He explains that he was in the fight game before the UFC was the UFC, before it had the money to buy out his organization. WEC was notable for years because top UFC talent passed through WEC’s cage doors first. At WEC 1, Chuck Liddell was meant to fight, but the UFC came calling and Harris let him go. He always did.
“We knew the UFC was going to be the catalyst to build the sport of MMA and make it a household name.”
And it was. The WEC happened to come along with it. So here’s Harris now, retelling how he ended up under Vegas show lights: A former Taekwondo teacher who had hit a mat once or twice in his life, he was asked to judge a mixed martial arts fight and fell in love with it. Enough so to divide his attention from his successful real estate career and put a cage in the middle of a nowhere town like Lemoore, Calif., and draw national attention to it with nothing more than American ingenuity.
Growth spurts are often painful, though. Being adopted by Zuffa means meeting criticism head on. Is WEC minor league? Why don’t WEC fighters earn as much as their UFC counterparts? Are they crazy for entertaining the thought of moving their free product to pay-per-view? Harris likes to respond to criticism by politely waking them up with a jab first, asking how many of those critics were talking to him two years prior, writing about Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres or even watching WEC?
“I wouldn’t have expected to be where we’re at,” he admits. Even after the first Zuffa WEC show in January 2007, he didn’t foresee the immense growth of the WEC. Harris asserts that world-class talent, in their respective weight classes, respectable gates, and overall viewership, are why it is the second largest promotion in the world.
The goal is to create a sports organization — not a show. No one-off fights, no firebreathing dragons. “All fights have implications, and I think that’s what engages fans,” he says, comparing their business model to the NFL playoffs. “We’re proud of that.”
Pride in his accomplishments is at least one reason why Harris’ face tenses with disbelief when he talks about fighters and money. Calmly, with a tint of frustration, he responds with someone else’s words. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson said, “You pay me a million and I’m gonna want two.” He defers once again: “My wife certainly wants me to make more money.” And finally, rhetorically, “Who doesn’t want more money?”
Harris says he would love to pay his fighters more. There’s no question that they deserve as much as possible. That’s why the WEC plans to produce pay-per-views. A reality show is in the works, too. It is discussing different treatments to “do it right like The Ultimate Fighter” and ensure it’s a “great thing for the company.” He argues that the quality of WEC shows is akin to the UFC. In its nascent form, increased pay is only a logical step for the WEC, much like the payper- views that will allow it to happen.
“It’s funny because the same guys on the Internet that are yelling at me about not paying ’em enough say they wouldn’t pay for a pay-per-view,” Harris points out.
He appreciates fans watching, though, and understands that newspapers are in peril because people no longer want to pay for what they can get for free. The California native understands how to justify the move from Versus to premium pay: “We’re gonna have to have a card that’s completely deep with fights that people want to see and are willing to pay for.”
Harris reiterates that no one is paying bantamweights and featherweights like the WEC. Its contracts contain the same language as the largest sports league in America — the NFL. And more than deliberating from the bench, Harris plays jury, too, as a man among his peers.
“These guys are part of our team. They’re here for a reason,” he says, providing the formula for staying on the squad is to be successful and/or popular. “They’re here because we are fair.”
Although he wasn’t happy, his first reaction to lightweight Marcus Hicks weighing in three pounds over was concern for his safety, not anger. It’s a small reminder of Harris’ approach: professionalism above all else. That means consistency to meet expectations of delivering fast fights from high-level, well-prepared fighters.
As Body English turns back from weighin venue to nightclub, lights, backdrops and chairs are all taken away. The scale is gone. Ladders shift in and out. Pipes clank. None of it bothers Harris because the changes he’s worried about are the ones he sees for the future.
FIGHT NIGHT IS JUDGMENT DAY
If the WEC is still minor league, then its smoke and mirrors are better than Houdini’s.
When the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino renovated The Joint, it invited Harris and his WEC vice president, Peter Dropick, to add their input to the arena layout. The show’s producer called the shots during the Stanley Cup. Its production trucks for WEC 41’s classic Mike Thomas Brown decision over Urijah Faber were used for Super Bowl 43.
WEC 42 is their first event at the new Joint — Zuffa’s version of the organization started in this building. When Harris and Dropick gave me a tour two days prior to fight night, a No Doubt concert was being set up. In less than 24 hours, it was transformed into an impressive fight arena. With two large HD screens already in the arena, WEC brought two more. Everything must be better, high-end — UFC quality.
WEC 42’s start nears. Harris invites me into the cage to show me his pre-fight ritual. He pushes the mesh fence, checking its strength. He stomps around, ensuring the mat has its sponsor logos flat and nothing may perturb the fighter outside of the fighter across from him. He grabs the top of the blue Octagon that reads “Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis” to remind me of his fallen friend’s contributions in building the WEC like the UFC alike.
FIGHT! Magazine sits next to Harris for the first bout of WEC 42 — a featherweight scrap between Affliction transplants L.C. Davis and Javier Vasquez. It’s the first time Zuffa has extended that courtesy to any publication, and as I sit down during Vasquez’s entrance, Harris is nowhere to be found.
Harris takes his seat directly behind the blue corner shortly before the bout begins. “Meet and greets,” he explains. With the bantamweight title in a black velvet bag at his feet, he comments that Davis-Vasquez could be a main event in terms of competitive level (and it’s only the first fight of the night because it was a late addition).
Nearly a decade with the best seat in the house, it’s apparent that Harris believes in his product: He’s drinking a No Fear energy drink — the WEC’s official sponsor. He balances discussing the WEC with me, texting and taking in the fight live, on his television monitor and on the big screens. “I’m very quick … I’m like the Anderson Silva of cageside,” he says, noting he’s never been hit with blood. Blood on his suit is the least of his worries. Even with a quality scrap like Dav
is-Vasquez kicking off the card, WEC still fights off the perception that it’s a small-ball organization. It’s still finding its identity.
“I want to be a different company,” Harris says of his sister fight promotion, UFC. “I don’t want to be Dana [White].” When I prod what separates his vision from White’s, he says nothing. I press. He jokes the difference is “hair” and that he “swears less.” I ask again, because disagreeing with the boss is about as American as fight night in Las Vegas.
“I’m a different person,” he says. “And what he told me when we started this was, be yourself.” Harris elaborates that, for him, that means treating the world like he wants to be treated — fighters, sponsors and fans.
If White and Harris disagree, discussions take care of it. He offers up a quarrel — the WEC eliminating 170 pounds and above. Harris was against it. He didn’t want to give up stars like Carlos Condit or the ticket sales attached to him. White insisted it would better define the WEC brand. And Harris agrees — now. It kept 155 pounds because a WEC with only two weight classes wouldn’t be the best it could be. Harris may not fight with White, but he competes with his boss and the UFC because he wants to “find the next BJ Penn.”
Harris describes White’s ability to endure “short-term pain” for “long-term gain” and how beneficial that can be. Reminded of Lemoore, and hell, the early days in Las Vegas, Harris looks at the center of the Octagon and says, “It used to be the WEC logo. Now it’s the Bud Light logo.” Vasquez drops a close decision to Davis. It’s time for me to vacate my seat next to the WEC general manager. One more thing: How will Harris handle reaching the heights of WEC’s high trajectory?
“I train in jiu-jitsu, and I’m nice to my wife,” Harris says, adding that the show itself is a rewarding, motivating experience. “It’s like a fighter who trains, the hard work is actually done in the office. … I’d do 30 shows a year if they’d let me.”
The night builds slowly. Garcia kicks off the main card, winning for Harris like he did eight years prior, and Miguel Torres — one of the faces of the WEC — is stopped by Brian Bowles, the new WEC bantamweight champion.
Harris hands out $40,000 in disclosed bonuses, tells the media how proud he is of the fighters at the post-fight press conference, and takes off for Mexico City to continue growing the WEC with a press tour.
EXECUTIONER OR EXECUTIVE
Almost immediately following WEC 42, the WEC began swimming against the current. It postponed WEC 43; DirecTV dropped WEC’s distributor, Versus; and Dana White told the media at the UFC 102 pre-fight press conference that the featherweight and bantamweight divisions could move from WEC to UFC.
Harris won’t comment on the potential merger of his premier weight classes. However, he affirms that WEC will continue to rise regardless of what happens next. He recalls speaking to fans in Sacramento at WEC 41, an attendance and gate WEC record- setter, and that they had all attended the Sacramento show a year before. That’s the essence of WEC: Watch it once, and it’s hard not to do it again.
Harris details his trip to Mexico to cement the assertion that WEC is growing into its world-class gloves.
“The response was really positive,” he says. “They like the fact that we are focusing on the lighter weight classes. They like the fact that we have a lot of Hispanic fighters on our roster.” Despite people in Mexico still asking questions about the sport that have been answered in America, Harris is confident in the WEC’s expansion. The fights are already solid.
The stars simply align.
“The fighters, they can grow into [stardom],” Harris says, revealing he often doesn’t meet fighters before they fight, so he signs combatants only if they think they can contend for the title. Harris sees his fighters being international stars. He pronounces that Torres is “transcending in Canada” and was featured in the Daily Telegraph UK. The WEC’s success has come at an unlikely time.
“It’s the worst economy I’ve ever seen. I was in the ‘80s working,” the 53-year-old says. “And we’re still selling places out. Sacramento sold out. I see us branching out, especially when we go international. If we go to Mexico and Canada, I think the WEC is gonna blow up.”
Harris forgets his most recent show, WEC 42. It was his third largest show of all time, second biggest of the year, losing out to the record-breaking gates and attendance of WEC 41. Its success, he states, is incredible not only for a fighting promotion, but for a sporting league.
“I looked at a baseball stadium the other day. It was empty,” he says. The NFL blacking out games due to low ticket sales this season is another measuring stick the WEC employs. “They never used to have to do that. In Chicago, there was a fucking waiting list to get tickets for those games.”
Hearing Harris drop an f-bomb reminds me of sitting cageside. It was the only other time I heard the mild-mannered executive curse. A transformer overheated during an old Lemoore show, turning out the show’s lights. Harris jumped on the headset and “told the guy, if he didn’t fix the light, I was gonna go up there and personally kick his fucking ass.”
He didn’t have to kick his ass — the stern warning got the lights running. But he could. And that’s Harris’ charm. He could be perceived as judge, jury and executioner – but he chooses to be judge, jury and executive.
The tough decisions and the hard actions are necessary deliberations born from the desire to be elite.
Just like the UFC has its underdog story from blood sport to major league, Harris showcasing the lighter weight fighters bestows another underdog tag on the man who took his company from dusty Lemoore to dry Las Vegas. And he did it all by controlling the lights.