In the International Fight League, something had to change. After spending two seasons attempting to distinguish itself from the competition with a team-based format, colorful mascots, and legendary coaches, the league’s new CEO, Jay Larkin, is taking the company in a different direction, in hope that focusing more on the fighters and matchmaking will help the company show profit in 2008.
Larkin will be the first to admit he is still learning the nuances of mixed martial arts as a sport, picking up pointers from the fight-oriented shows on the History Channel and National Geographic. However, what he lacks in MMA knowledge he more than makes up for with his twenty years of experience orchestrating boxing events for media-giant Showtime.
“I wanted to darken it down,” said Larkin of the league’s circus-like mascots and bright ring colors. “When I arrived, there were bright Olympic-like, amateur-like colors. [The new logo and new ring] are representative of the direction we’re going. We’re no longer the happy fight club.”
And while a league’s choice of color palette might seem trivial, the darker colors helped the league look more like an MMA organization and less like “professional wrestling with four-ounce gloves” at their 2007 season-ending event in December. The new IFL ring is gray canvas encircled by black ropes, giving it the feel of a foursided Octagon, if there ever was such a thing.
The league has also decided to dispose of the mascots and citybased teams they represent. Gone are the Quad-City Silverbacks, New York Pitbulls, Los Angeles Anacondas, and Nevada Lions. They have been replaced by different camps, which, unlike the old teams, fans will already know: Team Quest, Xtreme Couture, Miletich Fighting Systems, and the Lion’s Den.
Instead of focusing on playoffs and winning team championships, fighters will now compete for championship belts in their weight classes, including the newly added featherweight division.
Bas Rutten, the IFL’s new Vice President of Fighter Operations, will be approving all of the matches. In prior seasons, the Dutch MMA legend has served as coach and broadcaster. By bringing him into the management fold, the IFL has bought itself access to one of the sport’s most extensive Rolodexes. Rutten is in a unique position of being loved by the fans, as well as being respected and revered by fighters.
“Bas can open doors that most don’t know exist. I don’t expect him to come in and wear a suit and tie,” says Larkin of the new VP. Rutten still prefers training in a gym to bantering in a boardroom, which should help the IFL in its quest to fi nd more up-and-coming fight talent to showcase in its live television events.
And a significant portion of IFL’s 2008 programming will be live. The league has announced a partnership with Mark Cuban’s MMA venture, HDNet Fights, in which the first three IFL events of 2008 will be aired live on HDNet.
“HDNet Fights is excited about the partnership with the IFL, and it is a big part of our commitment to provide twenty-four live fights to fans in 2008,” says HDNet Fights CEO Andrew Simon. The IFL/ HDNet partnership began when HDNet fighter Jason “Mayhem” Miller defeated the IFL’s Tim Kennedy. According to Simon, “This showed both HDNet Fights and the IFL that great things can happen when we work together.”
In addition to the live programming offered on HDNet, taped programming will be aired on Fox Sports Network featuring some of the IFL’s top fights, including those that did not go to air during live broadcasts.
The league is also reportedly negotiating with MyNetwork to bring MMA programming back to broadcast television. In November of 2007, the two made TV and MMA history when the IFL Grand Prix Semi-Finals became the first MMA event to be aired live on broadcast television.
A network spokesperson at MyNetwork described the IFL programming as being “on hiatus”, meaning it may or may not reappear on the network. However, Otto is convinced a deal will get done. “[The network] is excited about having us. Our ratings went up twenty percent,” says Otto, who knows his sport delivers a demographic to networks and advertisers that is otherwise elusive – males 18-36 years old.
The IFL shows will originate from three main venues: The Orleans Arena in
CT. Each card will feature at least eight fights, five of which will be broadcast, including at least two championship fights.
No longer focused on seasons but instead putting on the best fights for fans, the IFL is making a big leap forward. If they can ink another deal with MyNetwork, especially a deal that brings live MMA back to broadcast television, they could pose a significant threat to the UFC’s dominance in MMA.
For 2008, the IFL has a new slogan that captures the essence of the league: New Blood, New Battles. For CEO Jay Larkin, the new blood has little to do with carnage in the ring. It instead is meant to represent the league’s pool of fight talent, who are slowly stepping out of the shadows of their legendary coaches.
The IFL’s Talent Pool for 2008 Runs Deep
Below we take a look at some of the top standouts
Chris “The Polish Hammer” Horodecki
Camp: Xtreme Couture
Many fight fans thought Horodecki had the lightweight belt locked in 2007. That is, until Ryan Schultz wrapped up the IFL’s baby-faced prodigy like a pretzel and pounded him for a TKO victory. But even in the midst of defeat, the Canadianborn fighter demonstrated incredible heart, showing intelligent defense with reverse hammer fists in a position where many fighters would have tapped.
Camp: Renzo Gracie
During the IFL Grand Prix Finals, Fabiano was referred to as a “submission magician” and that nickname is certainly apt. More than two-thirds of his matches have ended with his opponent tapping out. Still undefeated in the IFL, Fabiano will defend his featherweight belt against Shad Lierley, a former NYU wrestler who is dropping from lightweight to featherweight.
Camp: The Pit
Mixed martial arts fighters redefine the word tough, but Tim Kennedy takes the definition to a whole new level. While most MMA combatants are full time fighters, for Kennedy it’s just a hobby – a reprieve from his full-time time job as a soldier in the US Army. Just when you think he can’t get any tougher, Kennedy is a member of the Army’s highly trained and elite Ranger unit.
Though Kennedy was scheduled to challenge Horwich for the middleweight title in February, he will have to wait for his title shot, as a sudden deployment will keep him out of the ring.
Matt “Suavé” Horwich
Camp: Team Quest
There is no character more unique (and we mean that in a good way) in the IFL than Matt Horwich. From his choice of hairstyle, to his use of Bible quotes during interviews, Horwich breaks the mold of the traditional MMA fighter.
While he sports a notable record (21-9-1), more impressive is the fact that in 31 professional MMA fights, this Team Quest fighter has never been knocked out.
Ryan “The Lion” Schultz
Camp: Team Quest
In 2007, Ryan Schultz emerged at the end of a long line of fighters who were supposed to fight lightweight Chris Horodecki to determine the IFL’s first lightweight champion. Having already lost to Horodecki via a TKO on strikes in 2006, the bearded warrior was anxious for redemption and did exactly what he said he was going to do: take Horodecki down and pound him until the ref pulled him off, handing Horodecki his first professional MMA loss. Schultz is also the only fighter to hold a victory over UFC upstart Roger Huerta, when Huerta tapped out at SuperBrawl 36 back in 2004.