“Lesnar, Mayhem, and Joe Warren.” That’s what Mark Cuban answers when asked whom his favorite fighters are to watch. He doesn’t actually say this. He types it in an email, his favorite question/answer mode where journalists are concerned. Enthusiasm can’t be measured in a format like this, and context loses all elasticity…but what can be inferred is that he likes guys with their screws a little loose. Cool.
Though he’s one of the more enigmatic figures in the world of mixed martial arts, Cuban isn’t merely a billion dollar fan—he’s really become one of the sport’s ambassadors. Maybe it’s his Howard Roark esque constitution, but when the Dallas Maverick’s owner argues MMA’s legitimacy on his blog and in interviews (where they’re granted), he’s pretty fired up. He doesn’t tolerate ignorance, such as New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly’s dog fighting/prostitution comments a few months back (just Google his rebuttal). He makes no bones about his distaste for the current scoring system in MMA. He likes the fact that it’s a “Darwinian business”—that the better you are, the higher you go based on a meritocracy, and that the “bobble heads” that get booked into freak shows are generally exposed.
And when he talks of targeting new markets in a still-burgeoning sport, Cuban, as he has for years, thinks progressively.
He thinks like a dart.
In 2007, just three years after taking in his first MMA event—a WEC card on his own HDNet—he started HDNet Fights, a promotion to rival the axis of power (the UFC) in MMA. This was instantly intriguing, as here was Dana White, who had delightedly crushed every competitor that got in his way, versus Mark Cuban, a tycoon who, with an uncensored opinion of his own, had racked up nearly $2 million in fines since purchasing the Mavericks in 2000. Here was combustibility.
Things didn’t get too dramatic, though. Cuban targeted a bout between Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko, the biggest hypothetical fight out there at the time, but red tape and a prevailing business sense won out. As everyone knows, White eventually signed Couture back to the UFC.
Now, after HDNet Fights promoted a couple of cards in 2007 with marginal success, his HDNet channel (which Cuban started in 2001 and appears on fairly frequently) has become an outlet for MMA promotions like DREAM, Sengoku, and K-1, as well as the hub for the show Inside MMA, with Bas Rutten and Kenny Rice. Times have changed and truces reached.
Cuban, a fan first but always an entrepreneur, is a shareholder with Zuffa now. He and White might be business contentious, but they are mutually respectful. Cuban retweets Dana’s tweets. White retweets Cuban. Cuban hosted Dana and his family at UFC 103 in Dallas, where Cuban’s boosterism is legendary. Until recently, HDNet wasn’t credentialed at UFC events. Now, they are granted press badges and have reached a deal to show highlights afterward.
Things have gotten simpatico. Mostly.
“If there were three shots on the bar and it was me and Dana hanging, I would race him for the third,” says Cuban. “Meaning, we are friendly enough to go hang out. I like Dana.”
And it means they’re both competitive, with a shared love for good fights. Cuban talks nearly as much MMA as he does basketball these days, and he has thoughts on the sport, where it’s heading, how it can get better, and how it’ll go down if Shaquille O’Neal makes good on his threat to someday fight Hong Man Choi.
Since Cuban’s wider universe is in basketball, I thought I’d throw the old “corners” analogy that White is fond of using at him: If there’s a basketball game on one corner, a football game on another, guys playing baseball on another, and two guys fighting on the last…which do you watch? The fight, every time, Dana has been known to say.
“He is right,” Cuban says, “if the guys know how to fight. If two idiots were squaring off and rolling around on one corner, and Kobe and LeBron were playing one-on-one, which do you watch? On the other hand, if it’s Lesnar and Fedor, everyone would watch the fight.”
Cuban seems content to ally with the UFC for the time being, but when asked what it would take to truly rival them, he’s talking about ingredients that he possesses.
“Someone with a unique and compelling marketing angle and the money and patience to develop and brand fighters,” he says. “That’s a $100 million effort these days. Plus, don’t dismiss Strikeforce. To compete with the UFC you have to outwork Scott [Coker] and Dana. That’s a tough battle.”
What about the old Fitch debate—is to fight “entertaining” a big deal, rather than frustrating your opponent for three to five rounds en-route to victory?
“It’s not,” says Cuban. “Be who you are—be the best fighter you can be, which usually requires being great at some discipline. That said, you may not get picked up or paid as much, but being great is a far better reward.”
And what does he think of seeing Shaquille O’Neal stepping into the cage when his time on the hardwood is over? That’s easy.
“He will get his ass kicked,” he says. “But he is such an amazing and fun guy, it would be fun to watch.”
The follow-up can’t be “Is this one of your‘bobblehead’ scenarios,” as this isn’t Skype or iChat, but one can infer. What Cuban seems to be saying whenever he encounters somebody like Reilly, who doesn’t get the sport or bashes it “for a good PR opportunity,” is this: It’s a sport like any other, and to watch it is to be hooked.