Commentary

In MMA, it's the UFC, then everyone else

Originally Published: June 1, 2009
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Barring a sizable and unlikely scandal or implosion -- bankruptcy, fight fixing, Dana White going full-on with John Rocker in a "vlog" -- there is very little chance the Ultimate Fighting Championship will remain anything other than the premier brand of mixed martial arts in the world.

Rationale: It has practically co-opted an entire basic cable station (Spike), offering up to a dozen hours of UFC-centric programming a week; it draws from every conceivable subdemographic available; and, most importantly, it holds a majority stake in the world's best fighters. With no contractual trip wire to navigate, the UFC is free to make most of the big fights happen easily and quickly. (In boxing, Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida would've jawed at each other for a minimum of five years before one agreed on a 51/49 purse split.)

Putting the UFC-as-Kleenex analogy to bed for the day, the UFC logo is to MMA as Coca-Cola is to early-onset diabetes. And unfortunately for fans, there is no Pepsi. There may not even be a Fanta.

ProElite had a decent shot. The CBS deal was big; bigger than most gave it credit. Its headlining attraction in Kimbo Slice was the recipient of a media embrace that the UFC had struggled for years to achieve. (Chuck Liddell's presence on the cover of ESPN The Magazine was 15 years in the making; Slice's face in the same spot happened in about 15 days. Never mind that he was really no good at the job.)

[+] EnlargeKimbo Slice
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesKimbo Slice's menacing persona helped put ProElite on the map -- even if he couldn't cut it in the cage.

Even in death, ProElite hammered home an important point for any burgeoning promotion: Free television is essential. It made the UFC. The lack of it will break anyone vying for even a percentage of that market share.

Saturday, Strikeforce will air the second in a series of live Showtime events, with CBS specials expected to follow shortly. That exposure puts it miles ahead of other promotions, but it's not without anchor.

Strikeforce's two biggest stars, Frank Shamrock and Cung Le, are handicapped by advancing age. Le, in particular, has turned his eye toward feature films and, at 37, seems ambivalent about how much longer he'll remain in MMA. Shamrock's body gave up on him years ago, but he hypes with such gleeful efficiency that it's easy to forget he's only 1-3 since a 2007 return.

Assuming her contract will be situated in the summer, Gina Carano remains a unique property, but she does not appear to have a considerable depth of competition once she squares a rivalry with Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos. Worse, Santos has a significant chance of beating her without being able to equal her hormone-magnet appeal in the industry.

These are deficits. What Strikeforce can boast of is a marathon philosophy: It won't spend millions in a dash for ratings and attention. The CBS/Showtime machine is a powerful propellant, and it will use it judiciously. How far it will be able to go depends on whether it can find a handful of younger athletes who have the charisma of a Shamrock, Le or Carano.

Affliction takes the complete opposite tact -- spending wildly and hoping for short-term gain -- to the point where observers are finding it difficult to predict success. Although it puts on cards of tremendous depth, often outpointing the UFC in terms of star power, it's attributable only to its infrequent staging. (If the UFC were to limit cards to a biannual basis, you can imagine how substantial they would be.) Affliction is concerned with "event" programming, and that's commendable only if enough people agree with its idea of what constitutes an event. To date, it has been alleged that Affliction has yet to exceed 100,000 buys.

For a non-UFC show, that's an impressive number. For the Affliction payroll, that barely pays for the services of Fedor Emelianenko, let alone event overhead and the millions doled out to undercard athletes.

The Aug. 1 "Affliction: Trilogy" event, which organizers insist isn't the last -- an argument in direct opposition to Webster's definition of the term -- is set to continue its outsized spending. Josh Barnett will not come cheap against Emelianenko; Vitor Belfort, Tim Sylvia and others wouldn't hit a heavy bag for less than six figures. Whether their contributions to the show match their salary is open to debate.

That kind of spending is bound for study in an economics class somewhere, though perhaps not for reasons that would flatter executives.

So what exactly does it take to succeed as MMA's runner-up promotion without melting down employee gold watches and dodging creditors? Free television. (Not sporadic; weekly.) The ability to sustain departures or losses of attractions by virtue of having more than one attraction. Fiscal responsibility. Creative viral marketing. Brains.

It seems as though promotions are capable of some of this some of the time, but never all of it all the time.

Until that happens, White's UFC is in for some very violent altercations inside its cage, but very few outside it.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.