THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!: Jay Tan on Zuffa Buying Strikeforce

I don’t care if Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson knocks Brock Lesnar out with a flying knee – after today, there will never be another “shot heard round the MMA world”. We clear on that?

Saturday morning, March 12th, UFC president Dana White announced to MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani that Zuffa, UFC’s parent company, is buying Strikeforce, generally considered the #2 MMA promotion in North America, if not the world.

Here’s the interview:

Most are calling this a game-changer. It is. I’ll call it the point of no return, which it also likely is. With this purchase, there isn’t a brand strong enough to compete with the UFC. Not to say that someone won’t try, but without some long-term, ultra-ridiculous financial commitment and all the pieces miraculously falling into place, like a larger TV network deal, contract offers big enough to sign available talent (who are either going to be unknowns to the public, and thus interpreted as less-than-UFC-caliber talent, or fighters discarded from the UFC), and the public giving them a chance (which, as ratings for non-UFC fight promotions have proven, they’re not motivated to do), it’s not going to happen anytime soon. And if it does, its surely going to fail.

Since 2006, the UFC has bought out any of the competition that didn’t put themselves out of business. On December 11th of that year, Zuffa announced separate purchase deals for the World Fighting Alliance (WFA), and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). The latter was in fact to steal a television deal with the Versus network away from the International Fight League (IFL), who were in advanced negotiations, if not close to finalizing a deal with Versus.

The International Fight League (IFL) was a league that pitted MMA teams against each other in a round-robin tournament season.

By that point, the IFL was broadcasting on the fledgling MyNetworkTV channel, making it the first MMA promotion to be on a major terrestrial network. At the time, this was a significant advantage, though ratings were low and the leg-up didn’t help the IFL catch on. The IFL did strike a short-lived deal with HDNet in early 2008 before finally closing their doors later that year, citing financial troubles. The UFC never outright bought the IFL, but they purchased the video library rights and signed several IFL fighters, including Matt Horwich, Reese Andy, Ben Rothwell, and Chris Horodecki.

The WFA purchase was driven primarily to acquire talent contracts for Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Lyoto Machida. It closed on the same day as the WEC deal in December 2006.

Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, bought PRIDE Fighting Championships in the spring of 2007.

Only months later, on March 27th, 2007, Zuffa announced the purchase of longtime promotional rival PRIDE Fighting Championships from Dream Stage Entertainment and Noboyuki Sakakibara. The toast of MMA since the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, PRIDE FC had fallen on hard times in its home country of Japan, as Sakakibara and his company were linked in several 2006 media stories as having connections to yakuza organized crime outfits. The stories resulted in PRIDE FC losing its broadcast deal in June 2006 with Fuji TV, which was its main revenue stream. PRIDE continued its schedule of shows through April 2007, with the unfortunately-named PRIDE 34: Kamikaze, proving to be its final show.

Although Zuffa head Lorenzo Fertitta declared at the press conference about running PRIDE as a separate entity, those plans never came to fruition.

Jump ahead a year later, when Affliction Clothing, a Southern California apparel line which had started sponsoring MMA fighters such as Josh Barnett and Randy Couture, entered into the MMA promoting business with Affliction Entertainment. Picking up various PRIDE fighters who weren’t signed by the UFC, such as Barnett, Pedro Rizzo, Gilbert Yvel, and Fedor Emelianenko (then considered the top heavyweight and best pound-for-pound fighter in the world), as well as former-champions-turned-free-agents Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, Affliction ran a pay-per-view event in July 2008. The show was marketed as a night of the biggest collection of top heavyweight talent in the world, and really symbolized Emelianenko’s coming out party to the U.S. (even though he’d fought Mark Coleman in October 2006 before in Las Vegas at PRIDE 32: The Real Deal).

Affliction's Tom Atencio foreshadows in irony what would later happen to his own efforts in promoting MMA.

As a former sponsor with the UFC and several of its fighters, Affliction’s move into MMA, along with Affliction spokesman Tom Atencio’s public taunts that they, as opposed to Zuffa, had the top fighter in Emelianenko, was enough for the UFC to declare war. Affliction was now considered Public Enemy #1, and was banned from sponsoring any UFC or WEC fighters.

Affliction ran two shows, Banned in July 2008, headlined by Emelianenko vs. Sylvia, and Day of Reckoning in January 2009, with Emelianenko vs. Arlovski. A third show, Trilogy, was scheduled for August 1, 2009, with Emelianenko vs. Barnett, but the show was cancelled due to several circumstances, most notably because of Barnett being denied a license to fight in the state of California due to failing a drug test for steroids.

While many point to Barnett’s test failure as the reason for Affliction closing its doors, several reputable media sources reported at the time that the company was in the midst of negotiations with the UFC to close the Affliction MMA promotion in exchange for the ability to sponsor UFC fighters and events again. Affliction Entertainment had attracted fighters with inflated fight purses, far more than they recouped in pay-per-view or box office, including a reported $800,000 to Tim Sylvia and $1.5 million to Emelianenko and his handlers, M-1 Global.

The deal included at least first-look option at several fighter contracts, but after failed negotiations between Emelianenko’s team and Dana White, the ‘Last Emperor’ ended up signing with Strikeforce.

With EliteXC, the UFC didn’t need to wave a finger or huff or puff to blow that house of straw down.

Starting with their inaugural event, Destiny, in February 2007, EliteXC ran 20 events on Showtime (two of which were co-promotes with Strikeforce), along with three events on major network CBS. The group attempted to build and brand their own stars, such as K.J. Noons, Charles ‘Krazy Horse’ Bennett, Jake Shields, and Nick Diaz. None really got over as much as female fighter Gina Carano, with her girl-next-door looks and fierce fighting style, and Kimbo Slice, the former street-brawler-turned-“internet sensation,” both of whom piqued the public’s curiosity and CBS ratings when they appeared. The company had bled money throughout its entire existence (ask former employees about the dragon head), and when last-minute replacement Seth Petruzelli TKO’ed Slice in 14 seconds on the October 4th, it was the beginning of the end for the promotion.

The MMA Shot Heard 'Round the World. . . at the time.

Two days after the fight, Petruzelli was on a radio show and made comments that insinuated that EliteXC promoters offered him extra financial incentive to keep the fight a stand-up striking match, playing to Slice’s advantages. Petruzelli later clarified his comments to minimize any controversy of foul play, but by that point, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation decided to investigate the matter.

EliteXC was close to a deal with CBS to sell the promotion to the network, but the investigation was enough to scare the network into withdrawing. Left with no immediate alternatives, ProElite, EliteXC’s parent company, released almost all its employees and began offering its assets, including fighter contracts and its Showtime TV deal. Strikeforce picked up the TV deal and several fighter contracts, including Diaz, Carano, Shields, and Noons. Diaz and Shields went on to win the Strikeforce welterweight and middleweight titles, respectively. Carano fought Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos for the Strikeforce women’s middleweight title, suffering her first MMA defeat.

Ironically, Slice ended up with the UFC and proved to be a major ratings magnet for the tenth season of their Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV. Slice lost in the preliminary round of the show’s tournament and went 1-1 in the UFC before being released.

Good night, and Good Luck

Although White specifies that they will honor all active Strikeforce contracts, there’s little question in most people’s minds that it’s a matter of time before the talent is absorbed into the UFC rosters and Strikeforce as a brand and fight promotion is dissolved. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation, as there is no logical reason for the UFC to maintain another brand. Strikeforce as a brand was never distinct enough that the UFC would  have any reason to keep it separate, and as White has stated time and again the company’s goals to be the sole brand of MMA in the world, there’s no reason to think they’d change course here.

And while some may point to Bellator Fighting Fighting Championships, with their MTV2 TV deal and names like ‘Razor’ Rob McCullough, Hector Lombard, Zoila Frausto, Eddie Alvarez, and Ben Askren on their roster, their only shot would be if their financiers are deep pocket, long-term investors, MTV2 ratings soar through the roof such that they could parlay that onto HBO or NBC, and their entire roster develops an Ortiz / Couture / St-Pierre-caliber charisma. Going out on a limb, I predict none of that will prove to be the case, and even so, in the public’s eyes, the ship for first place has sailed, and Zuffa is at the helm.

Your winner, by submission, the UFC.

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