Since 2001, when Dana White grabbed the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) by the neck and dragged it out of the rut it had fallen int;, the UFC has gone from being a show with out-of-shape brawlers, and very little mainstream acceptance, to a show that is now synonymous with mixed martial arts in the United States and, indeed, the world over.
Continuing to gain fans, especially in the 18-34 male demographic, UFC 66 was the UFC’s most prestigious and high-profile event to date and a cracking way to end 2006.
As with any high revenue generating events, there are going to be those that want to jump onto the bandwagon and emulate it, hoping to either surpass the original event or at the very least catch any crumbs dropped.
The three main wannabe competitors are PRIDE, the International Fight League (IFL) and EliteXC (Showtime). As ever people are always looking for the ‘next’ version, the ‘next’ Bruce Lee, the ‘next’ Jackie Chan and the ‘next’ UFC. Such is the proliferation of leagues that when asked whether they hurt or help the UFC, Dana said “since 2001, when we bought the company, every weekend there have been leagues popping up left and right and they stick around for awhile and then they disappear. And it’s no different now than it was back in 2001. It’s exactly the same.”
And out of the three latest wannabes, “PRIDE is who I consider the competitor”, so much so that despite not acknowledging all rumours he does admit that “If PRIDE is for sale, I’m interested.”
This is especially important as the leagues attract all manner of high-profile and gifted combat athletes, but rarely (if at all) have their champions meet and duke it out mano-a-mano to see who truly is CHAMPION. Dane continues “I’m looking to acquire all the best fighters in the world and make the biggest, best matches I can make for the next few years.” Of course, one memorable event was PRIDE’S Middleweight Grand Prix where the UFC was championed by living legend Chuck Liddell.
Obviously such matches would be more than popular with the fans world-wide and when asked if he would consider such events in the future Dana was unequivocal “If somebody was big enough, yeah. If somebody was big enough. I’ve never been opposed to that. I’ve actually been the one who’s taken the steps to move forward and go ahead and do things like that. Nobody else ever has. I’m the only one that’s ever done it. I’m talking about as big as UFC and PRIDE”
But why, I hear you ask wouldn’t he consider the IFL and Showtime as competitors? Dana’s certainly not one to hold back “IFL, EliteXC, … are rinky-dink upstarts. They don’t even really exist.” Ouch. That goes beyond kicking a blind man when he’s down. It seems these “upstarts” have a long way to go before they even earn his acknowledgment let alone his respect.
There is one upstart that has been brought into the fold as in December 2006, Zuffa announced the acquisition of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), as an entity that will hold its own events.
“The WEC will go out and acquire its own talent and build its own show and its own programming on the Versus network. And they are going to be competitors.”
Of course, many people are going to view the WEC as nothing more than a farming system but Dana is insistent that “No, it’s not going to be a farm system. It’s not going to be anything like that. It’s going to be their own brand — their own company with their own fighters. And they’re looking to compete with us and go head-to-head.” I can only hope that their fighters compete head-to-head as well.
Already one of, if not the, biggest mixed martial arts brand in the world, the UFC still lacks certain sections of society in its fan base. As ever when new leagues come along, audience members are bound to jump ship, the grass is always greener as they say. With this happening the UFC obviously needs to try to garner more favour from the other sections. One is women. As any man in a serious and stable relationship knows, no matter how much you like to think you’re the boss in the home, you’re not. The missus is. So with this in mind, are the UFC going to attract more women to watch the sport (meaning therefore that more men will be allowed (not able) to watch their events). “Women isn’t one of them. One of the things we’ve always said is, we know what this is for — it’s for males 18-34. And if women watch, that’s just gravy for us — that’s beautiful….. But to go out and market toward women would be very expensive and not make much sense.”
Well, there go my hopes at being able to get pay-per-via (PPV). So, if he’s not going for women who is he going for: “I’m going after Hispanic and urban”.
Dana has admitted that women watch the sport. Since the mid-80s women have started to compete in what were previously thought to be male dominated sports, football, rugby (they’re the scary ones) and now full-contact sports including Thai, Boxing and mixed martial arts. This said, doesn’t it make sense to have women fight in the UFC, and what plans if any, does Dana have for this? “I don’t. I’m not a huge fan of women fighting, period. Not to say that I don’t acknowledge that there are amazing female athletes out there in every sport. I just think right now we had a hard enough time getting over the stigma of the men.”
The stigma still lingers. There is a well-known saying about how the proverbial sticks and this is especially true in the case of the mixed martial arts. Of course, the marketing, the rules, the fighters and indeed the fans of the original UFC events did the show absolutely no favours. It resembled more of a tough-man or underground gypsy ‘boxing’ event with most of the Chelsea Smilers and Milwall fans for an audience.
Unlike England, the States of the ‘United’ States aren’t necessarily that united, with each State having its own legislature and therefore the ability to make its own laws. The result of this and the original ‘no holds barred’ marketing of the UFC, resulted in the UFC actually being banned in a number of States.
Obviously, there are obstacles that need to be overcome in order for the UFC to hold big shows there. “I think the big problem is a lot of these other states are states that big shows wouldn’t go to anyway.” There are little shows being held in these States however and these are doing the UFC no favours: “One of the biggest reasons [the events need to be sanctioned] is fighter safety. … When they fight these rinky-dink, little shows all over the place, they don’t have to go through the same medical testing, drug testing, everything else that we do in all the major states.”
It’s because of these little shows that they had to bring Marc Ratner of the Nevada State Athletic Commission into the fold. Day in, day out, Ratner’s days are filled with trying to convince the various states to come on-board and get proper sanctioning in place.
As mentioned above, Dana is pushing for a bigger Hispanic fan base. Steps have already been taken towards achieving this objective by having their events go out on Fox Sports en Espanol (Fox Sports in Spanish).
On top of this, the UFC have recently opened offices in London. Does this mean that they are trying to get a foothold over here and if so, what other countries have they got their sites on?
“The three we are focusing on right now are Mexico, Canada and the UK. We are going to do four or five fights this year in the UK. And then we are going to start creeping out into Europe doing fights all throughout Europe.”
First the UK and then Europe! Five events no less! When are these events? Well at the time of writing the UFC official site is currently undergoing maintenance. Why on earth they don’t have a mirror site in place I don’t know. Perhaps they should look at their IT infrastructure as well?
They are also working on deals for both Mexico and Canada. Expanding into Mexico is certainly a big step. Wrestling is huge in Mexico and anyone who’s seen Jack Black in ‘Nacho Libre’ will know just how big it is. Mexican wrestlers are some of the biggest celebrities in their country with their masks being used to identify them. Why is this? Because they supposedly never take their masks off. Their masks are like Samson’s hair, and once removed they lose their strength. There is an air of mystique about them that no doubt appeals, just as it does with super-heroes. All the best ones wear masks. Can the UFC compete with this? Time will tell.
Another factor to take into consideration is law. Different countries have different laws, so will Dana bend and change the rules of the UFC in order that they can continue to expand? “No, that I won’t do. I will not do that. I want the unified rules throughout the world. The same game of soccer that they play in Japan, England, and Brazil is the same game we play here. To be a real sport that’s the way it has to be.”
Being an old-timer I remember UFC 1, there have been many events since then and there are over 20 events planned for this year alone. Is this over-saturation?
“I don’t know. Are there too many football games on? Are there too many baseball games going on every day? I think as long as you put on good fights people are going to want to tune in and see them.” Let’s hope that the UFC events remain in the Premier rather than dropping down into the Conference League.
As with any start-up event, the people involved are grateful for the new income stream and for the chance to prove themselves. As the event grows, this can change as has happened with the NFL and the NBA. “One of the things that we want to avoid that I think happens is that the players got too big. The players don’t talk to the fans. The players don’t go out of their way to sign autographs and to do the things that I think would make these sports even bigger than they are today.
And that’s one of the things that we’re going to make sure doesn’t happen here in the UFC — where the guys just become untouchable. You show up at a [Los Angeles] Lakers game, you’ll never meet Kobe Bryant. But when you show up to a UFC event, odds are pretty damn good that you’re not only going to meet Liddell, but he’s going to sign what you need signed and take a picture with you.”
If this is the case then all well and good, however, the queues for such a signing can be long and be prepared to fork out your hard-earned cash for the privilege as well. The UFC is business, big business and business is about making money.
Fortunately however, “The great thing about this sport is that we really don’t have to keep too tight of a leash on these guys on being humble and being good people and being good to the fans because this sport is martial arts-based. All these guys come from martial arts which, as anybody knows, you learn a lot of respect and discipline.”
Dana isn’t shy about admitting the true nature of UFC either, “I think one of the things that makes us more of a sport, sport than a fighting league is – like I said earlier – the sportsmanship … most of the time, these guys that go out to fight each other are like two teams playing.
They go out before the fight, they can hang out at the press conference and the weigh-in and shake hands and say hello to each other. Then they go in and fight as hard as they can fight and they fight to win. As soon as that fight’s over, they’re shaking hands and showing each other respect again. I think that’s one of the great things about the UFC and about the sport.”
However if you fancy a slice of the financial action, don’t get your hopes up too soon as there is little chance of the UFC going public. Why is this Dana?
“I don’t need a bunch of idiots out in Wall Street – who have no idea what they’re talking about and don’t know anything about this business – telling me how to run it.” Brutally honest to a fault, but fair enough.
The relationship that the UFC has with Spike TV is very strong with The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) show and the UFC Fight Nights helping mixed martial arts as a whole become far more mainstream. This isn’t enough. Aside from nine different shows on Spike TV, the UFC is also in the middle of very in-depth talks with HBO and even ESPN.
As Dana says “I think you’re going to see UFC programming popping up on all the majors.”
With mixed martial arts and cage fighting often being referred to as human ‘cock-fighting’, the welfare of the fighters and the prolonging of their careers has become paramount. With this in mind, the state athletic commissions where the events are held are not only in charge of drug testing the fights, they also control how many fighters and even which fighters are tested.
Testing is made for any anabolic steroids, growth hormones, diuretics and a plethora of other substances. Above and beyond this, all entrants for The Ultimate Fighter are also tested for steroids. Fighters are also tested for any disease that can be passed through blood, hepatitis and HIV among them.
Aside from the drug testing the commissions make sure they have all the proper medical testing done like EKG’s, CAT scans, etc. They also appoint all the judges and referees.
Such is the power of the commissions that they take all the finances from the UFC before the event and pay the fighters.
Obviously such events are going to draw large crowds and even more viewers generating a very large income indeed. This begs the question as to how a fighter is paid “We determine how popular we think the guy is and obviously how many seats he can sell, and how many pay-per-views he can sell.”
As I said previously, Liddell is a living legend, does Dana share my view?
“I think the best fighter in the UFC right now is Liddell. I think he’s the biggest star in the world right now in MMA.”
Dana finds it harder to narrow it down when it comes to who his favourite fighter is: “There’s a lot of them. To narrow that down to one – Liddell, Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre. I get along really well with Tito Ortiz now. There are a lot of guys.” Obviously this is a sensitive area as it’s a bit like asking ‘who’s your best friend?’
He’s not so shy about admitting who he didn’t get on with though “It’s pretty apparent that Tito Ortiz and I had problems for a long time – really bad problems that were very public and we worked it out and we have a great relationship now. There are other guys in the UFC that I don’t have the best of relationships with, but I wouldn’t talk about it publicly.”
As most of you know, Couture has decided that Saga trips and Reader’s Digest no longer have the same ‘frisson’ about them as they did when he first retired and so he’s hung up the Zimmer frame and put on the gloves once more. Strangely enough however, he has been allowed a title fight for his déjà vu debut in the heavyweight division against Tim Sylvia. This is despite having been out collecting his pension and attending jumble sales for the last year.
Dana explained why former OAP got such a good return match “Because he’s the only two-time heavyweight champion in UFC history and he’s the only man to move down a weight class and take a belt in that division, too. And when he retired – to me – he’s still the No. 2 light heavyweight in the world. And he told me he wants to kick Sylvia’s butt.
And he might have been out for almost a year but he hasn’t stopped training. He’s been training the whole time. He’s in phenomenal shape. I mean, Ortiz was gone for almost a year and a half when he came back.”
There is one match that many people would pay to see and that’s Silva versus Liddell. A fight was announced back in the summer of 2006 but everything has gone quiet since. Does this mean that the fight is still on?
“Absolutely, it’s a fight all the fans want to see. I’d love to see the fight. So, as soon as I get into a position where I can make that fight, I’d make it in a second.” Unfortunately for the fans there was a little slip up in that PRIDE failed to come through with it “Like they hadn’t many times before that. Silva’s a warrior. He’d fight anybody.”
Dana managed both Liddell and Ortiz, considering the falling out he had with Ortiz, it was interesting to see what sort of relationship he had with them now. “I have great relationships with them. Liddell is somebody that I consider pretty much part of my family. And Ortiz, we’ve had a real bad history over the last couple of years, but we’re in a good place right now. We get along really well and we respect each other.”
That said however, Ortiz challenged Dana to a boxing match as part of the deal brokered when he re-signed with the UFC with the match being scheduled for March. Any money raised from this match is being donated to charity and, given their past history this should draw large viewing figures. This is especially so as it will be aired on the website initially followed by with a whole show for Spike TV. Let’s hope that it goes past the first round.
As with many events the world over, crowds have starting booing fighters when the perception has been that there isn’t a lot of action. This was especially so in the case of Sylvia who was booed in his last few fights.
One way of getting around this issue would be to change the rules. Dana doesn’t agree “I think Tim’s had a couple of fights that people weren’t crazy about and now it’s up to Tim to work on his game and get in there and try to finish people. I think that’s one of the reasons Couture came back. He wants to fight Sylvia and be the only man to win the heavyweight title three times. He sees some holes in Sylvia’s game. He thinks Sylvia fights to squeak by and win, not to really finish people and he doesn’t think Sylvia has the heart to beat him.”
Well that’s certainly one way to boost one fighter and a way to bring another crashing down. Perhaps a statement about how the crowd needs to be educated as to the ins and outs of ground work and the technicality and high skill level needed to compete with the best mixed martial arts fighters would have been better. Good luck Tim.