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FightNoob Vol. 4 – Know Your Promotions

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FightNoob is a recurring series on Single Blog Takedown where we help new fans and neophytes understand the sport of mixed martial arts. This is the fourth edition. Previous editions can be found right here.

Volume 4: Know Your Promotions

It was rare that the baseball season and my time in college overlapped; it only happened for a few short weeks at the beginning and end of each school year. Knowing that, I tried to get down to Durham Bulls Athletic Park as often as possible to see the local minor leaguers ply their trade. The atmosphere was fantastic, the Bulls have a proud history (thanks in part to Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins), and even though the overall level of competition wasn’t major league, I got to see some guys come through the program that would go on to become stars when they contributed to the Tampa Bay Rays’ improbable 2008 AL Championship run.

When I graduated, I moved to DC for the first year of the Washington Nationals’ existence and now they occupy my summertime. In spite of their, uh, questionable on-field prowess, I love having a local major league baseball team. Seeing the best in the world come through our fantastic new park, being able to talk baseball at the bar with everyone in town, Ben’s Chili Bowl at the game… all wonderful. But you will never catch me knocking the great times I had in the DBAP outfield.

So it is with mixed martial arts. The UFC is the clear major league of the sport, with the best roster and the biggest shows. There are a couple promotions I’d consider triple-A and a few more making strong names for themselves. There are plenty of fans who watch UFC exclusively – I certainly watch them much more than many of the other promotions. Remember, though, my minor league analogy above. Just because UFC is the biggest game in town, it does not mean they are the only game. If you’re new to mixed martial arts, some of these promotions may have escaped your view, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. On the contrary: the more MMA you watch, the more you’ll learn. In addition, multiple promoters mean that the best fighters in every weight class aren’t always in the same promotion.

Here are a series of capsule looks at some the MMA promotions you ought to know.

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
In a nutshell: Dominant in the MMA world, they powered through early troubles to recent success.
Notable fighters: Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre, Randy Couture, Chuck Lidell, Lyoto Machida, BJ Penn, and that’s just listing active fighters. Once home for Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Pat Miletich, and other legends
A brief history: Pioneer of MMA on PPV. Driving force behind the unified rules of mixed martial arts, due to a backlash against the company. Tremendously close to bankruptcy twice, first when the Fertitta brothers and Dana White bought the company in 2001 and then again in 2004 after years of hemorrhaging money. Then: The Ultimate Fighter. Bonnar-Griffin. Liddell-Couture III. Tremendous successes, all. A steady and rapid rise to the top of the business. Acquired WEC in 2006 and PRIDE in 2007.
Why you should care: Nearly a million PPV buys per card can’t be wrong.
Why they’re on their way up: Overwhelming public recognition as the face of MMA, in addition to the best roster of fighters around, means that they should solidify their position as the leaders in MMA while underequipped promotions continually fall by the wayside. They have unmatched stability at the top of the game; other promotions need to take risks to catch them, and risks carry the possibility of failure.
Why they’re on their way out: President Dana White and his nitroglycerine temper could mean volatility for the promotion. In addition, failure to land a major network television deal could lead to a lack of mainstream exposure; particularly if Strikeforce can land one first. They could also perhaps get hit by a giant meteor.

Strikeforce
In a nutshell: The #2 promotion in America and a possible contender to the throne… someday. Maybe.
Notable fighters: Fedor Emilianenko, Gina Carano, Cris “Cyborg” Santos, Frank Shamrock, Cung Le
A brief history: A kickboxing organization for a long time that branched into MMA in 2006. A strong regional showing in California led to expansion in 2008 and deals with NBC and Showtime. President Scott Coker is one of the more experienced promoters in the business.
Why you should care: As the most visible promotion behind UFC, there’s going to be a lot of MMA media coverage on the “rivalry”. There’s also going to be a lot of coverage on Fedor, who many consider the world’s top heavyweight. Strikeforce is also America’s top promotion for women’s MMA.
Why they’re on their way up: Recent partnerships with DREAM and M-1 Global will expand the roster to give their fans some great fights. Their success in the realm of women’s MMA also bodes well for their ability to build a roster in other classes.
Why they’re on their way out: There’s a lot of worry that the Fedor signing (and attached M-1 Global deal) represent bad news for Strikeforce’s business model, which was focused on building big stars from within instead of signing them to massive contracts. If the Fedor deal goes sour, so could Strikeforce. And they’re still playing from way behind when it comes to catching up with UFC.

DREAM
In a nutshell: The big player in Japan right now, they have the impressive pedigree, if not the strength, of PRIDE.

Notable fighters: Shinya Aoki, Paulo Filho, Joachim Hansen
A brief history: Formed in 2008 after the close of PRIDE to give Japanese fans a promotion to watch. Partnered with HDNet initially and EliteXC later, before EliteXC’s close. Currently in a partnership with Strikeforce and in competition for Japanese MMA fans with World Victory Road (see below).
Why you should care: Japanese MMA has a proud tradition and DREAM still has a number of strong fighters from the continent. Their event-based style of promotion means that you’ll get to see a lot of different fighters from a lot of different rosters at their shows; those who don’t have other exclusive contracts are free to fight there.
Why they’re on their way up: That roster flexibility is major and their partnership with Strikeforce will only help them, especially in the U.S. market. Trading off the name of PRIDE can only help them as fans may feel nostalgic for a time when it wasn’t just UFC and everyone else.
Why they’re on their way out: Japanese MMA isn’t as strong as it used to be. K-1 and other fighting promotions have cut into their market share and World Victory Road is a strong competitor on the content. While UFC hasn’t made serious inroads into Japan yet, it’s only a matter of time before they come knocking and DREAM has a real turf war on their hands.

World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC)
In a nutshell: Not just the UFC’s smaller weights division, they’ve made a name for themselves under the Zuffa umbrella.
Notable fighters: Mike Brown, Miguel Angel Torres, Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles
A brief history: Started as a regional promotion in 2001 and was acquired by UFC’s parent company Zuffa in 2006. Their roster of fighters remains independent, although their heavier divisions were all absorbed into the UFC in late 2008. Began broadcasting on Versus network in 2007.
Why you should care: A Versus deal means they’re relatively easy to watch. Lighter fighters frequently make for faster, more exciting fights, and WEC has some of the top talent in their weight classes. Plus you may end up seeing all these guys fight for the UFC one day anyway, so why not watch them now?
Why they’re on their way up: Cutting the larger classes has made WEC a tighter, more focused promotion. The help from UFC means increased promotion and more network presence for both leagues. They’ve put together a number of solid fights already and have a reputation for quality that a number of other promotions don’t.
Why they’re on their way out: Rumors that WEC will be absorbed wholesale into UFC have swirled for three years and only intensified when the heavier divisions were folded into Big Brother last year. DirecTV’s recent brawl with Versus will mean less market penetration. At the end of the day, they may simply not have the depth of talent necessary to survive independently, especially fighting against the stigma that they’re just some sort of UFC minor league.

Bellator Fighting Championships (Bellator)
In a nutshell: Probably the small promotion you’ve seen most on YouTube, their first season produced tremendous promise.
Notable fighters: Eddie Alvarez, Joe Soto
A brief history: Began in 2009 to focus on the Hispanic market, with a seasonal, tournament-based format. Signed a deal with ESPN Deportes to air all events. Recently announced two seasons to air in 2010.
Why you should care: A series of serendipitous finishes led to major internet buzz, including a spinning back fist KO by Yahir Reyes [video] and a thoroughly insane inverted triangle choke by Toby Imada [video]. There are steady rumors that Bellator will air live on a larger member of the ESPN network next year. If they’re the first promotion to secure a major deal with ESPN for MMA, it would be a huge coup.
Why they’re on their way up: If that ESPN deal lands it will be big, but even so they’re on ESPN Deportes and does a tremendous job of leveraging YouTube. Positive word of mouth can only draw in better talent and more fans, and the tournament-based format could attract fighters who want a limited deal. In addition, if they can pull in a Hispanic market that has traditionally strongly supported boxing, that would mean a massive fanbase.
Why they’re on their way out: Of course, that ESPN deal is still a rumor, with nothing confirmed, and there’s nothing to make anybody believe right now that if Hispanic fans are truly hungry for MMA they won’t just go to UFC like everybody else. The downside of a seasonal structure is also that any momentum gained over the course of it is often lost in the long wait between events. Will everybody have forgotten about them by the time their next event airs in 2010?

Other promotions worth knowing: World Victory Road (aka Sengoku) is very similar in scope and size to DREAM. In addition to being a strong Japanese competitor for DREAM, its Sengoku events are televised on FujiTV. Shooto, which holds events worldwide, is notable for being one of the first major MMA promotions. Not large in the United States, it nevertheless draws a large number of top Japanese fighters. M-1 Global is much stronger in Europe but is notable for their team-based formats, their deal with Strikeforce, and for their part-owner, the aforementioned Mr. Emilianenko.

Notable defunct promotions: Pride Fighting Championships (PRIDE) is the one most worth knowing. The largest Japanese promotion and a strong competitor to UFC in its prime, they put on over 60 events before being bought out by Zuffa in 2007 and absorbed into UFC. Notable PRIDE champs include Fedor, Dan Henderson, Minotauro Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua. In addition, a large number of current UFC fighters have competed in PRIDE. International Fight League experimented with a team-based format and was the first promotions to air regular fights on broadcast television. EliteXC had a deal with CBS and popularized Gina Carano and Kimbo Slice before collapsing. bodogFight bled 38 million dollars before falling apart. Affliction tried to branch from clothing into promotion and failed after only two events.

Keeping them all straight is difficult sometimes, especially with promotions starting up and closing every so often. As an MMA fan, however, it’s worth your time to keep track. You never know where the next big star is going to come from… and it’s always fun to be one of the first to find out.

Image from MMA Convert.

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