Thursday, March 29, 2007

Digesting the UFC-Pride situation

By Denny Burkholder

Has it sunk in yet? UFC and Pride are now ... well, "brothers." They are both owned by ... well, brothers.

Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta expanded their mixed martial arts empire in a major way Tuesday with the announcement that the UFC owners had purchased the assets of Pride Fighting Championships, formerly owned by Dream Stage Entertainment and based out of Japan.

All indications are that Lorenzo Fertitta -- through a newly formed company called Pride Worldwide -- will continue to run Pride in Japan and also continue the U.S. expansion the former Pride owners were desperate to develop.

What's even more exciting is that Lorenzo Fertitta has promised UFC vs. Pride "megafights" between the two groups. Early word is that there will be one joint card per year. I'd bet money we'll see the first of them before the end of 2007.

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Randy Couture? Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva? Takanori Gomi vs. Georges St. Pierre? Just think: By 2008, those fights might have not only happened, but they could be available on DVD. What a great time to be a fan of mixed martial arts.

If you're an American fan unfamiliar with Pride, here's the gist: Pride has been popular in Japan since long before UFC took off in the States. Some MMA fans have argued that Pride (pre-Fertitta, that is) has a more talented roster of fighters than the UFC. No matter which side of that debate you fall on, there is little doubt that the best fighters in the world have, in recent years, been on the Pride roster, the UFC roster or some combination of the two.

On a conference call with the U.S. media on Tuesday, the two most common answers from Lorenzo Fertitta and UFC president Dana White were variations of two main phrases: "I don't know," and "Pride is not going to change." The latter comment may have had something to do with the fact that the deal is being portrayed in Japan as a partnership between Pride and UFC instead of an outright sale of Pride. The former statement appears to be a weak answer at first, but when you think about it, the "I don't knows" of the Pride-UFC deal are what make it so important to MMA's future.

Consider some of the things they "don't know" yet:

• Reigning Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko's contract status with rival Bodog Fight (Emelianenko has at least one fight lined up for Bodog, an April 14 fight against Matt Lindland).

• How Japanese fans -- who have shown up 60,000 strong to Pride events in the past -- will accept Pride under Fertitta owenership. (The Fertittas are reported to have paid just shy of $70 million for Pride. At that price, they really need to succeed in Japan to make the deal a success.)

• Whether the addition of more Pride events to U.S. television, which is already fully stocked with the more popular UFC shows, will cause an oversaturation of the American MMA market (and subsequently, a cooling of MMA's popularity). For the record, Dana White compares MMA events on TV to football games -- as long as there is entertaining action, there can't be too much exposure. Time will tell if that theory proves to be correct.

The future is far from certain. We can, at least, count on some big marquee fights in the short term. Years from now, the decisions made by MMA's top dogs in the coming weeks and months will be remembered as the major turning points for the business side of MMA. Let's hope that is a positive thing.

It's been a big news week for MMA even without the colossal UFC-Pride deal. Here's a quick look at some of the stories that went down in the same general time frame as the Fertittas' shopping excursion:

1. Over the weekend, the much-discussed exhibition boxing match between UFC's Dana White and Tito Ortiz never happened. The fight, which was to be hyped with a 90-minute Spike TV special and reportedly sold as an online pay-per-view broadcast, would have put White (a former amateur boxer) head-to-head with Ortiz in a way most employers try to avoid engaging their employees. Instead, while the Nevada State Athletic Commission went to the trouble of staffing the event, Ortiz never showed. Neither side would discuss why the fight was called off, until Ortiz broke his silence on his website,, claiming he was only trying to "do business."

Ortiz claimed White would not agree to give Ortiz a producer credit on the pay-per-view, and that he did not see the point in fighting for free if UFC stood to make money on the deal. Ortiz also claimed that White, in stating the event would be for charity, was just trying to save face. Ortiz claimed White never brought up the fight being for charity until after the date had come and gone, and that if it were for charity, he would have gladly fought White.

Look for more public "he said, he said" on this matter in the coming months, but don't hold your breath for the actual fight to be rescheduled. Everyone involved has far bigger concerns right now than an exhibition boxing match that stands to make one man (or both) look very foolish.

2. In an attempt to unify against the UFC-Pride megapower, a large assortment of MMA promotions from around the world joined for a press conference on Tuesday, announcing a June 2 show in Los Angeles. The show, entitled "Dynamite USA," will feature the MMA debuts of former NCAA Division I wrestling champion (and WWE pro wrestler, and Minnesota Viking tryout) Brock Lesnar and NFL alum Johnnie Morton.

The idea of K-1 working together with EliteXC, England's Cage Rage, Strikeforce, Bodog Fight and SpiritXC is fun to think about, but you also have to wonder if the combined star power of all the promotions put together is enough to make up for UFC and Pride having the vast majority of big-name MMA fighters locked up.

The Dynamite USA show will be broken up into two events. EliteXC will sponsor the early portion and broadcast it on Showtime, while the second half (the K-1 portion) will air on PPV.

Lesnar could be a legit future MMA star if he can take a punch. He's already leaps and bounds ahead of most MMA fighters in terms of power and wrestling ability. If he can strike -- and more importantly, if he can absorb strikes -- he might be major force at heavyweight.

3. Zuffa LLC (UFC) filed a lawsuit against Showtime and EliteXC parent company Pro Elite on Wednesday for copyright infringement. Zuffa contends that on EliteXC's debut broadcast on Showtime on Feb. 10, the group aired UFC footage without permission. They also allege the use of UFC footage caused a "likelihood of confusion" among viewers as to the source of the footage.

4. As if UFC weren't busy enough, the fifth season of Ultimate Fighter debuts next week, with B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver as this season's coaches. The cast of 16 includes Nate Diaz (Nick's brother) and Joe Lauzon, who already owns an upset win over coach Pulver via KO. Having been at the tryouts in December, I'll predict that among the new faces, Noah "The Red" Thomas will be the one to keep an eye on.

UFC also has two cards in three days next week. UFC Fight Night on April 5 features Joe Stevenson vs. Melvin Guillard and Kenny Florian vs. Dokonjonosuke Mishima. That one airs on Spike TV. Then, on April 7, UFC makes its debut in Houston for UFC 69 on PPV. That show is headlined by Matt "The Terra" Serra's title shot against welterweight champion Georges "Rush" St. Pierre, and a grudge fight between undefeated Diego "The Nightmare" Sanchez and Josh Koscheck.

As you'll read here on SportsLine in the next day or two, Sanchez and Koscheck are not the best of friends.

5. World Extreme Cagefighting held its second show under Zuffa last Saturday. In the main event, Carlos Condit won the WEC welterweight title, tapping out John Alessio with a choke in the closing seconds of Round 2. WEC's next announced card is May 12 in Las Vegas, featuring WEC lightweight champion Rob McCullough vs. Rich Crunkilton.

6. Pride (them again?) announced some of the fight card for Pride 34, which happens April 8 in Tokyo. Sokoudjou will fight Ricardo Arona, Eric "Butterbean" Esch will face Zuluzinho, and in what is being billed as Pride vs. UFC, Kazuyuki Fujita will fight Jeff "Snowman" Monson.


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