Tuesday, March 27, 2007

East Meets West in Landmark MMA Deal

By Thomas Gerbasi

With rumors and news bits floating around for weeks, it may have been the worst kept secret in the fight game, but Tuesday at the Roppongi Hills Arena in Tokyo, the most important acquisition in mixed martial arts history finally became a reality, as it was announced that the majority owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) had formed a new company and purchased Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships from Dream Stage Entertainment, Inc. in effect combining the forces of the two premier MMA organizations in the world.

“We’re very excited about this combination and what the future holds for the sport of mixed martial arts,” said Lorenzo J. Fertitta, owner of the new company, Pride FC Worldwide Holdings, LLC. Fertitta and Dream Stage Entertainment CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara had been in talks for close to a year regarding this unprecedented deal.

“We’ve had a relationship with Dream Stage Entertainment and Mr. Sakikabara for around six years,” said Fertitta. “While we have certainly been fierce competitors, at the same time, we have respected each other as the premier organizations in the world for mixed martial arts. About ten months ago we started talking about some type of strategic alliance that we could put together that would ensure the future of MMA. There are a lot of newfound competitors with really no experience and no history that are trying to jump into this sport. UFC and Pride are really the foundation of the sport, and we believe that by entering this transaction and coming together that there really is no number three, four or five. These are clearly the two best organizations in the world, and we’re going to put on mega fights that will take mixed martial arts to the next level.”

Pride FC Worldwide Holdings, LLC will now own Pride assets such as its video library, trademarks, and most importantly, the contracts of some of the premier fighters in the world, who will have the opportunity to meet their UFC counterparts in dream matchups fight fans have wanted to see for years.

“A lot of people speak about the problems with boxing, where you never see the best fight the best, and certainly in the past because of the situation with the different ownership of Pride and the UFC, it prohibited certain fights from potentially happening,” said Fertitta. “Now, we’re basically going to see the best fight the best. We’re going to give the fans what they want.”

“There’s a lot to be figured out, but what we’d like to see, finally, is the “Super Bowl” of mixed martial arts, where we can finally line up the guys in all the different weight classes to fight each other and see who the best in the world is,” said UFC President Dana White.

With the new ownership, Pride will continue to run shows in Japan under their established brand as an entity separate from the UFC.

“The UFC will run separately from Pride,” said White. “Most of the employees are still in place at Pride and we’re gonna continue to run them as competitors and separate entities. Pride will stay Pride and UFC will stay UFC.”

“The reality is that UFC is very much an American-centric branded product,” said Fertitta. “Pride is obviously a very Japanese-centric product and that’s the way we intend to keep them.”

And while Pride fights will remain in a ring, the same weight classes and unified rules used in the United States will be adopted.

“The same game of soccer that we play in the United States is the same game they play in Japan, England, and Brazil, and that’s what we want for mixed martial arts,” said White. “We will follow the unified rules of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.”

Mr. Sakakibara, a key element in the worldwide success of the company for a decade, and as CEO since 2003, will step down as CEO after Pride’s April 8th show at Saitama Super Arena, a card which will feature a bout between former UFC heavyweight title challenger Jeff Monson and perennial heavyweight contender Kazuyuki Fujita.

“I will no longer be the face of Pride,” said Sakakibara. “I think it would be the best if Pride FC Worldwide would have its own face to represent the next generation of Pride.”

Pride is currently home to MMA standouts such as Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Shinya Aoki, Mach Sakurai, and Takanori Gomi. Now fight fans will get to eventually see them in action against UFC stars such as Randy Couture, Mirko “Cro Cop”, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Quinton Jackson, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Hughes, and Sean Sherk.

“When fighters fight, money’s great, as well as the fame and everything that goes along with it,” said White. “But at the end of the day, it’s about their legacy. Pride and the UFC have the best fighters in the world in all the different weight classes. Finally we’re gonna be able to find out who the best fighter in the world is. The fans win, both of the organizations win, and the fighters win.”

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