Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fertitta, White on sale: Fighters, fans win

By Mike Chiappetta

In a move that they hope will take the already exploding mixed martial arts scene into a major worldwide sport, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta have purchased the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships, and will run the organization separately from their top Zuffa holding, the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

"To be honest with you, when I first got involved in this, I never thought this was even possible," Lorenzo Fertitta said on a Tuesday media conference call. "But I guess you never say never. What it takes are two parties that are committed to the sport and the future of MMA, and coming together to really make history. Certainly this wasn't in the original plan when we purchased the UFC, but now it is reality and a great thing for the fans around the world."

To run Pride, the Fertittas will create a new entity called Pride FC Worldwide Holdings LLC., and Zuffa representatives insisted that the two companies would stay separate except for at least one yearly event UFC President Dana White termed "the Super Bowl of MMA."

Despite his formidable presence and success as the head of UFC, White said he would have no input in the day-to-day operations of Pride.

"Someone else will run pride," he said. "I will come over to Japan with all my guys and kick their asses as I've waited to do for seven years."

That "someone else" will not be Pride's president Noboyuki Sakakibara, who confirmed he will be stepping down after Pride's scheduled show on April 8 in Japan.

"I will no longer be a piece of Pride," he said through an interpreter. "I think it would be best for Pride FC Worldwide to have its own face to exhibit a new generation of Pride."

For a time, Pride was the top MMA organization in the world, boasting huge television ratings and regularly drawing crowds of 30,000-40,000 to their events. In August 2002, a partnership event with kickboxing promotion K-1 drew over 90,000 fans to Tokyo National Stadium.

The organization began a quick financial descent in June 2006, when the Fuji Network announced they were terminating their TV deal with Pride. Though Fuji never released a reason for the abrupt cancellation, citing only a contract breach, alleged yakuza ties reported in the Japanese press reportedly played a role.

With those rumors swirling, Pride could never regain a lucrative TV deal. In response, Pride's then-parent company Dream Stage Entertainment announced it would attempt to invade the U.S. market, where the red-hot UFC was making waves. Their first U.S. show, October's Pride 32: the Real Deal drew 8,079 fans but didn't make a major impact in pay-per-view buys.

Fertitta said that his first meeting with Pride came about 10 months ago, which would roughly correspond with the time period in which the group lost their TV deal.

"We've had a relationship with Dream Stage and Mr. Sakakibara for six years," Fertitta said. "Certainly we've been fierce competitors but at the same time we've respected each other as the premiere organizations in the world for mixed martial arts. About 10 months ago, we started talking about strategic alliance that we could put together to ensure the future of MMA.

"As everyone knows, there are a lot of newfound competitors with no experience and no history trying to jump in to the sport," he continued. "UFC and Pride are really the foundation of the sport. We believe that by entering into the transaction and coming together, there is no No. 3, 4 or 5. This is clearly the two best organizations in the world, and we're going to put on many fights that take MMA to the next level."

Though there were few details released in terms of when fans would get their first supercard, other details released included:

• Both UFC and Pride will run shows globally, with them criss-crossing into each other's original home countries

• Pride will continue to be produced with the same "Japan-centric" production values as its fans have become accustomed to

• Pride will hold its fights under the Unified Rules, so fights will feature the same rules everywhere; however, Pride will continue to be fought in a ring while UFC bouts will remain in the octagon

• Fertitta expects Pride to regain a TV deal in Japan shortly

• Despite his future bout with upstart BodogFight, Fedor Emelienenko is expected to stay with Pride. "The reality is that if he wants to fight the best fighters in the world, he's going to want to stay with us," Fertitta said.

• China is a key part of both group's expansions into international markets

It is obvious from the Fertittas aggressive acquisitions in recent months that the casino executives view MMA as a growth sport and a winning bet.

"This truly is a global sport," Fertitta said. "The one thing about mixed martial arts is that it translates amongst every country, every culture, every language. This will become the worldwide sport, without question."

Still, the Zuffa executives stress that it is the fans who will prove to be the real winners. Dana White had hoped to make the Chuck Liddell-Wanderlei Silva match for years before Silva lost his last two bouts. Fans have always debated which group is better, which champions are more well-rounded. Now, those answers will no longer be theory, but reality.

It will take time for the logistics to play out, because many of the top-level fighters are on very different schedules, so to coordinate a time period where they can all be ready and rested to fight at the same time will be a difficult undertaking. But then again, no one would have seen this happening a year ago.

"I think that when fighters fight, obviously money is great, as well as everything that goes along with it, but at the end of the day, it's about legacy," Dana White said. "Pride and the UFC have all the best fighters in world in all the different weight classes. Finally, we're going to find out who the best fighter in the world is. And whoever wins that is going to be looked at as the best heavyweight, best light-heavyweight. That's what's going to come out of this. The fans win, the organizations win and the fighters win."


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