Friday, March 30, 2007

How the UFC-Pride merger will change the sport


Ten months ago, the most powerful men in the world of mixed martial arts sat down for dinner at a casino restaurant. Lorenzo Fertitta, co-owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championships with brother Frank, met with Noboyuki Sakakibara, the president of Pride FC, to discuss the future of their sport. The fruits of that discussion ripened into the biggest shift in MMA history this week when the Fertittas bought Pride to create a virtual MMA empire.

Seemingly more popular by the day, the UFC is the unquestioned king of American MMA. Pride had once been the world's top MMA organization, drawing more than 90,000 fans to an event in 2002. But the organization lost its television deal in 2006 and suffered a string of bad luck to set the stage for the purchase.

Now the MMA world is abuzz with possibilities. Large media outlets covered the merger. UFC president Dana White is promising an annual "Super Bowl" of MMA that will bring together champions from both organizations. Such an event could finally bring the coverage from ESPN, which White covets.

Other than the annual MMA megafight, the organizations will continue to operate independently under separate brands. "The UFC is American-centric and Pride is Japan-centric and we will keep it that way," Lorenzo Fertitta said.

Each federation also is expanding. The UFC is making a European push, holding an event next month in England. Pride is expected to make forays into China.

Pride fights will have some rule changes to comply with the UFC. But Pride will continue to fight in a ring with ropes. UFC will continue to use its trademarked Octagon.

UFC-Pride is a dream come true for fans, who have long filled the Internet with dream match-ups they believed they would never see. Now those fights will happen. Plus, Pride will benefit from the UFC marketing machine in America.

The UFC and Pride tried to come together last July, with White even announcing an upcoming fight between UFC champion Chuck Liddell and then-Pride champion Wanderlei Silva during UFC 61. But the fight never happened. "I'll never do that again," White said. "We thought it was going to happen and Wanderlei was there, so the timing seemed right."

Fertitta said Pride will retain heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, widely considered the best fighter in the world. Emelianenko is currently on a one-fight contract with BodogFight.

Fighters just lost a lot of leverage. It would be hard to imagine the UFC and Pride bidding against each other at this point. For fighters already tied up in other organizations, the merger likely has little impact. When the news broke Monday, members of the IFL's Portland Wolfpack reacted with simple curiosity. However, for high-ranked free agents like Matt Lindland, their ability to find big pay days got more difficult.

"The big name fighters lose some of their market power," IFL president Gareb Shamus said. "They lose that competition on the dollar."

In January, The Oregonian reported the UFC was on the a path of major acquisitions. Now, after buying its top rival, it may level its focus on others like EliteXC. But despite UFC's trend of absorbing its competition, some organizations are pleased with the merger.

"Anything that puts MMA in the spotlight is good for us," Shamus said. "It just raises the profile. There are a dozen football games on every Sunday, and no one says there's too much football. People love fighting. We haven't scratched the surface of what the public wants to see."

With its team concept, the IFL seems least similar to the UFC. It also has a television deal and a two-hour show on Fox every Monday. "We're doing UFC ratings on Fox," Shamus said. "IFL Battleground drew a 0.7 nationally. UFC Unleashed drew a 0.8 on Spike."

INTERNET FIGHTS: As detailed last week in this space, will be streaming the ICON Sport "Epic" card out of Hawaii on Saturday. The card is headlined by Frank Trigg vs. Robbie Lawler for the ICON middleweight belt. It is believed to be the first free live stream of a title match. For more information, check


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