Saturday, March 24, 2007

PRIDE-UFC Crossover: Pieces Falling Into Place

With discussion running rampant in the mixed martial arts community about the impending sale of PRIDE FC to Zuffa owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and with all clues pointing to an agreement that gives Zuffa partial to total control over PRIDE, many fans are still left wondering about the future of the Japanese promotion and many of its top fighters.

Will PRIDE still run shows? What about their champions or regular fighters? And what about those plans for the upcoming lightweight grand prix?

Sources close to both the Chute Boxe and Brazilian Top Team camps in Japan and Brazil have indicated to that current PRIDE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara was recently in Brazil to meet with representatives from the two Brazilian powerhouse gyms in an attempt to sign their stars to new deals with the Japanese promotion.

Fighters like Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua and Ricardo Arona were, since 2006, under seven-fight contracts with the Japanese promotion, including three fights in PRIDE's upcoming middleweight tournament to be held this year.

When the promotion was rocked courtesy of Japanese tabloid Shukan Gendai, which launched a negative campaign against Dream Stage Entertainment and PRIDE back in 2006 regarding an alleged yakuza scandal, DSE took a big sponsor hit when Fuji TV decided to cut any ties with the MMA promotion.

Sakakibara and Co. were forced to renegotiate new contracts with many of the top stars because those signed in 2006 had already lost their value due to PRIDE's sudden shift in direction.

In Curitiba, home of the Chute Boxe squad, Sakakibara met with Chute Boxe leader Rudimar Fredigo as well as Brazilian stars Wanderlei Silva and "Shogun" Rua to secure their services for the upcoming PRIDE and UFC merge.

We learned that Chute Boxe's bomber "Shogun" Rua has signed a new four-fight deal with PRIDE that includes an interesting twist: two fights in the PRIDE ring and two fights inside the UFC ‘s Octagon.

While we don't know all the details about specific dates or money purses, we understand that "Shogun" Rua's new contract guarantees the Brazilian double what he previously made with the Japanese promotion, which should put the total value of the deal around $1 million.

Also his two fights with PRIDE are going to be held this year, with one fight secure for the end of the year in PRIDE New Year's Eve Otoko Matsuri extravaganza.

On the other side, ex-PRIDE 205-pound champion Wanderlei Silva didn't reach an agreement with DSE about his future with the company because the Japanese promotion was offering a substantive pay cut, around 30 percent less from what he was previously making.

According to a source, Silva was looking to sign a contract that included a share of pay-per-view sales, similar to what other already-established UFC fighters like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture have been guaranteed in the past. But this attempt was met with negative responses from the promotion.

After visiting Southern Brazil, Sakakibara and Co. attended meetings in Rio de Janeiro with representatives from Brazilian Top Team.

Once in Rio, we learned that Sakakibara, on behalf of PRIDE and UFC, signed BTT grappler Ricardo Arona to a four-fight deal as well. While details from Sakakibara's meeting with BTT and contract specification with Arona remain unclear, it's important to mention he was likely offered a contract that reflected the same parameters as the deal signed by "Shogun" Rua, including possible cross promotion fights inside the Octagon.

The fate of other Brazilian Top Team members with the new PRIDE-UFC partnership still remains unclear.

Murilo Bustamante is scheduled to participate in the main event of the upcoming DEEP 29th Impact in Tokyo against Ryuta Sakurai in a rematch from PRIDE Bushido 6. Another BTT member, Edson Drago, is rumored to participate in the same card as well against Wes Sims.

Meanwhile, Paulo Filho recently did an interview with Brazilian magazine Tatame where he stated that PRIDE was basically done, going as far as to said that he was looking forward to fight in U.S. soil soon. Filho's current contract with PRIDE ends in May, making the Brazilian fighter a potential free agent soon.

As for brothers Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, their future with PRIDE or any attempts to land in UFC remain uncertain.

As for details regarding the future of PRIDE as a promotion, has been told PRIDE will continue to run its regular series of shows in Japan as scheduled, just under Zuffa management.

As previously reported by Dave Meltzer, Sakakibara will step down from his position while securing that regular members and staff from DSE will remain.

Though specific details about the deal between the Fertittas and Sakakibara have yet to surface, we learned that other major players in the MMA business were on the last minute run to purchase PRIDE, including ProElite and K-1. But in the last minute both offers were rejected by Sakakibara and DSE, choosing instead to go with the Fertittas.

This prompted both ProElite and K-1's MMA brand HERO'S to join forces in order to combat the Las Vegas-based owners of Zuffa, which promotes both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and WEC.

Also, at this moment it seems the only difference between the relationship with UFC and WEC and the future relationship of UFC and PRIDE is that fans will be rewarded with more cross-promotional matches between fighters from both organizations.

All of this paired with past conflicts between the promoters about the exchange of fighters leads us to believe that any future cross-promotional fights will be held on American soil under the UFC banner.

Concerning the upcoming May 22 PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix, Sakakibara told the Japanese media: "It's an immense task to narrow it down to 16 fighters, but I want to gather members who show no inferiority to decide the world's best fighter."

As for rumors, some of the fighters mentioned to participate are Hayato Sakurai, Sami Berik, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Marcus Aurelio, Shinya Aoki, Takanori Gomi, Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, Luiz Azeredo, David Bielkheden, Fabricio Monteiro, David Baron, Luiz Firmino, Milton Vieira, Luciano Azevedo and Cristiano Marcello.

We still don't know what role Zuffa is going to play in the upcoming tournament, future PRIDE matchmaking or who is going to be in charge of DSE now that Nobuyuki Sakakibara is stepping down, but this and many other questions will be probably answered next week when Sakakibara and DSE are scheduled to hold a press conference regarding the upcoming PRIDE 34 show and the future of the company.

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