Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ultimate PRIDE?

By Jake Rossen

"We're going to get everybody" was the prototypical restraint on display from UFC President Dana White in response to constant badgering from the media about his plans for 2007.

The phrase has taken on greater meaning as the biggest combat news story of the year continues to evolve: the acquisition of the PRIDE brand by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

White's proclamation is only partially true: if "we" is to indicate the Zuffa regime, then he was slightly off base. PRIDE's assets would technically fall under the ledgers of the casino magnate brothers, not the UFC's parent company. Through the eyes of fans, it's little more than a technicality. The ceaseless rivalry between the two cornerstone brands — largely an invention of an ornery fan base — is over. And the UFC, long thought to be the boorish middle class of the various promotions, has logged the kill shot.

Ending Dream Stage Entertainment's control over PRIDE has immediate and far-reaching effects for the UFC, which has struggled in recent months to provide soluble contenders for the touted light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions.

While mainstream observers seemed satisfied with the influx of rematches and ill-prepared contenders, there was an undercurrent of grousing from fans that were aware of how fractured the "world title" picture truly was.

The UFC has made no secret of its plans for world domination, Doctor Evil-style. They've opened offices in the UK and continue to pursue ground in Mexico and other starving markets. Asian countries are certainly on the docket, and going in with a brand as established and engrained as PRIDE gives them tremendous footing in what has to be considered a risky expansion. Japan is, after all, a culture with wildly different tastes and traditions. The template laid out by DSE is invaluable, one that its operators would have difficulty replicating.

Strange, that the Fertittas' adoption of the decaying franchise mirrors their salvation of the UFC in 2001. Like DSE, Bob Meyrowitz and his staff at SEG were embroiled in political persecution and unable to carry the brand any further. Like DSE, they were viewed as damaged goods that nonetheless had crucial real estate in the public consciousness.

And like DSE, their wares had gone from the spectacular to the regular employment of turgid attractions.

In SEG's case, the high tide came when Meyrowitz found himself in the middle of a perfect storm of contempt for his product: boring main events had gutted his audience, and cable operators — no longer enticed by record business — bowed to pressure from astonished politicians and cranky company counsel. For DSE, the end came when their broadcast sponsor, FujiTV, abruptly terminated their relationship amid public accusations that the Japanese mafia exerted influence over their business.

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