Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Want a piece of this? Maloofs do

By Melody Gutierrez

Ultimate Fighting Championship owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta used to spend as much effort marketing their mixed martial arts events as they did defending them against critics of their brutality.

Now, Joe and Gavin Maloof and entertainment moguls worldwide are lining up to host UFC events because they sell out quickly to the coveted age-18-to- 34 male demographic and rank as top-grossing events for the venues that land them.

"It's one of the hottest events out there," Joe Maloof said.

Make way, baby boomers and preceding generations who worshipped the prowess of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Oscar de la Hoya. UFC's battle-scarred champs -- Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, to name a few -- along with their fans have put a choke-hold on boxing as the pugilistic programming of choice on pay-per-view TV.

"People were closet UFC fans because they were afraid of being called barbaric," said 29-year-old Nick Coldwell, a Lincoln resident. "I think it may just be a generational gap. People who are 35 and younger seem to be more accepting."

With the Fertittas at the helm, mixed martial arts has emerged from the alleys, and the brothers intend to remain on top. UFC's majority owners announced Tuesday that they have acquired their largest competitor, Japan's PRIDE Fighting Championships.

"The future of mixed martial arts, because of this combination, is going to be brighter," said Lorenzo Fertitta in a teleconference from Tokyo. "It gives us a true global platform."

UFC President Dana White said the two organizations will be run separately, although there will be "megafights" pitting UFC's best against PRIDE champions.

"It will be the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts," White said. "We can line up all the best guys in each weight class."

Financial details of the PRIDE acquisition were not disclosed, but an individual familiar with the negotiations told the Associated Press that the purchase price was less than $70 million.

Although UFC does not release finances, reports have estimated that it generated $200 million in retail revenue for its 10 pay-per-view events in 2006.

Those numbers appeal to advertisers looking to reach a demographic that has proved elusive. World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., by comparison, had 16 events before grossing $200 million. Boxing-titan HBO reported it earned $177 million for 11 events.

Mixed martial arts -- a hybrid of jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling -- hasn't always held such appeal. In the late 1990s, Arizona Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., launched a campaign against mixed martial arts, calling it "human cock-fighting." The UFC has pushed to clean up the sport, banning eye-gouging, head-butting and groin strikes.

In the six years since buying UFC, the Fertittas have gone from eight-figure deficits to skyrocketing popularity following the debut of the reality show "The Ultimate Fighter" on Spike TV in 2005. The show's average audience grew to nearly 2 million over its 13-week run, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That show, which is heading into its fifth season, launched the career of Sacramento fighter Scott Smith. Stockton's Nate Diaz is a cast member of "Ultimate Fighter 5," which premieres April 5.

The capital region showed its affinity for the sport in November at "UFC 65: Bad Intentions," selling out the Arco Arena event.

"It was one of the single highest-grossing events we've ever had," Joe Maloof said.

Until December 2005, mixed martial arts events were not sanctioned in California and were relegated to Indian land. Last year, 48 mixed martial arts events were held in California, said Armando Garcia, executive officer of the California Athletic Commission Program. This year is off to a similar start, he said.

"California is basically a mecca for MMA right now," Garcia said.

UFC fan Dawnn Warner, who typically buys four to six pay-per-view fights a year, said she likes the idea of pitting UFC title winners against PRIDE champs.

"The UFC Super Bowl? Yeah, I'd watch it," said Warner, 38, of Grass Valley. "With (UFC buying PRIDE), it's going to get much bigger."

PRIDE got its start in 1997 and has drawn the largest mixed martial arts crowds, including a record attendance of 91,107 in 2002. The organization first came to the United States last year and plans to return.

PRIDE's downfall came when major sponsor Fuji Television Network Inc. dropped its financial backing in June after a tabloid linked the organization to the Japanese mob. PRIDE's former majority owner Nobuyuki Sakakibara denied the allegations. He resigned with the UFC purchase.

The PRIDE acquisition is the latest purchase for the Fertitta brothers, who bought World Extreme Cagefighting and World Fighting Alliance last year.

"This is a history-making event," said Lorenzo Fertitta, who with his brother Frank runs Station Casinos Inc. in Las Vegas. "We will be putting on events that will blow people's minds."


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