Tuesday, March 20, 2007

World Extreme Cagefighting looks for younger edgier MMA crowd

By Neil Davidson

(CP) - Younger, faster and edgier.

That could be the slogan of the World Extreme Cagefighting circuit as it bids to build its brand under the new ownership of Zuffa Inc., which runs the UFC. Looking to expand its foothold in mixed martial arts, Zuffa bought WEC in November. Despite the shared parent, the circuit is being billed as a totally separate entity from the highly successful Las Vegas-based UFC which has already achieved heavyweight status with tentacles reaching across the Atlantic and plans to go to Canada and Mexico.

UFC president Dana White regularly says, only half-jokingly, that he has world domination on his mind. He has already bought out the rival World Fighting Alliance, stripping the organization of its marquee fighters. There are rumours he plans to buy Pride Fighting Championships and pick clean his Japanese rival as well.

But there is more than one way to build a business.

Honda may make a great car, but it's not about to restrict itself to one model. It's the same for the UFC, which is looking for another vehicle to showcase the booming combat sport of mixed martial arts.

The plan for the WEC is go after the younger end of the MMA 18-to-35 demographic.

Live shows feature a DJ playing music between fights. And the beat could be just as fast inside the cage.

The WEC has no heavyweight division, but has all the other classes and showcases the bantamweight (135 pounds) and featherweight (145 pounds) divisions that the UFC does not have. The lighter fighters tend to be the Energizer Bunnies of MMA. And their action is intensified in a WEC cage that is more intimate than its UFC equivalent - 25 feet across compared to 30.

Founded in 2001, WEC put on 24 cards prior to the Zuffa purchase. No. 25 was in January, with the new ownership shifting the venue from California to Las Vegas and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The next is Saturday, again at the Hard Rock with Canadian John (The Natural) Alessio taking on Carlos Condit for the vacant WEC welterweight crown in one of three title fights on the card.

Short of taking in the live shows, MMA fans will have to wait until June to see the new-look WEC for themselves on the U.S. cable network Versus. And Canadians may have to wait even longer - the current TV deal with Versus is only in the U.S. although WEC is talking with potential Canadian carriers.

Zuffa, which bought the UFC in 2001, knows it takes time and money to build a brand. The Versus deal is a major part of that WEC rebranding.

"WEC was a great product. It's one of the reasons we bought it," said Peter Dropick, a former Arrowhead Pond executive who was brought in as the new WEC's vice-president of operations and production.

"But I think they worked within their means. They didn't necessarily have the resources, staff or finances to grow it outside of what they had. We're really making changes to the overall business operations. And the biggest change was securing a national cable network with Versus."

WEC had been on HDNet, the network co-founded by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Dropick estimates it reached maybe five million homes, compared to 71 million for Versus - the NHL's TV network in the U.S.

The UFC's current cable deal is with Spike TV, which boasts 91 million households. While pay-per-view shows may feature the marquee fights, the UFC has artfully used Spike to showcase its product and fighters through magazine shows, live fight nights, highlight programming and the successful Ultimate Fighter reality show.

WEC plans to follow that road map down the line. And Dropick says the current TV interest in MMA is "tremendous."

"It's booming right now. Everyone wants the programming. I think some of these smaller (circuits) will weed themselves out and the right ones will keep rising to the top."

WEC was founded in 2001 by Scott Adams and Reed Harris, who have stayed on after the Zuffa buyout. Adams serves as matchmaker, while Harris is co-general manager.

A friend of Chuck Liddell and fellow former Cal Poly State wrestler, Adams got into the gym business with Liddell after graduating. He also got into fighting (posting a submission win over Ian Freeman at UFC 24 in March 2000).

He moved into training fighters and then promoting them. Now he looks for new talent while helping set the fighting menu for WEC.

WEC currently has some 35 fighters under contract and Adams expects that stable to grow to 40-50 after Saturday's show.

Current WEC champions include bantamweight Eddie Wineland, featherweight Urijah (The California Kid) Faber, lightweight (Razor) Rob McCullough and light-heavyweight Doug (Rhino) Marshall.

And while both WEC and UFC insist they are standalone ventures, some familiar names have featured for both. Joe (Diesel) Riggs has returned to WEC after a string of six fights in the UFC, three of them losses and the last a devastating knockout by Diego (Nightmare) Sanchez. Riggs fought at WEC 9, 12 and 15.

Alessio has also fought in both the UFC and WEC, but now calls WEC home.

"The WEC has always been a good organization," the 170-pounder said in an interview. "They treated me really well before, but now that Zuffa's stepped in it's made it that much better. Everything's run smooth and on time, just like it should.

"The fighters get treated really well. Everything about it makes you proud to be a professional fighter."

Other WEC fighters are on the same page.

Faber has fought in other circuits such as King of the Cage, Gladiator Challenge and even Montreal's TKO but says WEC outshines the competition.

"Oh man, it's night and day," Faber said enthusiastically. "I've competed in organizations all over, about five different organizations, and the WEC is incredible. It's going to be the top organization in the world in my mind within the next year or so."

If Faber, Dropick, Adams and the rest of WEC can outdistance the UFC, they should turn their attentions to world hunger, the Middle East, cancer and the common cold next.

But everyone needs a goal.

"We do have a high bar, they're the best in the business, no questions asked," Dropick said. "It's a high bar but we can get there. We have some of the best talent in the business in terms of fighters as well as our staff - very bright people.

"It'll take some time, it's not going to happen overnight, but we can get there and we'll compete with them absolutely."

The new-look WEC is already ahead of schedule, according to Dropick.

"I think we'll be profitable quicker than we initially thought, if our projections hold true," he said. "There is a business plan in place, we've set all our projections.

"But I think we'll surprise ourselves early on."


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