There's a lot to be happy about if you live and work in the UFC bubble. While television ratings are down, pay per view revenue is at an all-time high, despite many fans facing uncertain economic times. Two of the biggest and best draws in the sport's history sit atop their respective divisions. On top of a third division is, perhaps, the best fighter the sport has ever seen. But besides a bad flop of cards at the poker table, there is one set of circumstances that must give UFC President Dana White nightmares. Imagine, if you will, this very scary scenario - downright frightening if you are making a living with Zuffa:
1. Cain Velasquez beats Brock Lesnar later this month: The UFC is promoting the possibility of crowning the first Mexican heavyweight champion in combat sports history. Never mind that Velasquez was born and raised in the United States. They are hoping it's a moot point. Lesnar has single handedly led a record setting boom in business, raising the sport up on his massive shoulders and then propelling it forward with the force of his personality and incredible physical charisma. Lesnar losing in anything less than a spectacular fight is horrible for the UFC's long-term prognosis.
2. Josh Koscheck beats Georges St. Pierre: Not only has the rematch between Koscheck and the champion St. Pierre pulled two very popular fighters out of the rotation as they film a season of reality television, there is also a very real chance that Koscheck can pull this off. In the first fight, Koscheck didn't respect the Canadian's wrestling nearly enough. He was confident that his pedigree and years of training would make him immune to the takedown. That, as we saw, wasn't the case. This time, Koscheck will focus on his strengths and we may see the champion flounder on his back. Three years have passed since the two first did battle. That's three years of marked improvement by a former NCAA wrestling champion. Thousands of screaming Montreal fans may be silenced this winter by the fighter with the skill set in place to dethrone the champion.
3. Jon Fitch goes up to 185 and takes the title from Anderson Silva: Jon Fitch has come up just short time and again in the UFC's welterweight division. He's gotten a single opportunity to win the title, a valiant Fight of the Night loss to St. Pierre. Fitch will not fight his teammate Koscheck should Josh take the title from St.Pierre. That means a jump to 185 pounds, a division where the former Purdue standout might actually be better off and better suited to take home UFC gold. Champion Anderson Silva has shown a vulnerability to dominant wrestlers - and if Fitch gets on top he's unlikely to be caught the way Chael Sonnen was. Since his first fight against Mike Pyle, no one has made Fitch tap the mat. Fitch could very easily grind out a win over the more talented Silva and give AKA a triumvirate of champions.
It would be bad enough for three of the sport's most popular and talented champions to lose to less well known challengers. But for them all to be under the American Kickboxing Academy's banner? That would be worst of all. Why? More after the break.
Tito Ortiz has always been a thorn in Dana White's side. The company took Ken Shamrock to court. There's no love lost between Zuffa and former welterweight champion Pat Miletich or former light heavyweight kingpin Frank Shamrock. But the most intense feud inside the MMA business is actually between Zuffa and AKA's management team of DeWayne Zinkin and Bob Cook.
It all started with Sean Sherk. A talented wrestler, Sherk was rewarded for his three UFC wins with a title fight against Matt Hughes at UFC 42. The problem? Sherk's contract expired just a week prior to the bout. The UFC and Sherk's manager Zinkin worked out a deal for a generous raise and the fight was scheduled for April 25, 2003. But Sherk never signed the new contract and Zinkin demanded more and more. He wanted the new contract, that was a given, but he asked for the original payday as well. The UFC was in a bind. Sherk got his money, but at a cost. When he lost the fight to Hughes, he was immediately cut. Out to send a message, the UFC wouldn't employ one of the sport's very best for almost two and a half years.
The resentment was buried under the surface for years as Cook and Zinkin built one of the sport's top teams in San Jose. In addition to the crew in San Jose, Zinkin represents Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, two of the UFC's most popular and influential fighters. Resentment simmered in every negotiation, with some inside Zuffa refusing to speak to Zinkin. Things exploded in 2008 when the UFC pressured fighters to sign over their rights for a video game that would become UFC Undisputed. Many fighters ended up getting $5000 checks for the game, but AKA fighter Jon Fitch was dubious about signing away his likeness for next to nothing. White exploded:
"We're looking for guys who want to work with us and not against us, and frankly I'm just so [expletive] sick of this [expletive] it's not even funny," White said from Honolulu, where he flew Wednesday from Toronto to hold a news conference to announce the B.J. Penn-Georges St. Pierre fight for UFC 94 on Jan. 31 in Las Vegas.
"Affliction is still out there trying to build its company. Let [Fitch] go work with them. Let him see what he thinks of those [expletives]. [Expletive] him. These guys aren't partners with us. [Expletive] them. All of them, every last [expletive] one of them."
The situation escalated to the point that White was willing to cut all of the AKA fighters, including rising star Cain Velasquez. AKA fighters had previously angered White when they rejected another business proposal that they saw as not in their best interest. Sam Caplan had some of the details at Five Ounces of Pain:
In the past, the UFC also tried to encourage its fighters to sign a marketing deal that would award the company with all rights to fighter likenesses. The complaint from many managers was that the deal offered limited returns in exchange for lifetime rights and that the managers themselves could be cut out of the deal. The goal of the UFC apparently was to get all the fighters to sign everything over and then a portion of all the income earned from licensing deals would be distributed through a monthly check that would go straight to the fighters. It was a deal that few in the industry felt was fair.
Cook and Zinkin called him on his bluff and were willing to walk away as a group and take their chances elsewhere. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and AKA was back in the fold. But the relationship is tenuous at best. Now imagine Zinkin's crew holding not one, but multiple UFC title belts. Their collective bargaining power, even if they only win two championships, would be staggering - and they've shown a willingness to take on the machine. For Dana White, it's the stuff nightmares are made of.