Reed Harris never intended to become a mixed martial arts promoter, but they say life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. A real estate developer and tae kwon do black belt, Harris likes to say his primary goal as a martial artist was simply to be the toughest dad at Cub Scouts. But it turns out he was also the only martial artist one of his wife's relatives knew, a relative who just happened to be the head of marketing at the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino. The Casino was looking to run quarterly MMA shows - and Harris knew just the guy to help.
Scott Adams was the submission grappling instructor at SLO Kickboxing, Harris's training grounds in San Luis Obispo, California. Adams was a bit of a local legend - undefeated in mixed martial arts his leg locks were rumored to be the best in the world. He proved it once on the big stage, submitting Ian Freeman at UFC 24 with one of his patented hold, then faded into the background. He kept an active hand in the game though, training guys like Chuck Liddell, and Harris thought this was an opportunity they could take advantage of together. Liddell was supposed to be the third partner and the promotion's main event star. But right before the first event the phone rang for him to fight Kevin Randleman in the UFC. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Liddell was out. The first show was instead main evented by road warriors Dan Severn and Travis Fulton.
The WEC has often been mislabeled as a regional promotion. They were never that, unless by region you mean the area immediately surrounding the Tachi Palace. They were a house promotion, much like the Maximum Fighting Championship has been for the River Cree Resort and Casino in Canada. For five years, it was slow and steady, running a string of successful shows at the Casino using the abundant local talent in California. Harris ran down some of the names in a recent interview at UFC.com:
Urijah Faber. Shane Carwin, he seemed so powerful. I knew when I met him. Nick and Nate Diaz. Gan McGee, I thought he would end up being champ but he didn’t. I mean, he destroyed Seth Petruzelli and Ron Faircloth. Listen, this is a good story: I went to Ron Faircloth the day after he fought Gan McGee. Gan McGee hit him so hard that Ron … I go up to Ron Faircloth the next day and I said, ‘What was your strategy?’ And he said, ‘I remember getting to the parking lot of the venue. That’s the last thing I remember.’" I was like damn!
There were other guys like Glover Texeira, Joe Riggs and Jorge Oliveira. These are all guys that I thought had a lot of talent.
They had stretched early on, looking to make it big in the pre-Ultimate Fighter era, running the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut with headliner Jeremy Horn. They only sold 3200 tickets for the bout and quickly scuttled back to the safety of the Palace, lessons definitely learned. Except for a single excursion to another local casino, the promotion was homebound until it was acquired by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, in 2006.
It was a strange time in the business and the UFC was looking to put a stranglehold on their position as the industry's top brand. PRIDE and the IFL were the competitors du jour and UFC management thought it paramount to keep both promotions from acquiring a significant television deal. The best way, they thought at the time, to keep that from happening was to insert another group in their stead. They acquired two promotions in the same month, the WFA and the WEC. WFA fighters were folded into the UFC - but because they had run their own show so successfully, Harris and Adams were tasked with keeping the WEC alive. A deal was struck with the Versus Network and the promotion was off and running.
Hardcore fans were immediately in love. Adams knew MMA talent and had a gift for finding exciting matchups. Soon some fans were telling everyone who would listen that the WEC was not only worth watching - the events were actually more exciting than their UFC counterparts. Harris told the Bleacher Report's Brian Oswald that response like that was an amazing energy boost in those early days under the Zuffa umbrella:
It is a real compliment. Whenever anyone even compares us to the UFC I feel complimented. The fact that we did a different color scheme when we revamped the company, the fact that we went with a smaller cage (26 feet vs. 30 feet) helped push the action, and the fact that early on we decided to focus on the smaller divisions and not just be a feeder organization to the UFC.
We did not want to live under their shadow, but rather go out on our own. Establish our own market and establish our own fans. There are enough fans out there for both of us. It’s like with college football and the NFL. Most of those fans are interchangeable and then you have fans that just watch one or the other.
Expectations were enormously high and the promotion delivered in a big way at WEC 34. Co-founder Scott Adams was ecstatic about the main event of Urijah Faber and Jens Pulver. The sky seemed like the limit for the promotion when the bout attracted more than a million viewers on Versus.
"Being acquired by Zuffa, we have the backbone now to be able to grow so much," Adams told flowrestling. His gameplan as matchmaker was simple."... Putting together really exciting, evenly matched fights. We're booking the best MMA fighters on the planet, selling out arenas, and as we grow our PR department gets them everywhere. I think that is what is going to help us grow and the athletes are actually going to grow with us."
More on the WEC story after the break
For Adams, the WEC experience was mostly in the rear view mirror. UFC Vice President Joe Silva and President Dana White thought it was important for the WEC to be a distinct entity, something that didn't look like a junior version of the UFC, like a kid playing dress up in dad's suit. The idea was to focus the promotion in like a laser on the lighter weight classes the UFC didn't promote. To run this new look promotion, long time Zuffa employee Sean Shelby was inserted as matchmaker. Adams, the company's co-founder, was out. The change was incredibly controversial within the company, but in the end, even Harris admitted to me in an interview for Heavy.com that it was for the smart play:
When we decided to focus on the lighter weights we knew we had our work cut out for us. But if you look at boxing for example, it took many yeas, but now the lightweight guys are the guys everybody is interested in. If you look at the time frame, I only started really focusing on the light weights about eight months ago. Now look where we are at. Everyone in the MMA industry says the best lightweights in the world fight for WEC. I get calls from across the world, from Japan, from Korea, from Brazil, with coaches saying ‘I’ve got lightweight fighters we want to bring into the WEC, because these guys want to fight the best.’ It used to be the other way around. We used to have to chase after them.
I think in the next year you’re going to see a lot of things happening in the WEC. We’ve got a new deal with Versus. We’re going to go to the PPV model. We’re going to possibly go to Mexico and Canada and expand internationally. We’re going to do more shows. I’m looking forward to next year. You’re going to see alot of things happen with the WEC and I think that we are starting to step out of the shadow of the UFC. They are our parent company and they cast a big shadow. I think going to the lighter fighters, which was something Dana (White) wanted us to do and, by the way, I didn’t want to do. Now I look back and I’m really glad we did that.
Unfortunately for fans, while the WEC was a tremendous artistic success, it never made its mark at the box office. The promotion's first event on Versus, WEC 28, drew 416,000 viewers. That number has stayed pretty static throughout the organization's history. The WEC averages less than 500,000 viewers for events not headlined by their lone break out performer Urijah Faber, a star who more than doubles a shows ratings by his mere presence.
In the end, the WEC is perhaps a noble failure, a promotion that always provided exciting action and created a number of fan favorites like Faber, Miguel Torres, and Jose Aldo. But without the UFC name attached to these superlative athletes, it was hard to gain traction in a market place that may not have room for more than one major player. The WEC was a success, but ultimately limited the potential of some of these tremendous fighters. That's why the promotion is finally being put on mothballs, gone but never forgotten. Harris and company are proud of all they accomplished - and rightfully so. He tells MMA Weekly it was quite a ride:
"To be honest, today, I’m really proud of what we did, man. And Dana’s proud of what we did. We were so successful that the UFC had no other option than to bring these guys in and put them in their show," he said.
"The UFC is obviously by miles the largest MMA organization in the world. The WEC built these divisions to a point where they are now going to be featured on the largest stage in MMA. Dana and Lorenzo and Frank are obviously extremely happy about what we were doing. This was a huge success."