UFC vs K-1/DREAM: Maybe It's Not Such a Small World After All

Is this a card that will make British fans come out of the wood work?

Earlier this week, I laid out a pretty dramatic picture of war between two relatively well-financed players to control the burgeoning world MMA/combat sports market. Maybe I was too hasty.

MMA Payout opines:

It remains to be seen exactly what UFC 120 is going to look like, but it appears as though the UFC will rely on a bevy of British fighters to anchor yet another UK card without a title fight. The UK has not hosted a title bout since January 2008 when BJ Penn defeated Joe Stevenson at UFC 80.

The UFC cannot afford to bring a title fight to the UK every time it visits, but it must be careful not to treat the market as an after-thought. The company has devoted a lot of time and money into developing the UK and it must continue to serve the fan base with appealing fights with beyond the likes of British fighters like Bisping and Hardy or UFC legends like Matt Hughes and Randy Couture.

I tend to sympathize with Zelaznik and the UFC in regards to scheduling and timing, because if a few fights go the other way, they're probably bringing two title fights to the UK in 2010. Just think about what could have happened had Bisping won at UFC 100, Hardy won at UFC 111, or the UFC had not suffered a host of injuries near the end of 2009 that put pressure on the company to re-establish some momentum in North America in 2010.

Yet, I also tend to think this entire situation exemplifies why rapid expansion is so difficult: the UFC has a limited number of resources and can't possibly give each market the attention it deserves. The fans in the UK want a title fight, but so do the fans in Canada, Germany, Australia, and every other place the UFC visits.

Not only are they not bringing title fights to the U.K., they haven't even been there so far this year after coming to Britain twice a year for the past couple of years.

UFC UK boss Marshall Zelaznik has a plan to rectify the situation, per ESPN:

"We're working towards bringing together a series of UK and European Fight Nights. My hope is that, come October, we'll be able to put some real heat on this. Talks are underway," he told ESPN.co.uk.

"My hope is that it will provide four to six guaranteed UFC events in the UK next year. We're hoping to hold one more European event [in addition to UFC 120] before the end of the year, and then we'll get these extra nights planned for next year.

"We'd like to come to Liverpool, Scotland, Newcastle, Birmingham, these places provide 10,000-seaters which will be great for Fight Nights."

For all of the big talk about an international world MMA war between UFC and FEG (parent of K-1 and DREAM), the reality is far less expansive. It took Zuffa four years to establish the UFC in the U.S. In three years they've established a beachhead in Britain but are struggling to consolidate their hold. They're still fighting an uphill battle with regulators in Canada. Australia is so far, so good, but such a small market, it's a "so what?" They appear to be headed back to Germany for a second event, but time will tell if that will prove to be a mistake or not as the backlash against MMA is building in that country.

So that's the Zuffa side of things. Not bad, but certainly not quite as swashbuckling as Dana "White would have fans believe.

Let's talk more about DREAM/K-1 in the full entry:

Zach Arnold pours even more cold water on the idea that FEG is doing anything but dying on the vine

In this case, with K-1's new deal with PUJI, it's hard to see how it will increase K-1's chances of running a show on the mainland. It has been everyone's dream -- from WWE to UFC to K-1 (who was first) to run in China, but it has not been allowed because the Government and politicians have said no to it. It's hard to believe that money from PUJI Capital will make things any more positive for shows on the mainland.

What it does open up is the opportunity to finance shows in Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and perhaps Australia. The end game for Kazuyoshi Ishii, the Godfather of K-1, is to have someone else promote shows throughout the world and then let K-1 collect the rights fees from the broadcasts in Japan. In other words, maintain the pipeline to the television system in Japan and keep everyone else out. It makes great sense. However, it makes less sense when you have to promote your own shows and put your own capital to rent out buildings in a market that is decaying, which Japan is right now.


So, the easy solution is to find a money man to finance your shows and just cash in on the easy part. That's what K-1 thinks they have gotten here. In a sense, I understand it. Singapore's MMA scene is starting to grow via the casino world on ESPN STAR telecasts. Plus, Singapore has a big Indoor Stadium that could host a K-1/DREAM mixed event just fine. Hong Kong is also a natural fit to run shows and draw strong crowds with kickboxing audiences.

All of this sounds great, but here's what it indicates -- the money has dried up in Japan and that means the money has dried up on K-1 domestically.

And that's the cold, hard reality. As much as many American fans have been celebrating the death of Japanese MMA as some sort of victory for the UFC/America, what it really is is a big loss for MMA. For the better part of the last twenty years, the international MMA explosion has been gestated and birthed in Japan.

Japan is where proto-MMA evolved out of pro wrestling. Japan is where huge arenas were first filled with MMA fans. Japan is where international MMA legends like Rickson Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Bas Rutten became stars in the 1990s. And when MMA was driven out of the U.S.,  Japan provided a critical safe-haven that allowed the sport to keep growing. Japan was where MMA experienced its first real boom in the 2000's, propelling Bob Sapp, Genki Sudo and others to levels of celebrity that would still be unbelievable for MMA fighters in the U.S. More importantly, those mega-spectacles financed a generation of great MMA featuring Sakuraba, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, the Nogueiras and Fedor Emelianenko, et al.

While the U.S. market continues to grow, let's not forget that things can change very suddenly in the modern economy. Especially given our utterly irrational and shallow 24/7 media culture. We're one tragic accident or business disaster or embarrassing scandal from collapse at all times so the loss of Japan as a major MMA market is just that, a loss for anyone who loves MMA.

The UFC is very very smart to be thinking ahead and investing in international expansion. Let's just not fool ourselves into thinking it's anything but an uphill climb. 


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