This past Saturday Ariel Helwani sat down with Dana White for an exclusive interview that without question ended up being the biggest news ever heard to date concerning Mixed Martial Arts in North America. In what appeared to be an early April Fools Day prank, Dana revealed that Zuffa had purchased the number two organization in the sport, Strikeforce. At first I thought I misread the title before clicking on the link to the video, then I thought my ears were playing games with me as I heard Dana speak, then reality sunk in, Zuffa had just come as close to holding a monopoly in Mixed Martial Arts as any company ever will.
Many fans when hearing this news had mixed feelings as to how to take the bomb that had just been dropped on them. Over the past year or so as Strikeforce had been building their brand and becoming more mainstream, many fans would always bring up the discussion of 'What if Fighter A was in the UFC?' Certainly after this past Saturday those fans will be pleased but I however am not.
Glimpsing at Zuffa's track record, any promises by Dana that business will go on as usual must be taken with a grain of salt. In 2007 Zuffa purchased Pride Worldwide, arguably the number one organization in the sport depending on who you ask. Following the acquisition of Pride we were told the same line, business would continue as usual. Pride would continue to put on cards and keep chugging along as it had in the past and eventually super fights and co-promoted events between the two companies would be seen. Soon after the plans were announced Dana White changed his tune and stated that Pride would no longer be sustainable. While Pride was having issues of its own at the time and you could certainly make the case that it was already on it's path to death prior to the buy-out, Zuffa certainly didn't put it on life support.
Following the acquisition Zuffa would go on to halting operations of the company and closing Pride's doors in Japan. After the closing of Pride many of the organization's stars came over to the UFC giving them most of the sport's biggest names.
Those that didn't make the jump to the UFC during the period of Pride's demise were brought in from other buy-outs such as Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson and Lyoto Machida following the WFA buy-out prior to the Pride purchase; Rampage being formerly of Pride leaving before the buy-out and Machida being an up-and-comer at the time signed to WFA.
As a couple of years passed Zuffa's policies towards fighters strengthened as they attempted to own fighters for life, most notably when AKA had a fall-out with Dana White leading to Jon Fitch essentially being cut from the roster for 24 hours because he didn't want to hand over the rights to his likeness to the UFC. Not only was Zuffa trying to own a fighter's likeness, they also began dipping into their potential sponsorship money by forcing companies to pay them a certain fee to have their logo seen in the Octagon on any given fighter.
Now 'Joe's Crab Shack' based out of Iowa could no longer throw their local boy making his first fight on the undercard any money because of the fees and approval process required by Zuffa to become a sponsor. Slowly sponsors also began to become essentially banned from the UFC. Affliction was given the boot when they decided to go rogue and promote a few cards of their own leaving some very notable names in the sport like GSP without one of their biggest sponsors on their person during their walkout. Clinch Gear was banned for personal reasons between Dana White and Dan Henderson after he failed to re-sign with the UFC to move over to Strikeforce. RVCA was banned leaving BJ Penn without his biggest sponsor simply because RVCA sponsors Fedor and Dana couldn't make a deal happen with the Russians. Booyaa Fightwear was banned because they had ties to King Of The Cage; a smaller organization that in no way shape or form could be seen as competition to the UFC. The list goes on.
As the UFC became the place to make your name known in the sport the lengths one would have to go to feed their family became harder and harder. With their grip steadily strengthening on the sport Zuffa fully realized that they could get away with whatever they wanted because in order to really make it in MMA you needed to fight for them and no-one else. Other organizations had attempted to compete with the UFC but because of failed business models or success leading to buy-outs, the distance between the number one and number two promotions lengthened.
One company that tried to capitalize on the success of MMA and fill the void between the UFC and smaller organizations was ProElite's EliteXC. EliteXC became the first organization to be able to strike a deal with a premium cable network to air live events nationwide but due to a flawed business plan ProElite fell quickly and their partner Showtime was left needing another entity to supply them with MMA. With Showtime being unable to see eye to eye with Dana White, their next move was put in motion to bring in Scott Coker and his organization named Strikeforce along for the premium cable ride.
Strikeforce was able to do what both Affliction and ProElite weren't, sustain itself. Strikeforce realized that the business model of hiring a huge staff and spending tons of money on ex-UFC talent was not the way to build a business. Unlike boxing, MMA is carried along by the brand, not the fighter. While fighters are the backbone of any organization, the majority of success an MMA organization is able to achieve is built from the brand itself. People might not know what MMA is, but they know what the UFC is. Strikeforce was able to bring in a small business team and slowly build their brand based around home grown talent as well as already proven athletes that the UFC had failed to sign, thus creating a stable of fighters that the public had gradually became familiar with over time. This model proved to be a success and Strikeforce was on it's way to becoming a powerhouse in a sport where only one top dog had ever existed stateside.
As Strikeforce began to increase in popularity fans and media outlets alike began to take a closer look at Strikeforce and the business model that they employed in terms of dealing with their athletes. After viewing both the UFC's and Strikeforce's ways of going about business with their employees it seems rather clear that Strikeforce was the brand that stood out in terms of rights given to fighters as well as leniency. One of the key points that sticks out like a sore thumb is sponsorship. While the UFC will nit pick anything sponsorship related with a fine-toothed comb Strikeforce was willing to allow fighters to be sponsored by basically whoever they could get sponsored by. Strikeforce also didn't ask for any of the fighter's potential sponsorship money for themselves. They did business like business should be done.
Another example of the wrong way to do business was seen in the differences between the two companies video games, UFC Undisputed and EA MMA, and their stance on compensation to fighters in the game. While notable names didn't get paid to be in UFC Undisputed, every fighter that was in EA MMA was paid at least some amount. When Chael Sonnen, Dan Hardy and Jon Fitch had been asked if they got paid for being in UFC Undisputed during a live Ustream Q&A session prior to UFC 115 they stated that they didn't.. How is it that the UFC/THQ has no money to pay these guys for being in their video game but Strikeforce/EA can somehow pay all fighters to be in theirs? There's no answer for that, it's just another example of distasteful strong-arm tactics.
Fighter pay in general seems to be the biggest issue that people are upset with. While it's hard to compare Strikeforce's salaries to the UFC's due to the respective size of both companies and how vastly different they are, it seems that compared to what Strikeforce pays for it's size that the UFC could do better. Unestablished and unproven fighters can walk away from their first few fights in the UFC without hitting five digits. The wiggle room concerning pay in the UFC for these types of athletes is little as well as the pay itself. While a major portion of this should be put on the shoulders of the fighter's agent an agent can only do so much at the negotiations table when attempting to get a fair price for their client.
People favoring the UFC seem to give them a pass on this stating that the money is spent on other things like promoting the brand and that they're paying the fighters what they can or what they're worth while they build the brand at the same time. If that's the case where did the UFC come up with the rumored 40 million dollars needed to buy an organization like Strikeforce? They're making plenty of money, they just don't want you to know about it.
After speaking with a newly signed Strikeforce fighter who had both discussions with the UFC and Strikeforce I got the impression that pay was a leading role in determining who the fighter would go on to sign with. Ultimately he chose to sign with Strikeforce. While I'm not saying that in every case or even in most cases Strikeforce will pay newly signed fighters that show promise more money, it does lead you to believe that in some cases they do. Without their being two separate major entities these types of fighters won't have the option to entertain offers from two viable companies, thus having a better chance at making more bank out of the gate.
Overall I get the impression that if you show the ability to be successful then Strikeforce would be willing to give you the extra money that you needed to make the decision to fight for them easier whereas the UFC typically has more of a prove yourself later, take the base pay now stance on the situation. The stance that they hold seems to work for their business but for the fighters that only have fighting as their sole source of income it would be nice to see them offered more money out of the gate. Two major players in the game allows that to be available. Organizations like Bellator and the MFC can help fill that void but it's unrealistic to think that the loss of Strikeforce as it's own company doesn't have an impact when negotiating with such a large company such as Zuffa.
Now that the UFC has bought out Strikeforce the luxuries that I have just mentioned have more than likely not only lessened, they've probably ended up coming more strict than they once were. With Strikeforce out of the picture there is no other major MMA promotion in the states left other than the UFC to negotiate with. This means that Zuffa can now basically do what they want and get away with it. Fighters will no longer be able to make it to the big show without allowing the UFC to have rights to their likeness, settle for sponsors that pay the UFC, and negotiate their starting base pay due to their being no other place to go if the criteria they want met doesn't get met by the UFC. Once again to reiterate, I don't look at Bellator as being a massive player just yet. Potentially yes, but not at this point.
Monopolies are able to control the market and play by the rules that they set in place favoring them and only them. Only time will tell if this buy-out is indeed bad for the sport, but as a fan that has the fighters' best interest in mind over the organizations I can't help but think that this will lead to nothing but road blocks as far as greater fairness towards fighters is concerned.