It was a shabby end for a fighting promotion so beloved by so many across the globe. Once known for pomp and pageantry, Pride Fighting was also known for putting the best fighters in the world in the ring. By Pride 34, that element was long gone. Instead of Fedor Emelianenko or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, the main event was Jeff Monson against Kazayuki Fujita. The shadow of death lingered above the promotion. A month later the sale to UFC parent company Zuffa was official.
Despite promises of super fights and an independantly operating Pride promotion in Japan, the company never held another show. The fighter contracts were transfered over to the UFC. A new day had dawned in mixed martial arts. And Fedor Emelianenko, the Pride heavyweight champion, widely considered the best fighter in the world, was in the catbird seat.
"The purchase took place around the same time that Fedor's contract expired. At that moment Fedor had no contract and his new contract was being discussed," Fedor's manager Vadim Finkelstein told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. The UFC pursued the champion aggressively. At the end of the day, UFC President Dana White and owner Lorenzo Fertitta are fight fans - and they wanted to see Fedor fight. But, as Finkelstein points out, the issues in 2007 were the same ones that plagued negotiations in 2009.M-1 Global is both a management entity and a fight promoter. Finkelstein and his team wanted to partner with the UFC in a meaningful way. In Nevada, the UFC brass wanted to sign a fighter to a contract - with no strings attached. It was a classic impasse.
"Aside from the contract for Fedor, the UFC didn't offer much else," Finkelstein said. "When we couldn't reach an agreement with the UFC that was mutually beneficial, we created M-1 Global with the ambition to build up our own organization. The UFC was not interested in anything but Fedor, while BoDog and Affliction both offered co-promotion which was a much more attractive offer."
The fights with Affliction and BoDog did little to diminish Fedor's stature as the sport's top heavyweight. Three fights, three wins, all decisively, two of them coming against former UFC heavyweight champions Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. In 2009, with Affliction crumbling under the weight of bad decisions, the most damaging involving exorbitant contracts for undercard fighters, Emelianenko and the UFC again looked to do business. White, more desperate than ever to sign the one significant fighter who had eluded him, made an offer that he called the biggest in UFC history. As both M-1 and the UFC tried to spin the media, I had independent confirmation that the offer wasn't as large as the six fight, $30 million originally reported by radio host Carmichael Dave and was actually less than the dollar guarantee Fedor had with Affliction:
"The actual guarantee offered Fedor was less than $2 million. The other money would only come into play if the PPV's did extremely well," Snowden said. "Fedor was not offered a $5 million guarantee. It is also important for the entire Russian crew to have a chance to help grow the sport there. Although Fedor can make more money now in the UFC than he likely can elsewhere, it wouldn't allow an opportunity to expand Russian MMA."
Therein, as they say, lies the rub. For Emelianenko and M-1 it's not just about the quick buck. With an ownership stake in the M-1 fight promotion, rumored to be in the neighborhood of 10 percent, Fedor has a lot invested in the promotion's success. And that means building a brand and securing the promotion's future. It means co-promotion. It's something the UFC wasn't even willing to consider.
"As part owner of M-1, Fedor has a vested interest to see the brand succeed," M-1 Global's Director of Operations Evgeni Kogan said. "His fighting career has secured him financially but there will come a day when he retires, when this will happen only he can say. But when this day comes, Fedor will always continue to be involved in the sport and having a share in Europe's leading mixed martial arts promotion will not only provide financial benefits but will also ensure his legacy lives on."
More on Fedor, M-1, and the UFC's offer after the break.
With this in mind, the UFC's contract offer doesn't look quite as attractive. Sure it was more money guaranteed than anyone in UFC history had ever been offered. But to Finkelstein, that's short term thinking. The M-1 boss never even seriously considered it - and he disputes White's assertion that it was bad business not to take it.
"It may have been the largest contract offer that he ever made - we don't know - but during subsequent talks Fedor was not made any offer which was worth considering," Finkelstein said. "Perhaps the UFC was planning to make an interesting offer but the one they made was not interesting enough for Fedor."
"For us as a brand, there was more than just contractual money which came into play," Kogan explained further. "It's common knowledge that M-1 enjoys co-promoting within MMA as we feel it's necessary for the continued growth of the sport and is the next step in its evolution. The UFC have a different position on co-promotion, and no one can take away from what they have done for the sport to date."
While White has been very vocal about the deal, or lack there of, even going so far as to call M-1 officials "crazy Russians" to Kogan it's all just business. While Fedor may not have been pleased by some of White's most incendiary comments, they weren't the reason a deal didn't get done.
"Personality conflicts are common in this sport; athletes fight in the ring or the cage; managers fight with promoters; promoters fight with promoters," Kogan said. "But at the end of the day, if there is business to be done, personality conflicts are set aside and the deal is made. In this case, personality conflicts didn't affect the outcome."
Instead of a deal with the UFC, a successful partnership with Strikeforce and Showtime was created. Riding Emelianenko's fame and status as one of the sport's all-time legends, Strikeforce made the tough move from regional to national promotion. With the successful launch of a heavyweight tournament and the growth of stars like Nick Diaz, M-1 and Strikeforce helped make Showtime a must see channel for MMA fans in America. And, as this is the fight business and not the fight game, everyone got rich in the end.
Fedor made millions fighting in the Strikeforce cage, Showtime added thousands of new subscribers, M-1 Global was able to leverage Fedor's success as an attraction into a seperate contract to promote fights on Showtime. And Strikeforce was able to build a brand that attracted several major offers to buy them out. Win, win, win, win.
"The Showtime offer was not smaller, it was different in nature and actually financially better for our organization," Kogan said. "M-1 has enjoyed working with Scott Coker and Strikeforce in the past and we're excited to continue working together in the future. The leadership at Showtime is phenomenal and M-1 is happy to be included in their programming as part of the co-promoted events as well as with our stand-alone M-1 Challenge cards. (Showtime Sports Executive Vice President) Ken Hershman has been vocal about having Showtime televise quality cards which showcase top prospects and lesser known international stars; the M-1 Challenge fits perfectly into this equation."
Later this Week: Securing Fedor Emelianenko's Legacy