In March, news leaked that ProElite, the parent company of the now-defunct EliteXC mixed martial arts promotion, was attempting to acquire Strikeforce. It was the first time since early 2009 that the ProElite brand had been uttered in a conversation pertaining to the current landscape of the sport. By most accounts, the mention was met with stiff skepticism from fans. In laymen's terms, fans rolled their eyes, laughed, and reminisced with other fans about the Kimbo Slice era, the Shaw family, and the classic main card bouts that weren't main card worthy at all.
Fast forward five months to August, and ProElite, now headed by ICON Sport founder T. Jay Thompson and former Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou, has wisely positioned itself in a market in which there is a demand. The UFC's own television negotiations with Spike TV along with the inevitable demise of Strikeforce on Showtime leaves some room for negotiations, and a possible reunion between ProElite and Showtime isn't unfathomable. Thompson has denied reports that ProElite has signed a deal with CBS and Showtime, but we would be fools to believe Showtime isn't looking for a substitute that they can inject money into once Strikeforce has been absorbed into the UFC.
FOX is also interested in entering the MMA scene, possibly using Fuel TV as a home for a mixed martial arts brand. The UFC is likely the frontrunner in those talks, but as we've come to realize in the past -- Zuffa has lofty demands such as full production control and a high price tag.
Timing has been key for ProElite, and the demand by television companies to attract the 18-34 male demographic remains high. Seems like the perfect environment for success, right? Unfortunately, promoting mixed martial arts events, as we've gathered from the past failures of various other organizations, involves much more than timing the market.
The greatest obstacle in ProElite's path is the limited talent pool. Zuffa essentially absorbed an enormous portion of the talent pool when they bought Strikeforce in March, and Bellator's aggressive scouting has limited the number of skilled prospects in the lower rungs of the sport. While it is obvious that Zuffa won't be able to maintain such a large roster without an incredible increase in the number of events they hold, more recognizable fighters who have the ability to draw fans outside of the UFC are getting more chances inside the Octagon. The lesser known fighters who have no real interest among fans are being released quickly, which isn't helping start-ups or established regional events draw eyes.
A cursory glance of ProElite's August 27th event card barely registered on the meter for me in terms of interest. Andrei Arlovski, who has lost three of his last four fights via knockout, will fight Ray Lopez, an unknown 5-2 fighter out of Holland, Michigan. That isn't a main event I would pay to watch. The rest of the card, however, has some flashes of brilliance and relevant matchmaking that should be noted.
The formula for running successful events, at least from the talent side, is mixing veteran fighters who can draw in fans with rising stars and fan-friendly action. Zuffa's stranglehold on the talent pool along with Bellator's own sizeable roster makes that a difficult proposition. In my mind, a newer promotion should aim for the hardcore fan acceptance early, creating match-ups between hyped prospects to draw the eyes of the media during off weeks by the major promotions. This is the type of matchmaking that Bellator has implemented.
ProElite has taken an even deeper approach, grabbing mostly unknown prospects from the local mixed martial arts scene in Hawaii and supporting them with more well-known veterans and hyped prospects. Former UFC veterans Kendall Grove and Joe Riggs will square off in a surprisingly solid co-main event match-up. 2009 NCAA Division I heavyweight wrestling champion Mark Ellis will make his professional debut, battling University of Hawaii back-up linebacker Jake Heun, who is still on the active roster at the university. B.J. Penn's brother, Reagan Penn, will make his mixed martial arts debut on the card, and 2004 Olympic freestyle wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann will fight in her fourth professional bout. An eclectic mix of fighters in different stages of their careers, and it's a mix that has added a lot of intrigue to ProElite's inaugural event.
ProElite has also appealed to fans for their professionalism thus far. Their website and the promotional video released for their first card are both of top quality. Thompson's recent comments to MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani are encouraging as well. Most notably, the promotion will pass on a network television deal until they are large enough to produce those types of drawing cards, and they intend to hold a heavyweight grand prix that will feature mostly unknown up-and-comers with a few veterans. Thompson hinted that both Arlovski and Ellis might be involved, and he suggested that they may be looking at a fighter like Jon Olav Einemo as a possible participant.
You've got me hooked, especially if a NCAA champion like Ellis gets the opportunity to make waves in the heavyweight division immediately and actually wins. Pick up a few high-rated prospects like Konstantin Gluhov, Vitaly Minakov, and Shamil Abdurahimov, and you've got yourself a tournament with serious potential.
While it's way too early to tell if ProElite will survive in the long haul, there is a need for a more prominent regional promotion in the landscape of the sport. Fighters still need a place to fight once they've been released by the UFC, and prospects are always looking to get more exposure as their careers progress. ProElite can offer both groups of fighters a legitimate platform, and the early moves by Thompson and Chou are a great sign of things to come.