Back in 1980 there were 9 baseball players signed out of the Dominican Republic for an average of about $1200 per player. Now over 300 players a year get signed, with the best commanding Million dollar paydays while still 16 or 17 years old. Dominican players make up over 10% of the MLB roster, and 25% of the minor league rosters. There has yet to be a single MLB player from the country they share a border with, Haiti. Why? A commitment to scouting, developing, and a level of economic desperation to get out of a dirt poor country are a few answers. Starting in the early 1980's MLB teams began opening baseball academies where they could identify and train the best talent from an early age. Many of these academies have evolved from poor, run down facilities into modern complexes that would fit in with the spring training complexes used by major league teams. All along teams have fought to keep the MLB draft out of the Dominican so that each team does not risk losing on their investments to other teams
But this is an MMA site, so why should anyone care about baseball players from the Dominican Republic? It comes back to the growth of the sport, and expanding into countries without a strong MMA base and tradition. The first three that come to mind are China, India and Mexico.
UFC makes no effort to hide the fact that they want in on the sports market in the two most populated countries in the world. The Mexican, and Mexican-American communities have supported numerous boxers, and UFC would love to get some more talent on the roster in an attempt to gain some traction in this market. To this point they have been hindered by a couple of things, Lack of a major TV deal (which they are working on), and a complete lack of UFC level talent at any weight class coming out of the countries (Currently 2 x Chinese Fighters, and 1 x Mexican Born fighter on the UFC roster). The training camps, and regional fight scene infrastructure is just not there.
I think it would be in the UFC's best interest to use it's connections, and financial influence to improve the training and development infrastructure in some of these new markets. Some options that they have are
1.) Sponsor fight team partnerships. Work with Greg Jackson, Grudge, Rufus Sport, AKA, ATT, AMA, AllianceMMA, Alpha Male, Renzo Gracie, Serra-Longo, Tri-Star, Nova Uniao, etc... to develop working relationships with teams in these countries. A regular series of in-depth seminars, fighter, and trainer exchanges for a month or two at a time so that it really can mean something. UFC brought a handful of fighters from China back to Las Vegas to train for a month last year... why not expand this program, and formalize it with some of these top teams.
2.) Sponsor BJJ Black Belt, Muay Thai fighters, and Wrestlers to work in these gyms (Think of Jake Butler and how he found himself a job at EvolveMMA). Make sure these gyms have well rounded classes being offered.
- As far as the wrestling is concerned, this could be done in conjunction with the save Olympic Wrestling Campaign... why just try to save the sport, but try to expand it. Getting more kids onto a wrestling mat, will eventually get more kids into a MMA fight.
- Once the BJJ, Muay Thai, and Wrestling classes are established, UFC can work with the schools to hold competitions for each discipline, and Amateur MMA between their sponsored schools.
3.) Offer some money to these gyms so that they can keep their prices low, or even free for some students. Parts of India, China, Mexico, and many of the other targeted countries are depressingly poor... yet when you look at the Baseball model in the Dominican many of the players have a strong desire to improve their lives through sports. It also has shown through with some of the MMA fighters from Brazil (Palhares, and Aldo come to mind).
4.) For some gyms making a commitment might be just providing a TV, DVD player, and then DVD's of all the UFC, Pride, and Strikeforce fights. Jon Jones has talked about watching fights, and martial arts stuff on YouTube and then mimicking the moves in the mirror... why not use the extensive Zuffa video library to inspire a next generation that may not be able to watch on a regular basis.
5.) Work with regional promotions such as RFA, King of the Cage, Jungle Fights and Ring of Combat to identify top fighters from these countries and fly them in to compete at these shows for a step up in competition. It also never hurts to find out a guy might have issues with his Visa application before he is on a UFC poster.
6.) More and more quality, well rounded Mixed Martial Artist retiring on a monthly basis these days than ever before... where do they go for their next job? Not everyone can announce for UFC like Florian, and Sonnen or own their own gym. I think of guys like Keith Jardine, Jason MacDonald, Miguel Torres, Mark Hominick, Tim Credeur, Eric Schafer, Kyle Kingsbury, and Joe Stevenson who have a ton of skill and knowledge to pass on, but haven't made enough to retire for life off the sport (I know that a few of those guys have their own gyms... just throwing them in there as the type of fighter who could be approached). Maybe they would take advantage of a steady salary provided by UFC to go live in a foreign country for 3-6 months at a time and work with some of these teams while at the same time being UFC's eyes and ears on the ground for promising prospects.
The risk that UFC runs is that they will potentially be stealing title shots, and belts away from fighters from their proven markets in the North America, and Brazil. But on the other hand, if they hit it big with a handful of fighters from India, and China then they can break into two countries that have almost 1/3 of the world's population combined.
I think UFC really can make a decision on how quickly they want results, and contenders from these key markets. Countries traditionally rally behind their successful countrymen in sports, especially combat sports. Does UFC want to let MMA take it's natural course, or speed up the process. Do they want to wake up five years from now, and see Indian, and Chinese MMA at a level of where Irish MMA is now... where they are just starting to make in roads to the UFC? Or do they want to push the issue, and see more talented, skilled, and well-rounded fighters from the massive, and traditionally lucrative markets coming into the UFC in 2-4 years.