Why is there a paucity of new stars in MMA today? When compared to Pride's heyday and the earliest days of The Ultimate Fighter it would seem that there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of new must-watch fighters entering our ranks. So what is behind this trend and can it be fixed?
Our own capo di tutti capi Nate Wilcox recently sat down with Jordan Breen on Sherdog's Press Row to ponder this pressing question. The various answers they came up with seemed to center on a pair of overarching themes: a lack of focus on the individual fighters and an overabundance of events that makes it harder for anyone to distinguish him or herself.
After listening to their discussion it's easy to see why those glory days were so successful in the creation of stars - back then we were much more likely to get to know the fighters. PRIDE's formula was to try and give a Cro Cop, Wanderlei, or Takanori Gomi fights on half the promotion's ten cards within the calendar year. Sure, many of their matches were what we would term "squash matches", but as much as we may look down on that practice we can't deny that it made it more likely they would leave an impression. And counter to the old saying, familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but instead liking and comfort.
With the introduction of The Ultimate Fighter the UFC was able to duplicate PRIDE's formula for success. Sure we didn't see UFC fighters getting seven or eight fights in a year, nor did we see them getting the one-sided matchups that left such indelible memories (seeing a man in a luchadore mask getting head kicked is something one doesn't forget), but thanks to the reality show we got to spend months with a group of hungry potential UFC fighters. Over the course of a season we got to know them and, even more importantly, care about them before they technically even entered the Octagon. This recipe no longer works for the simple fact that the UFC holds so many shows and employs so many fighters that TUF alumni are now lost in the crowd. With the UFC planning on holding even more events than they did last year (which was 53, or about 20% of all the events the promotion has ever held) along with increases from Bellator and World Series of Fighting, there looks to be no change on the horizon.
Based on what I just wrote one would be excused to think that now is not the time to introduce a new mixed martial arts reality show and promotion. But that's exactly what Combate Americas is planning to do, with the first episode set to premiere tonight on mun2 (fortunately the show will be subtitled in English for those of us whose Spanish might not be up to snuff). What makes this venture interesting for me is that the people behind it, which includes the shows creator and CEO (and co-founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship) Campbell McLaren, as well as its first star Royce Gracie (who will be making an appearance), seem to actually have a plan to get over the hurdles listed.
"Maybe you can't build another Strikeforce the way Strikeforce was built," Mike Afromowitz, the former director of communications with Strikeforce now with Combate Americas, recently told me, "but you can make a great product you just have to tackle it differently. It's a talent driven business. It's the right fighters people want to watch. Fighters they can relate to, that they're curious about. Where do they come from? What kind of sacrifices did they make?"
The result is Combate Americas, an MMA competiton reality show that will star 10 featherweight and welterwieght Hispanic fighters from multiple countries. From the description of the show, the plan McLaren and his cohorts have come up with looks to be two-fold. First, to go after a market that isn't already over-saturated with MMA, in this case their focus is the growing Hispanic community, a group McLaren thinks hasn't been properly introduced to mixed martial arts yet.
"What I think Combate Americas is going to do," McLaren said at a recent press conference for the new franchise,"is take all the success that MMA has had through the UFC and go to a new group of fans. To a fan that might be a boxing fan. To a fan that may have heard of MMA. To a fan that wants to know more."
Even more intriguing is their apparent strategy for attaining bankable stars. Unlike other promotions that have sought to acquire fighters who already had built a name, they are looking to recreate the success of the first season of TUF, but with a twist. What's different about what Combate Americas is presenting versus what The Ultimate Fighter Season One did in 2005 is that the UFC was already promoting events before the first show aired. Combate Americas in turn has yet to hold an event; they will be using this platform to build stars before the promotion (or franchise using their term) has even started. This strategy isn't that different from what American Idol did it's inaugural season, using a television competition to build up recognizable names, then signing them to record contracts and having them headlining concerts. There was no American Idol brand or cottage industry in the US before Kelly Clarkson hit it big, but by the final episode she was practically a household name. Combate Americas seems to ble looking to replicate that in MMA.
Will it work? That of course is the six-figure contract question.
Combate Americas premieres tonight at 10p/9c on mun2. The trailer for the program can be viewed here.