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Saturday, September 10, 2016
When the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship bought the assets of the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships of Japan last year, they thought that it was the start of a new era in the mixed martial arts. They believed that now almost all the best MMA fighters in the world would be promoted exclusively by them, and that they would have a virtual monopoly on the top fights and fighters not seen in a combat sport since the days of the notorious International Boxing Club in the 1950's, which was later broken up by the U.S. government.
The Pride purchase did mark the dawn of a new era, but not the one envisioned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who are the majority owners of the UFC.
The top heavyweight and pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world was, until recently anyway, almost universally regarded as Fedor Emelianenko, who had fought for Pride until that company folded. While Pride's contractual complexities meant that Fedor's contract was not automatically transferred to the UFC as a result of the sale, the UFC bosses did try to sign him to a new contract. Fedor refused, citing "disrespect" and their onerous exclusivity clauses. He even called this type of contract "disgusting."
Fedor's rejection of the UFC led their then-heavyweight champion, Randy Couture, to resign from that company in October. The reason was that Couture, who turns 45 this June, wanted to defend his belt against the best heavyweight in the world, Fedor, and that fight was now impossible unless Fedor signed an exclusive contract to be promoted by the UFC. So Couture quit in hopes of having that fight promoted by another entity.
The UFC-Couture contract dispute is still tied up in court, but it appears obvious that there is no way that Couture will ever fight for the UFC again.
Now UFC's former top star, Tito Ortiz, has said that he will leave after the final fight on his contract, which is this weekend against Lyoto Machida. UFC president Dana White has responded with torrents of profanity-filled insults directed at Ortiz, who wasn't even invited to the event's final prefight press conference.
On top of this, former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia has left the company, and is scheduled to fight Fedor on the July 19 Affliction card in Anaheim, Calif. Sylvia is enjoying his free agency, noting at the Affliction news conference in New York Thursday, "No one wants to do exclusive contracts anymore." He said that he will fight this year for both the Affliction and Adrenaline promotions, and hopes to fight in Japan this year as well.
Even some in the mainstream media are beginning to lose their patience with Dana White. Ed Graney in the Las Vegas Review-Journal recounted some of this history, and wrote of a "dictatorship, which is what happened with the growth of UFC under the leadership of its president, who a friend of mine fittingly described Wednesday as 'the white Don King who happens to be bald.'" He also talked of fighters "who exist under White's authoritative thumb." (http://www.lvrj.com/sports/19169329.html)
While White continues to attack the upcoming EliteXC May 31 card, which will be telecast for free to over 100 million homes in the U.S. on CBS, UFC events are only available on the relatively small Spike TV network and on pay-per-view, for those willing to fork over a one-time fee to watch those shows. At the same time, these pay-per-views are more and more widely available for free on pirate sites, such as SopCast, which are committing copyright violations but are nonetheless reaching growing audiences. So the entire pay-per-view business model, which has been a key source of revenue for companies which have relied on it, is now in danger of being wrecked by the advance of technology.
With fighters jumping ship and their business model in question, we now also see more and more people discussing the very legality of the UFC's contracts. This may be decided, at least in part, by the courts hearing the Zuffa-Couture case.
I raised this issue in December 2007 in the article "It's Time for Federal and State Investigations of UFC Contracts." (http://www.adcombat.com/Article.asp?Article_ID=14555 - New link: http://nhbnews.blogspot.com/2016/01/from-december-2007-its-time-for-federal.html) Now it is more common for the issue of whether or not these contracts violate either the letter or spirit of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to be discussed.
So yes, we are indeed entering a new era. It is not, however, the era of an unchallenged monopoly, but of a fighters' rebellion. Unlike failed attempts to rally athletes in other sports such as boxing, the key players in this loose but growing rebellion are some of the sport's top stars and fighters.
And in Japan, where just a year ago UFC seemed to be in a position of dominance, UFC is running no shows, either under the Pride name or their own name. At the same time, various forces in the mixed martial arts world in Japan have regrouped to form companies such as Dream and World Victory Road, and are attempting (with mixed results) to fill the void left by the collapse of Pride.
Ah, the perils of dictatorship. If you study history, you know the eventual fate of all tyrannies. This one may be in an eight-sided cage, but the signs are all there that it getting ready to be overthrown.