Since absorbing Pride FC, the UFC has been the alpha dog of MMA promotions. It’s war chest of bankable stars leaves smaller promotions to pick through fighters cut from their roster or, even more challenging, build careers from the ground up. The UFC’s dominance raises the question of whether increased competition would be better for the sport. Fighters like Dan Henderson have taken a strong stance on behalf of the smaller fighting promotions, arguing that athletes deserve a choice in where to compete.
The truth is that MMA, like all mainstream sports, needs a single, dominating organization. Big fights cannot happen if the superstars are spread thin among several mediocre leagues. A lopsided model is in place for every other mainstream sport ( NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB), wherein the fighters start out in lower leagues with the hope of getting drafted into the elite level. For MMA, the small promotions like Bellator, Dream and Strikeforce are there to filter the talent pool.
While competing organizations add strength to the fighter’s side of negotiations, the real deciding factor in that situation is star power. Every promotion is under pressure to get big names on the cards, and fighters are paid according to their affect on people paying attention. For example, Brock Lesnar walked into the UFC as one of the highest paid fighters because he had already helped sell WWE events for years. Furthermore, the strongest organization will be able to manage the biggest payroll. Therefore having rival leagues will only help the very top fighters get a slightly higher pay boost, and likely hurt up-and-comers trying to squeeze more out of their contract.
It’s true that two high profile fighters snubbed the UFC in 2009 in favor of Strikeforce, but it’s hard to see what good it did them or the sport. We can only speculate what Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko were offered by either side, but subsequent comments suggest that neither decision was based on money. Emalienenko was unwavering in his desire to have the M1 brand co-promote, and Henderson was upset that he was snubbed for a title shot in favor of Vitor Belfort, who he defeated in 2006. Neither fighter will likely receive significantly more money at Strikeforce, rather, they satisfied more personal goals. Also, now they are stuck in a promotion where the only challenging fight is each other.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that the UFC is not necessarily the future of MMA. As WEC is also owned by Zuffa, and Bellator and Dream are still trying to take off, that leaves Strikeforce with the best chance to take over. At first glance, their deal to air events on CBS seems like money in the bank, but it comes lot of problems. MMA, like boxing, thrives in the realm of pay-per-view for a reason. Commercial interruption either sucks the excitement out of individual fights or places agonizing breaks between them. Furthermore, the real audience for MMA is not prime time couch potatoes but crowds at pubs and barbecues. Nevermind Dana White griping about the losers who steal UFC over the internet, fights are meant to be watched with beer and friends.
Finally, Strikeforce must be second-fiddle because the roster is bordering theoretical. Their contracts allow champions excessive leniency with regards to defending their title–see heavyweight champ Allister Overeem prancing around Japan for the last two years. A championship belt is meaningless when a fighter can take off, lose in the same weight class and return as a champion. Hollow titles, combined with the weaker talent pool, ensure that even with a free show every month, Strikeforce does not belong on top.
The number of superstars in combat sports will always be limited. A huge part of MMA’s continuing success is that fights are arranged by a company matchmaker, based on what fans are interested in seeing. Compare that to boxing where quarreling egos and minor details in the contracts prevent a lot of interesting bouts from ever happening. Top pound-for-pound fighters should not be in a position where they fight “tomato cans” and pad their records.
Smaller MMA leagues have an important role; they streamline the waves of incoming talent and offer a chance for fighters to re-focus and rebuild their careers after a bad run. But even if the UFC falls from its throne, the MMA world cannot be equally divided. While the nature of the sport allows every fight potential to be exciting, there’s no denying the disparity in talent among competitors. Die-hard fans may be willing to sit through anything resembling full-contact martial arts, but casual fans keep the lights on, and they need to recognize the men beneath the bruises.