Ben Fowlkes
Friday September 10th, 2010

It's an old joke, repurposed for several different industries, but it survives because it's true:

How do you make a small fortune promoting mixed martial arts events? Start with a large fortune.

In other words, this stuff isn't as easy as it looks from the couch. Don't believe me? Ask the promoters behind this weekend's events. Strikeforce and the UFC are sitting the weekend out, which leaves the small-timers to battle for the attention of hardcore fans.

The good news? Not having to compete with the goliaths of the industry makes it at least possible that your event will be the top story going into and coming out of the weekend. The bad news? With cards populated by UFC castoffs, has-beens, almost-weres and never-will-bes, getting sizable audiences to care about the outcomes is a fight in itself.

That's not to say the fights you see on small shows aren't worthy of more attention. Skill for skill, Antonio McKee is to Bobby Lashley what Joni Mitchell is to Ke$ha. It's just that, in the fight game, pure skill isn't necessarily what sells. That's why most fight promoters will take a big name over a big talent, all other things being equal.

Is that fair? Not really. But neither is the fact that you can buy Nicholas Sparks books at the airport,while you have to go to Amazon to find Amy Hempel. Such is life.

Then again, it's not all about the names on the marquee. Sometimes all you have to do is get out of your own way. Even that is tough for less experienced promoters.

Take Shine Fights, for example. With Friday's incredibly ambitious eight-man, one-night lightweight tournament filled with some notable names, the upstart organization seemed to be on the verge of the kind of making us forget about the event that got canceled by the North Carolina commission back in May.

Then Shine got kicked out of Virginia over licensing issues and had to move the event to an Indian casino in Oklahoma less than a week out. Suddenly it's an unsanctioned event, which puts every participating fighter at risk of being denied a license for the next 60 days. As if that weren't enough, because of all the late changes, the pay-per-view has now been dropped from Direct TV, and never was offered on Dish Network.

I'm no salesman, but I'd think that Rule No. 1 is to make sure the people who want to pay for your product get the chance to do so. If you don't ask for the money, it's tough to get paid.

Then there's Shark Fights, which is probably the most legitimately interesting card from top to bottom. Headlined by Trevor Prangley taking on Keith Jardine in "The Dean of Mean's" first non-UFC fight since 2004, the main card doesn't feature a single fight without at least one UFC castoff.

Not that it's so bad. With all the fighters the UFC has employed over the years, it's hard not to swim in Zuffa's wake when acquiring talent. The only problem is, when the bulk of your fighters have been fired from the UFC, it tends to make people think they're not seeing fighters with rising career paths.

Lastly this weekend, up in Canada MFC gives fans the chance to see what could possibly, maybe, probably not be McKee's last fight. If you're not familiar with McKee, he's the very proud owner of 18 decisions in 24 victories. He wrestles people down, holds them on their backs and squeezes every minute of fight time out of almost every matchup.

He is not, you might have guessed, a fan favorite.

But McKee swears that if his fight with Luciano Azevedo on HDNet goes to another boring decision, he'll hang up the gloves for good. If you believe that, I have a bridge for sale that you might be interested in.

The truth is that MMA needs these smaller promotions. It needs them to be healthy and self-sustaining entities, because the sport needs options. The UFC and Strikeforce can't and won't employ all the fighters who are qualified to get in the cage and put on a show, just like those organizations also can't and won't visit every city that wants to see quality MMA.

But for the small-timers to be credible alternatives in the eyes of fans and fighters, the promoters need to realize their own limits. There's no sense jumping to pay-per-view if you can't get any cable operators to pick it up, and it's not terribly brilliant to stack a card with UFC rejects -- without also taking the opportunity to cultivate some new talent while garnering the people's attention.

When it comes to MMA promotion, you don't have to go big or go home. There's a place at the table for the Sharks and Shines of the world. We just have to hope that they realize what that place is, and that they make good use of it.

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