UFC-WEC merger good for fans, fighters, but maybe not for sport
When UFC president Dana White announced in late October that his promotion's roster would merge with that of WEC, its sister entity, this was the rare move applauded by more or less everyone who loves fights.
Fighters like to work before larger crowds for more money, fans like better cards and sponsors and agents prefer to work with stronger brands. In all, count it a good thing that no fighter will ever again have his explanation that he is a WEC champion met with the inevitable question, "OK, so is that like the UFC?" All the same, ahead of Thursday's WEC card, the last ever, one notes that the merger points up two of the less appealing aspects of today's fight game: the extent to which UFC has become synonymous with mixed martial arts, and that to which showmanship rivals excellence as a criterion by which a fighter is judged.
In its modern form, WEC has always been equally a cynic's and an idealist's venture. Founded in 2001 by Scott Adams and Reed Harris and run for years as a regional promotion, it was purchased by Zuffa, UFC's parent company, in 2006. The idea was, in part, to use it as a way to work around a television contract that restricted UFC programming to Spike TV and take advantage of the Versus channel's desire to run MMA. Over time, it shed its upper weight classes to focus on the lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions, giving such brilliant fighters as Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber and Miguel Angel Torres a way to make themselves stars.
Theoretically, this should have worked. Fight fans like great fights, and the lighter weight classes offer the best there are. To watch Ben Henderson flow from striking to takedowns to grappling, or see Dominick Cruz's raw speed and ability to work angles, is to appreciate what MMA makes possible. Fight fans also like big personalities, and WEC offered some of the largest. Torres, worshipped in that part of Indiana that is essentially an extension of Chicago's South Side, should by all rights have already become the crossover Mexican-American star on which the sport is waiting. Aldo is a more violent Anderson Silva. Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is an epic trash talker on par with Josh Koscheck. One can go on.
Despite the excellence of the shows, though, audiences for WEC broadcasts on Versus have ranged from less than half to a quarter the size of those for third-tier UFC cards, and the promotion's one pay-per-view clearance brought in something like a third to half what an ordinary UFC show would have, even though it was essentially marketed as a UFC production. One could blame the fans for not being attracted to smaller fighters (though small men look large on television), or the promoters for their presentation (though it was perhaps the best in the sport). Most likely, the problem was just that UFC is established in the public mind as MMA's major league, making anything else minor league by default.
"I never thought it made sense," said WEC color man Stephan Bonnar, a considerable fighter himself. "You can't build two brands at once."
While UFC owns the public imagination, though, it doesn't own all the best fighters in the world. It's at least arguable, for example, that it controls fewer than half of the 10 best in the heavyweight and featherweight divisions. So far as the merger serves as an admission that even Zuffa can't successfully run a promotion against UFC, then, it indicates that the company's consolidation of MMA as a business is running slightly ahead of its consolidation of MMA as a sport.
To understand the larger issue, talk to some fighter representatives. To a man, and understandably, they express excitement and satisfaction over the merger, which presents their clients more and better opportunities to make money. They're also aware of a fundamental math problem.
"Guys will be competing for their jobs every time out there," said Bryan Hamper, whose fighters include Cerrone and Leonard Garcia. "You're fighting for your job security."
Hamper is understating things. Between them, UFC and WEC put on 32 events this year. At 11 fights per card and an average of three fights per fighter per year, that comes to 234 full-time roster spots. Assuming that UFC will run 26 shows this year, that leaves 191 full-time spots. However you do the figures, several dozen fighters are in line to lose work.
As Mike Roberts, who represents Faber and lightweight contender Anthony Pettis has it, this is a terrific thing for fans. "It's going to weed out some people who shouldn't have been out there," he said. "A lot of guys get comfortable just saying they fight in the UFC or WEC." He also predicts a trickle-up effect on fight quality.
"The 45ers and 35ers are going to set the bar a lot higher for the rest of the fighters," he said. "If the big guys don't bring it, they ain't going to get a bonus."
Those bonuses -- payouts, reaching up to six figures on major cards, for the best fight, knockout and submission of the night -- are an enormous incentive for fighters, some of whom can, by securing one, earn as much in a night as they've earned from purses over their entire careers. They are the fundamental expression of what Zuffa wants out of its fighters, which is to follow Rampage Jackson's line that he would rather lose an exciting fight than win a boring one.
"It's very good for the fighters," said Dean Albrecht, who represents Torres, among others, "because these WEC kids now have the opportunity to be UFC fighters, to make the bigger bonuses and to grow their popularity through the machine that is the UFC. If these guys come in, do the promotion, do the right thing, fight, fight excitingly and win, they will get paid."
Zuffa can't be blamed for putting so much emphasis on what a fighter does as opposed to how well he does. It's in business to make money, and just as the NBA would be right to wrap a blindfold around Kobe Bryant's face, have LeBron James dribble with his head or make dunks and three-point shots the only ways to score if they thought it would increase revenue, so Zuffa is right to give its fighters incentives to entertain rather than merely win.
When you note, though, that Cerrone is probably safe because, despite having lost three of his last seven fights, he's won fight of the night honors in five of them (something Hamper is rightly quick to bring up), or that any agent you talk to is as liable to bring up the vastly higher UFC bonuses as a reason for fighters to be excited as anything else, it's hard not to wonder about the effects of subtly perverting a growing sport. Any time a star athlete figures that he might be better off losing than winning, there's an issue.
Call this, though, a second-order concern. Thursday's card, on which Pettis and Henderson will fight for a shot at the UFC lightweight championship, Cruz will defend the bantamweight title against Scott Jorgensen and Cerrone will get a chance to pick up yet another fight of the night bonus against Chris Horodecki, should be a spectacular send-off for what has been a spectacular promotion. And what will follow will see some of the best fighters in the world take a stage they couldn't deserve more -- and one that could, in the end, see them earn rewards even richer than a bout bonus.
"If Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather can be the highest-paid boxers," Albrecht said, "why can't Miguel Torres and Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber be the highest-paid fighters?"
It's the question everyone has been asking, and we're about to find out the answer.