Zuffa's purchase of Strikeforce, late subject of much consternation and confusion, was a surprise only in its timing. Given long term trends in the fight game, a buyout was always inevitable. Whether it will turn in the end to be a good thing, I have no more idea than anyone else does.
There are clear reasons to think it will be. Most obviously, it offers the potential for some great fights that we might not otherwise have seen, such as Gilbert Melendez vs. Frankie Edgar, or Phil Davis vs. Muhammad Lawal, or Mark Hunt vs. Chad Griggs. Somewhat less obviously, it offers the promise of help and fresh perspectives for UFC's overworked matchmakers, Joe Silva and Sean Shelby.
Mainly, it marks the point where UFC stops competing with fight promotions and starts competing with the real players in sports. Mixed-martial-arts fans tend to have comically low expectations, thinking that their sport has gone mainstream when Georges St-Pierre scores an underwear ad, or when Anthony Pettis makes an ESPN highlight reel. They forget, or don't know, that the Chicago Cubs' fifth starter makes more money and is more famous than GSP, and junior high school girl's volleyball players make ESPN highlight reels, too.
I have high expectations. I don't think fighting will ever be as popular as the NBA, but I see no real reason why there shouldn't be fighters as famous as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant at some point. Clear of serious rivals, UFC can now focus on making that happen.
Throat clearing aside, I rolled my eyes when I heard the news Saturday, in a way I hadn't since I saw the arrow shaved into Brian Ebersole's chest hair at UFC 127. This isn't an obviously bad move, but it's a dubious one, with implications even broader than it seems. The following, in no particular order, are reasons why.
1) UFC needs competition. I don't mean this abstractly, in the sense that Dana White needs an enemy to do his best work. I mean it concretely. UFC doesn't have enough work for all the good fighters in whom they're interested. Until they can offer it, they need a place where promising fighters can learn, and where veterans in ruts can rehabilitate themselves, before being brought back and being put in a position to make money for the promotion. An independent Strikeforce served that role, served as a place where someone like Nick Diaz who hadn't done well in the latter stages of a UFC run, could fix his reputation as a major league fighter. One under Zuffa control that is used that way is just a minor league; as we learned with WEC, success in a Triple-A affiliate means nothing to UFC fans.
2) Zuffa is now in business with Showtime. It isn't a closely held secret that some of Strikeforce's more puzzling decisions over the past few years have been influenced by television executives who seem to know as much about the sport as your Aunt Bertha. That surrender of control is part of the price of working with a network or pay channel, and not being willing to pay it is some of why UFC isn't on one. However operations actually work, Zuffa is now in business with these people, presenting a product over which they may not have quite the control to which they're accustomed.
3) The entourage. Whether or not anyone wanted to talk about it openly, one problem UFC always had in its negotiations was Fedor Emelianenko was, putting this as neutrally as possible, that there was some concern about perception -- a worry that Emelianenko might have associates with whom a casino owner would not want to be seen as involved. They're involved now.
4) Overstretch. Zuffa doesn't seem, now, to have enough people working for them on the back end -- in public relations, in merchandising and so on -- to operate UFC at its full potential. They've now taken on a promotion that certainly isn't staffed up enough, and which will have to be run as its own entity for some period of time. There will be ways to integrate operations, but adding one undermanned shop to another seems a way to run into serious problems.
5) Opportunity cost. This is related to the point above: Is putting work into running a second major promotion really the best possible use of Zuffa's time? When pay-per-views featuring the quite brilliant lightweight champion Edgar aren't selling, when WEC has yet to be digested, when fighters like St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have yet to reach a fraction of their potential as crossover stars, when MMA is still not yet legal in New York, when major decision-makers in journalism and advertising still don't know what the sport is or who watches it and so on, this is an open question.
6) Timing. Reportedly, Zuffa's main competition for Strikeforce was Pro Elite, the group that brought you EliteXC and Kimbo Slice's marvelous fight against Seth Petruzelli. Given their past forays into MMA promotion, one might surmise that the clever move might well have been to let them have it and then pick up whatever assets were left six months from now after they'd run the thing into the side of a mountain.
7) Saturation. Apparently one reason for the purchase is that UFC wants to expand fairly aggressively, especially running far more shows overseas. They know their business better than I do, but there's not much reason to think the market is right now ready to bear a lot more MMA shows. Television ratings are down and fans seem to be getting slightly pickier about which shows they'll pay to see.
8) Dilution. Relatedly, if the plan is to leverage Strikeforce's assets into a serious increase in the number of shows, it's not clear that this makes sense. Strikeforce has a lot of very good fighters and some great ones, but it doesn't have many stars who can be expected to headline a show. It also doesn't add an immense amount of depth to Zuffa's portfolio -- some, surely, but not in a way that changes the game. Since UFC has only fairly recently begun to consistently promote shows that run deep with five fights really worth watching, expansion, even with Emelianenko, Diaz, Dan Henderson and co. on board, is likely to lead to some dodgy mains and perhaps, depending on what is scheduled, some sketchy undercards.
9) Enemy fighters. You can make too big a deal out of this, but there are reasons why people like Josh Barnett and Paul Daley weren't under contract to Zuffa. No one is going to make a fine distinction between UFC and Strikeforce when they do something embarrassing.
10) The structure of the sport. This is a big deal. Before now, any UFC main eventer who had an issue with Zuffa knew that he had an out -- maybe not a perfect one, but a credible one. That's gone now. It also means that any serious star who has an issue over which he feels strongly enough to leave -- and there have been many over the years, even if the departures of the likes of BJ Penn, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture have proved temporary -- would have only one option if he wanted to get paid, that being to promote his own fights. That's the last thing Zuffa would want to see, because it will only take one star of the magnitude of GSP or Brock Lesnar mounting his own pay-per-view card, and reaping the attendant profits, for top fighters to realize that at this point there are stars big enough to survive without the UFC brand.
11) Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum. There is an empty space in MMA right now, and someone is going to fill it. Strikeforce was, in a sense, the best competition UFC could have: It was just credible enough to keep other would-be rivals out of the sport, and just small enough not to pose a serious threat. They were a safety valve, one that's now gone. It's easy to forget this, but UFC is, by sports standards, a mom-and-pop shop. All it would take is one rich lunatic like Roman Abramovich or James Dolan deciding that he likes cage fighting and wouldn't mind throwing some pocket change to hire a guy like Lesnar to give UFC a kind of competition it has never faced.
Of course a lot of this is speculative, and if I were laying a lot of money on it I'd say this will in the end turn out swimmingly for everyone save the fighters, who if they aren't going to unionize or employ their leverage honestly deserve what they get. But there are sound reasons to be skeptical.
Understandably, a lot of fight fans are wondering why it is that the press has seemingly forgotten that Jon Jones is by a fair amount the second most accomplished in Saturday's title fight. Most of this is just about the mechanics of how the press covers things: Jones is a fresh, exciting face with a certain intangible quality that equally good fighters like Cain Velasquez just don't have. Of course he's going to get a lot of hype.
Another part of it, though, is that he really is the favorite by a lot, and should be.
Jones has obviously never faced anyone of Mauricio Rua's caliber before, but he's a nightmare matchup for Shogun. A swarming striking attack that relies on getting within a certain range is a dubious bet against a man with a reach of 84½ inches, and if Jones has never faced a striker like Rua, it's hardly as if Rua has chewed up lots of wrestlers like Jones. Add in that Rua hasn't fought in nearly a year and that he has the worst knees this side Vlad Guerrero and there's a reason, beyond sheer hype, that the money is coming in on Jones.
Past even that, though, let's not kid ourselves about Rua, who is himself the product of more than a bit of hype. The Pride Middleweight Grand Prix was a long time ago, and you can make a case that the man's title win over Lyoto Machida last year was his only quality win in the last five and a half years:
• However you and I may have felt about his first fight against Lyoto Machida, he lost it.
• His two fights before that were against Chuck Liddell and Mark Coleman, both of whom were, to put it gently, past their primes.
• Before he fought those two, he took on Forrest Griffin in a bout that was, if we're being honest, set up to showcase Rua, unknown to the American audience, against a famous and overmatched opponent. He lost.
• His final fight in Pride was against Alistair Overeem, who'd lost three of his previous four fights going in. Before that it was Kazuhiro Nakamura, not a top flight opponent. Before that it was Kevin Randleman, loser at the time of four of five. And before that it was Cyrille Diabaté, not a candidate for MMA's Rushmore. Prior to that fight, of course, was 2005, the year in which Rua went on a murder spree that might well be the best year any fighter has ever had.
Rua is an awesome challenge for Jones, and I'm not going to be a bit surprised if he knocks him out or even if he tangles up one of those long legs in a kneebar. If Rua is being treated as something less than a world beater, though, that's because it's been quite a while since he was proved he was one.