Is the UFC's Purchase of Pride FC Good for the Sport of MMA?

On March 27th, it was announced that Pride Fighting Championships would be sold to the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, who are the majority owners of the UFC. There are so many ramifications to the sport of mixed martial arts that it’s hard to discuss them in one post, so I certainly don’t pretend to cover every aspect here. But I’ll try to address a few.

Many are ecstatic to hear the news, as it suggests that fans will be more likely to see the dream fights they’ve yearned for. The highly sought after matches like Chuck Liddell versus Wanderlei Silva would be possible in practice and not just in the minds of fantasy predictors. While this is probably true, it’s one of many effects of the marriage of Pride and UFC and the whole picture should be addressed.

What we’ve seen over the past twelve months in the mixed martial arts industry has been the traditional “wave of consolidation” that one sees in most industries as time passes. A single larger business buying its competitors is part of the maturation of a market. You can look at the telecom sectors, where the explosive growth of telecom under the rise of the internet fueled mergers and acquisitions so fast that it was hard to keep track of who had just bought who. While it’s not easy for a mixed martial arts fan who enjoys having multiple MMA outlets to see organizations like the WEC, WFA, and Pride FC consumed by the larger and more powerful UFC, what we’ve witnessed is a natural course of events.

Is the unification of UFC and Pride FC that big of a deal then?

As discussed above, what we are witnessing isn’t so much sports as business. It’s difficult from a fan’s perspective to see things other than as a sport. Ultimately what’s most likely to determine the course things take in MMA isn’t what is best for the sport however, but best for the businessmen who run the sport.

Consider one aspect: when there is less competition for a fighter, the remaining promotion(s) will have more control over a fighter’s income. After the endgame scenario where a single entity has outcompeted its peers, and only one promoter remains, it will be able to determine a fighter’s income as it sees fit. In the end, a business owner’s sole objective is to grow the business. That’s a business’ only goal: to grow as fast as possible, and the fighters’ are operational units that help drive the business growth. To the extent they absolutely must be cared for, they will be, but anything else is charity, and not likely to occur on any wide scale.

While the balance or power will for a time be solely in the UFC’s hands, it is not probable that it will go unchallenged forever because it would weaken the sport too much. There will always be a cyclical push and pull (call it yin-yang, whatever you like) between business owners’ interests and the workers interests’. In other sports we’ve seen organizations like players’ unions or players’ associations spring up to defend the players’ interests collectively, and balance the power wielded by team owners and leagues.

Can such an entity arise in mixed martial arts? The newer, younger fighters are so desperate to make a name for themselves in the sport that they must concentrate on the near term goal of being able to fight in “the big show”, period. It would take one or more MMA superstars to take a stand and form such an organization. I think it was Josh Gross who suggested recently on Sherdog’s radio show Beatdown that Randy Couture would be a candidate to lead the sport of mixed martial arts’ first official fighters association. In a conversation with Zach Arnold of FightOpinion, Zach suggested Bas Rutten would also be a good candidate for the role. There are others who could perform the role, but do not possess the star power that those two do.

In one of my first of many MMA predictions, I offer that when the market of MMA has reached the inevitable scenario of a single organization controlling the sport (some may argue we’re already there), the question isn’t “if” a fighters union will arise, but “when” it will. I agree that it will most likely be Randy Couture to initiate the organization. While some may say that Randy’s well-being is too intertwined with the success of the UFC, I think it’s safe to say that in 3-5 years Couture will be well enough off that he will be in a position to let his principles guide his actions and not his financial needs. Couture’s (or Rutten’s) stepping into this role will come after a series of public incidents (two big incidents? five small ones?) where the UFC’s hegemony harms the fighters.

An angle to the UFC and Pride takeover that’s been best addressed by FightOpinion and Eddie Goldman has been Pride FC’s alleged involvment with the Japanese mafia, or yakuza. If it’s true that Pride FC’s leadership was involved in or had dealings with the yakuza, how might that affect the UFC, or the sport as a whole?

A doomsday scenario in any sport is that what happens on the ice, on the field, or in the ring /cage is not determined by the athletes involved but by fixing. When organized crime has intervened in the past to “recommend” (strongly) an outcome of a fight in boxing, it immediately and permanently stains the sport. Mixed martial arts’ similarity to boxing makes it no stretch to imagine fight fixing happening in MMA, and if the links to the yakuza in PrideFC are legitimate, the situation holds the ingredients for a truly frightening outcome for the sport’s fans on an even greater stage now that Pride and the UFC are under one group’s control. We have what engineers call “a single point of failure”, where the success or failure of a system depends on one piece; we will hope that the piece is strong and reliable enough to withstand whatever “outside influences” may be placed on it.

So, the ramifications of UFC’s purchase of Pride FC are in no way trivial and certainly go beyond seeing the best of both organizations go head to head. There are more aspects to be discussed. In the meantime we’ll continue to hope that the Fertitta brothers’ purchase of Pride will only bring good things to the sport of mixed martial arts.

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