White's Reaction Could Determine MMA's Future (Story From Yahoo! Sports)
by Kevin Iole/Yahoo! Sports
Dana White may be the man most responsible for the meteoric growth of the UFC. It has a national television contract, it does ever-larger pay-per-view sales, it routinely sells out major venues and it has one of the most passionate fan bases in sports.
Much of that is due to White’s grit, guile and cunning.
But White, the UFC president, has a challenge before him, the likes of which he has never faced in his seven years at the helm of the world’s most successful mixed martial arts promotional company.
Though White hardly seemed upset by UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture’s announcement Thursday that he is retiring as a professional fighter and severing all ties with the company, how he handles the situation will determine whether the company will continue its rocket-like ascent toward mainstream acceptance or whether it will return to the netherworld of niche sports status.
Couture quit for the same reason that No. 1 NFL draft pick JaMarcus Russell didn’t sign with the Raiders until after the regular season began, for the reason why Alex Rodriguez is probably going to opt out of his contract with the Yankees: Money.
The UFC has played hardball with its fighters for so long because it has been the only game in town. And, despite the emergence of a slew of promotions like the International Fight League, Elite XC, Strikeforce and, new this week, M-1 Mix Fight, it remains the only viable alternative for most fighters.
It has the most money, the most fans and the best fighters under contract. If you’re a fighter and you’re looking to increase your exposure and your bankroll, you sign with the UFC.
Couture’s sudden retirement changes the dynamic remarkably.
Former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who according to White is the company’s highest-paid fighter, has lost two straight and has conceded that thoughts of retirement have wafted through his head.
Couture, whom White said was his second-highest paid fighter, retired on Thursday.
Matt Hughes, who fights Matt Serra for the welterweight title on Dec. 29, has said on The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV that he’s only going to fight two or three more times before quitting.
Rich Franklin will lose a lot of his luster as a drawing card if he gets manhandled again by Anderson Silva when they meet for the middleweight title at UFC 77 on Oct. 20.
Tito Ortiz, who is down to one fight left on his UFC contract, is nowhere near the invincible force he seemed about five years ago.
And for as many great athletes who dot the UFC’s roster of talent, none, with the possible exception of light heavyweight Forrest Griffin, have the capability of filling an arena like Couture and Liddell did.
White blamed what’s becoming his personal whipping boy – MMA web sites and forums – for spreading phony rumors about fighter pay. Couture, who is in South Africa filming a movie and couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday, released a statement in which he said he was retiring because the UFC didn’t sign Fedor Emelianenko and no other fight mattered to him.
He also said he was upset with UFC management for what he believed was low pay. He made that point in a breakfast meeting last month with White and UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta.
“He felt he was not getting paid as much as Mirko Cro Cop, as much as this guy and as much as that guy,” White said. “We told him he was our second-highest paid fighter, but he didn’t believe us. Chuck’s the only guy who makes more, but he kept hearing all these rumors and he wouldn’t believe us.“
White then launched into a tirade against what he called “the rumor mongerers on the Internet,” whom he said are, “the lowest of the low.“
He said fighters read those sites and believe them to be true, causing friction at the negotiating table.
“This business is like a beauty salon,” he said. “These guys are all the toughest guys in the world, but they’re like (expletives) in a beauty salon. They pass along rumors and gossip, which has no basis in reality and they believe all the (rumors) they hear. The Internet is very powerful and one of the best promotional tools we have, but it’s a crazy place.
“They hear these rumors and they believe them and then they get insulted like (expletives) after we try to talk reality with them. They’ll say, ‘Well, this guy is getting this much,’ but when I ask where they heard it, it’s never a contract, it’s always, ‘I read it on the Internet.’ It’s crazy.“
The Yankees won the World Series after Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson retired. The Lakers won NBA titles after Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson quit.
There is plenty of precedent in sports for teams and organizations succeeding after losing their biggest stars.
But those were established teams in established leagues with long records of success. MMA as we know it has only existed since 1993. And as recently as less than three years ago, few mainstream media paid it any mind.
Griffin and Stephan Bonnar helped change that with a slugfest in the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV that was the equal of any held in boxing.
With a reach of 90 million homes, a fight which was like MMA’s equivalent of the legendary Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns middleweight title brawl, forced a lot of people to begin tuning in.
There have been few bumps in the 30 months since that epic battle.
But if you believe – yep, Internet reports – then White has two major bumps he must hurdle. Several web sites have reported that Emelianenko has signed with a Russian promoter called M-1 Mix Fight.
White, who has been negotiating feverishly for the last six months in a bid to sign Emelianenko and match him with Couture, wasn’t sure if the reports are true.
He demeaned Emelianenko, who is ranked No. 1 in the Y! Sports MMA poll, as a fighter, saying Couture would destroy him, and said Emelianenko’s representatives were nearly impossible to work with.
“The negotiations with those guys were so nutty, that at this point, I don’t give (an expletive) if he ever comes with us,” White said. “If there were real rankings out there, he wouldn’t be the No. 1 fighter in the world, believe me.
“Randy Couture is the top heavyweight. He’s proven it. He’s fought real guys. Who has this guy fought? Mark Coleman and Matt Lindland, who weighs 185 pounds. He’s (an expletive) middleweight. My philosophy has always been to sign the best guys and make them fight, but you see that this guy didn’t want to fight the best because he was impossible to deal with.“
If Emelianenko had signed with the UFC and then subsequently defeated Couture, he would have been Couture’s obvious successor as a drawing card.
On the other hand, had Couture, as White predicts, destroyed Emelianenko, it would have exponentially improved Couture’s drawing power for as long as he wanted to stay around. Now, White is forced to find replacements for two high-level talents.
White isn’t the coolest guy in the world, but he plays one on TV and he tried to pass off Couture’s decision as one of those things that happen in the fight game.
“No matter how great they are, fighters come and go, but it’s the sport that survives,” White said. “Randy Couture retired once before and we didn’t collapse, did we? I love Randy Couture and what he represented.
“He’s a great guy and was a bad dude in that octagon. He’s the kind of guy I want to associate my company with, but I also know that as a fighter, he wouldn’t be around forever no matter what. We’ll survive. This is just another day in my life. Believe me, as much as I would like to be promoting another Couture fight, it’s not the news that is going to kill the UFC.“
White is going to need all his cunning and guile to survive this one, though.
He said Thursday he’s not certain he’s going to go ahead with the long-rumored Liddell-Wanderlei Silva fight as the main event of UFC 79 on Dec. 29 and said he may just headline that card with Hughes challenging Matt Serra for the welterweight title.
In part, that could be a way for White to make up for the loss of a Couture-Emelianenko fight at UFC 80 on Feb. 2. He can slide Liddell-Silva into that slot as the main event on one of the biggest MMA weekends of the year and hope that the fight captures the public’s imagination.
But until those drawing cards emerge to replace Couture, Liddell and Hughes, it’s going to be difficult for the UFC to escape niche status and convince the Fortune 100 companies it craves as sponsors that it has reached the mainstream.
It’s going to be White’s greatest challenge yet.