UFC Celebrates a Landmark Year

By Andrew Levine
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 30, 2006

In 2006, the Ultimate Fighting Championship entered the realm of mainstream sports. Gate revenue for its nine events brought in between $1.9 million and $3.3 million per card, its reality television show, "The Ultimate Fighter," is Spike TV's highest-rated program, and a UFC event on Spike in October drew higher ratings among males 18 to 34 than Game 1 of baseball's American League Championship Series.

"We've caught lightning in a bottle with this thing," UFC President Dana White said.

Not surprisingly, others have joined in on the country's mixed martial arts, or MMA, boom that UFC has spurred. Japan's Pride Fighting Championships recently hosted its first event in the United States, the newly formed Elite Xtreme Combatwill host its first card on Showtime in February and various other organizations have locked up their own television and pay-per-view contracts.

"As the years go on, I see MMA overtaking boxing," said Gary Shaw, a longtime boxing promoter and president of EliteXC. "The demographic from [ages] 18-36 is huge and boxing does not appeal to those demos. [Boxing] is having trouble putting fans in the seats, but MMA can really turn fans out. It's a phenomenon."

But MMA's newfound popularity could create new problems. Mixed martial arts currently operates in a system where the company that promotes and hosts the cards also has the fighters participating under contract. And although big-money super-fights occur rarely because of disagreements between promoters, boxing still has the freedom to put the two best fighters from the same weight class together for the sort of bout that satiates fans and benefits the promoters and the boxers.

"If these new promoters come in and do not have success, that's a bad thing," said Josh Gross, editor of Sherdog.com, the country's largest Web site devoted to mixed martial arts. "Eventually they're all going to have to come together. Otherwise, there's going to be too much money left on the table.

"The best fighters have to fight each other. In the end that's what it's about. If the best fighters don't fight each other, you really will have meaningless fights and boring, repetitive matchups. It'll take away from the credibility of the sport."

The UFC has put together this kind of fight to end its landmark year. Tonight's UFC 66 card at Las Vegas's MGM Grand Garden Arena matches two of the sport's biggest names -- light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.

Of the UFC's competitors, only Pride has a comparable talent pool, and although wildly popular overseas, it has put on just one show in the United States and its financial stability has come into question after its TV contract in Japan fell apart earlier this year. EliteXC was publicly launched just over two weeks ago, on Dec. 14.

Shaw, who promoted the boxing match between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis in 2002, said EliteXC will have an open-door policy with respect to bringing in outside fighters while each of the company's own fighters has a clause in his contract to compete under other organizations.

Ultimately though, the UFC will have the final say, given its stature as the country's preeminent MMA organization. To that end, the UFC appears headed in a direction that would attempt to bring almost all the top talent under its roof.

The UFC recently purchased the contracts of the now defunct World Fighting Alliance (giving the UFC the rights to Quinton Jackson, the last man to defeat Liddell), which sought to compete with the UFC but only put on one show, and bought the established World Extreme Cagefighting, which will operate as a separate entity from the UFC.

UFC also has its ever-expanding programming deal with Spike, which runs midway through 2008. Spike can no longer buy advertising time on ESPN for its UFC programming because ESPN "views us as competition," said Brian Diamond, Spike's senior vice president of sports and specials.

"Nobody knows this business better than we do," White said. "When we bought this thing [in 2001] it was the most unattractive thing. So unattractive that people didn't view it as a sport. Now you have all these [companies] that are jumping in, but we're the guys who know."

For the burgeoning organizations, long-term success may hinge heavily on creativity. The International Fight League, which launched earlier this year and airs on Fox Sports Net, opted for a team format instead of the traditional boxing model with the hopes of zeroing in on a different part of the MMA market.

"If [new companies] are not different enough and they don't offer something special they're going to be in for a rude awakening," said Kurt Otto, CEO of IFL.

It's a way of "competing, but not competing directly" with the UFC, Otto said.

White agrees.

"I don't look at a lot of these guys as competition," White said. "It's always going to happen. You've got all these other companies out there and when they're all gone in the next year and a half, there are going to be two more new ones."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company