Affliction hoping for big burst on MMA scene
He doesn’t so much as have a promoter’s license yet, but Tom Atencio has already got the shtick down.
He’s about a month away from promoting his first mixed martial arts card, but he’s already touting it as the best in the history of the sport.
That might be a stretch, though it’s going to feature six of the world’s elite heavyweights and enough of the world’s finest fighters to hold the interest of even the most ardent MMA fans.
And Atencio insists he’s undaunted by the enormity of the task that lay ahead of Affliction before its July 19 debut card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
He’s got a card stacked with big – and expensive – names, elite heavyweights such as Fedor Emelianenko, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Josh Barnett, Ben Rothwell, Pedro and Aleksander Emelianenko.
That’s a former PRIDE heavyweight champion and three ex-UFC heavyweight champs among that group, in case you’re wondering.
“If you are an MMA fan, even if you’re just a casual fan, can you look at this card and not say you’re dying to see it?” Atencio asks.
No doubt. It’s a must-see event, particularly since it brings Fedor Emelianenko back onto the world stage.
Once the unquestioned finest fighter in the world, his career has drifted aimlessly the past 3½ years. He all but cleaned out the heavyweight division from 2002 through 2005, but his career changed course dramatically after he beat Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic on Aug. 31, 2005.
Emelianenko fought the underwhelming Zulu on Dec. 31, 2005, and has yet to fight anyone since who was a real threat to beat him. He’s beaten Mark Coleman, Mark Hunt, middleweight Matt Lindland and MMA neophyte Hong Man Choi in the interim.
Atencio is counting on plenty of interest in Emelianenko to make Affliction’s first card a success.
“He’s almost a mythical, legendary figure in this sport,” Atencio said of Emelianenko. “He’s the (800)-pound gorilla of this industry. The hard core fans, you know they’re dying to see him against someone like Tim (Sylvia). But I think the casual fans are interested, too. He’s not a guy who you’d look at and immediately guess he’s a fighter. He looks like an accountant. But he’s as dangerous as anyone, probably more so.”
This isn’t the first time that Emelianenko has headlined a similarly stacked card, and therein lies Atencio’s conundrum.
Emelianenko defeated Coleman in Las Vegas on Oct. 21, 2006, in the first PRIDE card held in the U.S. That show featured an array of the world’s best talent, including Barnett, Shogun Rua, Kevin Randleman, Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort and Robbie Lawler.
But while there was a good crowd inside the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus, far more than half the tickets were given away. And the pay-per-view was an utter disaster, selling only around 30,000 units.
Atencio is well aware of that PRIDE show’s strengths and shortcomings, but he’s convinced Affliction is set to make an impact upon the industry.
Affliction sponsored many of the fighters, paying them thousands of dollars to wear their merchandise into the cage or ring in various MMA promotions.
But Atencio said the seeds of promoting its own show were planted after UFC president Dana White banned his fighters from wearing Affliction clothing into the cage last year.
White disputed that, saying though there long were rumors he was going to ban Affliction, he never considered it until Affliction decided to become a promoter.
“The last thing we want to do is take money out of our fighters’ pockets,” White said. “If there is some idiot T-shirt guy who wants to pay them a (expletive) of money to wear his stuff, it’s hard for me to say no. I don’t want to say no. But think about this. How many T-shirts do you have to sell if you’re going to pay a guy $100,000 to wear one of them? I love it. I had no intention of banning them. I loved seeing my guys take the money off those knuckleheads.”
But many of those guys are now fighting for Affliction. Atencio has little interest in engaging White in a public war of words, particularly since he’s been so successful attracting top-level fighters.
He’s also convinced that Affliction will succeed despite the track record PRIDE had in the U.S.
“Any time you get into a new venture, you’re always leery,” Atencio said. “But if you do your homework and you commit to doing things right, you can be successful. We have a great relationship with the fighters. We’re treating them well. And we think we have some of the best fighters in the world.
“But we’re going to run it as a business. We’ll be smart about how we do things. We’re going into this with our eyes open.”
And while every big-name free agent is now rumored to be heading to Affliction, Atencio said he’s going to run a lean ship. He said he has between 25 and 30 fighters under contract and, while he’s going to add fighters, he isn’t looking to sign anywhere near the more than 200 that the UFC usually has contracted.
He’s open to working with other promoters and using fighters from other promotions on his cards or putting his fighters on other shows.
“The UFC is the Q-Tip of the industry,” Atencio said. “To a large degree, they built the industry. They’ve done a great job. I respect what they’ve done. But as in any business, there has to be competition. We feel like we’ve put together a card that is unmatched.
“This card is one of the biggest in history, maybe the biggest. People who come to our show or who (buy it on pay-per-view) are going to get their money’s worth. These are the kinds of shows we want to put on every time.”
But every new promoter runs into problems. The UFC was more than $40 million in debt in its first five years under its current ownership before turning itself around. The IFL is on the verge of collapse. Several other promotions have already gone belly up.
As White puts it, “No matter how much money you have, the question becomes, how deep are you willing to go? How much are you willing to lose?
“The UFC brand was a big name before we took it over. And we were $44 million into it before it got up off the ground, thank God. It took us five years and a lot of money. And we had so many things we had to learn, it was scary. It’s going to take a long time to learn them and you’re going to lose a lot while you learn. It all comes down to how much pain you’re willing to take.”
Atencio, who tentatively has Affliction’s second card planned for October or November, is undaunted, convinced his product will be the equal of any and that the loyalty the company has built among top-level fighters will pay off.
It doesn’t hurt to have Donald Trump, one of the richest and most visible men in the country, as part of the promotion either. If it turns out that Affliction has to reach deep into its pockets, Trump can reach as deep as anyone.
Trump aside, Atencio is a low-key guy, but he’s not above saying he expects Affliction to be in the fight game for a long time to come.
“I’m not going to put numbers on it, but I expect the show to be a success,” he said. “With the guys we have on it, how can it not be?”