A battle outside the ring

LAS VEGAS – Every day the alarm goes off and his eyes open is a victory for Jay Larkin.

He has one of the toughest jobs in sports: trying to take the IFL off the critical list. The league’s stock is hovering at 10 cents, rumors of its demise pop up every day and sponsors shudder at the thought of associating with it.

But Larkin looks at it all – “this great big mess,” he says – and beams.

He has a job that makes him relevant, and going to work every day trying to solve problems for folks who depend on his wisdom and his instincts almost makes him forget he has brain cancer.

Almost.

Larkin, 57, was diagnosed with brain cancer in April 2007, nearly 1½ years after he parted ways with Showtime, where he founded and ran the network’s boxing program. If the IFL’s many woes make him forget, he remembers by the monthly trips to Durham, N.C., where he receives treatment at Duke University.

He is healthy and active, but he refuses to call himself a survivor.

“I have too much respect for this thing to ever utter those words,” he said.

But his calling now is to make sure he can use the word “survivor” and not have to be fearful. He is desperate to be able to say one day that the IFL has survived.

He is too blunt and too honest to say he’s sure it’s going to happen.

The IFL, which opened its second season with a so-so show Friday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, is one of four major mixed martial arts organizations, along with the UFC, Elite XC and Strikeforce.

“Of all these organizations, no one is making money but the UFC, and we don’t know how much they’re making,” Larkin said.

Larkin said even the UFC isn’t doing as well as it was not long ago – but that also doesn’t bode well for the long-term survival of its competitors.

He said the UFC has done such a spectacular job of branding itself that most fans view MMA and UFC synonymously.

“If they’re sliding, what play is there for everybody else?” Larkin asked. “I’m not certain that there is an MMA audience. What I can see at this point is that there is a UFC audience. Believe me, I wish I had their problems.”

Larkin, though, isn’t ready to cede the game to Dana White and the UFC. The last thing he wants to make the IFL, he said, is UFC Lite, so he has set out to remake the IFL in his image.

And that meant gassing the team concept the league used last year, with silly names like Dragons and Anacondas – “That almost sounded cartoonish,” said John Gunderson, who lost a bid for the lightweight title when he was beaten by Ryan Schultz – and replaced them with camp affiliations.

The IFL has affiliated itself with some of the biggest names in MMA coaching, and drawing fighters from, say, Pat Miletich’s camp or Matt Lindland’s camp leads to much better matches.

“We were hamstrung in the team concept by the lineup,” Larkin said. “But with this format, if I don’t like a fight, we can go to another camp and bring someone in and, boom, a better night of fights.”

He has set about to close the many financial leaks the company has had and to find ways to increase revenues.

There are a lot of negatives surrounding his efforts to resuscitate the league, but it’s not all bad.

“I took this job because I saw a company which had tremendous assets and a tremendous infrastructure and tremendous energy but was making mistakes that they wouldn’t have made if they had more experienced people involved,” Larkin said. “I saw an opportunity to turn it around a bit and clean up a lot of the leaks, the financial leaks. We’ve done that in a lot of cases, so we’re solidifying it very well.”

His hope is to keep the IFL afloat until a television deal comes along that will save it. Friday’s card was broadcast on Mark Cuban’s HDNet, but it’s available in only six million homes.

It has a deal with Fox Sports but doesn’t have the kind of television exposure that the UFC has with Spike TV.

But the television field changed dramatically on Thursday when Elite XC announced a multiyear deal with CBS.

“I’ve always said when that first one came, all the others were going to fall and the dam was going to burst,” Larkin said. “The first thing I have to do when I get back is return all these phone calls about (television deals).”

He thought about that for a second and slowly shook his head. He doesn’t like to talk much about his cancer – “I’ve never really spoken about this before,” he says – but he concedes it has changed him.

He’s much more patient and pragmatic than he ever has been. He has a perspective on life that he never could have had without getting cancer.

“When I was at Showtime, I had doors that were open to me by virtue of my job that were incredible,” Larkin said. “The limos, the 5,000-square foot suites, the fancy restaurants, all these things. And then one day, someone told me I had cancer and I had a lot of work to do, and all of a sudden, that stuff didn’t mean a thing.

“All that meant anything was my wife and my kids and the people who were important to me. I’m trying to get a red eye to get out of here now so that I could be home and see my boys when they get up in the morning. Before, I’d never have done that.”

He speaks softly, his eyes looking to the floor. He is, he says, awed by cancer. And he’s awed by the job he has to do to make the IFL viable.

“You know, it’s a big task, and I know I’m not shocking anyone when I say that,” Larkin said. “But I’m not intimidated by it. I have a perspective now that’s a lot different than I had before. Once you have cancer, you become different in so many ways. And I understand that it’s a big job and there is a lot to do, but it’s something I can handle. If it can be done, I know I can do it.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 1, 2008