Shine the spotlight on one-night tourneys

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Jason Chambers could make the latest unemployment statistics sound cheerful. Put him in charge of the Pittsburgh Pirates and he’d convince you the Buccos are on the verge of becoming a dynasty rather than a long-term civic embarrassment to the city of Pittsburgh.

Will the smile of Justin Chambers, the chief operating officer of Shine Fights, fade quickly? UFC president Dana White calls Chambers' tourney idea "stupid and dangerous."
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

He is a former mixed martial arts fighter, actor and television host who’s taken on the seemingly impossible task of turning an MMA startup company into a success. It’s not impossible, of course – Dana White with no college degree and $40 million of his backers’ money in the hole, turned the Ultimate Fighting Championship into a $1 billion company – but at this stage, I like the Pirates’ chances of becoming a dynasty better.

Chambers is the chief operating officer of Shine Fights, which has a pay-per-view card slated at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., on Sept. 10 that will feature an eight-man, one-night lightweight tournament. Shine is allowing fans to choose the opening-round tournament matchups by voting via email.

A large percentage of MMA’s most devoted fan base loves the idea of one-night tournaments, which Royce Gracie and the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship made so popular. On a recent Strikeforce broadcast on Showtime, a poll asked fans if they liked the idea of one-night tournaments. More than 80 percent responded positively.

Chambers, who joined Shine after the cancellation of its May 15 event that was to have featured boxer Ricardo Mayorga against Din Thomas, believes the tournament concept will allow Shine to differentiate itself from the UFC.

The 30-year old Chambers understands that though the UFC’s business is growing rapidly, MMA’s growth outside the UFC is more measured.

“I’m a huge UFC fan,” Chambers said. “I love Strikeforce, too. But I know that about 88 to 92 percent of the audience are UFC fans first, then MMA fans second. I get that. We’re not here trying to compete against the UFC. We just believe there is room in the marketplace for someone like us.”

White has a history of squashing competitors as if they were roaches beneath his foot. He’s none too kind to them, as folks from PRIDE, the World Fighting Alliance, the International Fight League, Elite XC and Affliction, among others, will tell you.

Chambers, who once fought UFC star Thiago Alves, and Shine CEO Devin Price clearly get that. They take great pains to heap praise upon White and the UFC in hopes of avoiding White’s crosshairs.

To that end, they’ve decided to invest a significant part of their future in running one-night tournaments in which the finalists could end up fighting as many as three times in one night. It’s not a format many ringside physicians like and even White said it is outdated.

“It’s stupid and dangerous to have guys fight more than one time a night,” White said. “The sport has evolved so much, it makes no sense to do tourneys.”

Price and Chambers pledge to proceed with caution and say they’ve taken every measure necessary to protect the safety of the eight men who will compete in their lightweight grand prix. That will include having replacements available if a winner can not continue, not allowing elbows and limiting the length of the bouts to two five-minute rounds with one three-minute overtime round in the event of a draw.

Going the tournament route is a way for Shine to differentiate itself from the big players on the market while at the same time filling a niche.

Still, it has plenty of obstacles to overcome. Shine’s May card in Fayetteville, N.C. was canceled after boxing promoter Don King was granted an injunction by a Florida judge, preventing Shine from using Mayorga. Shine still planned to go forward that night, but the North Carolina Boxing Authority canceled the event. It said there was not a physician at the arena in time for the event and that it did not receive the fighters’ compensation in time.

Several fighters claim they weren’t paid the portion of their purses that they were promised by Price, a contention Price disputes.

But the Sept. 10 card has yet to be licensed by Virginia. Eric Olson, the acting public information officer for the Virginia Department of Professional & Occupational Regulation, said the state is in talks with Shine but has yet to license it.

“We’re working closely with the promoter to make sure all of our guidelines are met,” Olson said. “Obviously, the safety of the fighters is tantamount.”

Michael Schwartz is the chief ringside physician in Connecticut and for the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun tribal nations. He said it’s critical that the ringside doctors who work for any tournament do a comprehensive physical examination of every fighter after he wins a match and before he’s cleared to go on to the next round.

He noted that there will be pressure on the doctor to let the tournament proceed, but said the doctor must resist such urges and be given complete authority.

“You have to examine him after each fight as if it’s the first time you’ve seen him and make certain he is fully fit to compete in the upcoming (bout),” Schwartz said.

Chambers said the doctors will have complete autonomy to do as they see fit. But he said Shine couldn’t walk away from the tournament concept because of the huge fan interest in them.

As the Aug. 21 Showtime poll illustrated, there is a lot of interest in the one-night tournaments. And if Shine can become synonymous with such events, it can create a niche for itself in a marketplace that is dominated by the UFC.

“We want to set ourselves apart from the other organizations,” Chambers said. “One of the ways we’ll do that is to use the 24-foot ring, like they did in PRIDE, instead of a cage. These tournaments are also part of that. We polled the fans and this is what they want. Any business has to take that knowledge and act upon it. If you’re a restaurant, you don’t tell the customer what to order. They order what they want.”

Chambers said Shine is already planning to run one-night tournaments at welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight and is even considering one at featherweight.

It’s part of the plan to make Shine a fan-friendly alternative. The odds against it succeeding are long. The NFL is hugely successful, but other competitive leagues like the USFL, the WFL and the XFL have flopped.

The problem with each of them was that, to some extent, they wanted to compete with the NFL for players, sponsors and fans. Shine has no such expectations in MMA.

“The reason that promoters like the WFA, Elite XC and even the IFL have come and gone is that they didn’t have a strong grasp on the MMA community,” Chambers said. “As I said, most people now are UFC fans first and then maybe they’re MMA fans. It’s different in boxing. You have the [Manny)] Pacquiao-[Floyd] Mayweather fight and nobody asks who is promoting it. No one would know, or care. But in MMA, people know that UFC 118 is on this weekend and the second question is, ‘Who’s fighting?’ The real star of the UFC is the UFC itself. That brand is very powerful.

“But beyond them, there is a lot of opportunity for growth there. There is a lot we can do to create our own identity.”

It’s an uphill battle, to be sure. Affliction put on two of the best top-to-bottom cards in recent memory, yet still failed utterly from a financial standpoint and waved the white flag before it could put on a third. It might be easier for the Pirates to compete against the Yankees than for an MMA startup to become regularly profitable.

If Chambers manages to pull it off with Shine, maybe someone should check to see if he can walk on water.

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 Thursday, Sep 2, 2010