Dropping weight classes a gamble for WEC
Almost from the day that Dana White and his partners, Las Vegas casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, purchased the UFC in 2001, the UFC president was asked repeatedly about his interest in signing a particular fighter.
Without fail, White would express confidence in signing said fighter and then would launch into a diatribe in which he’d say, “I want all of them,” in reference to the world’s finest mixed martial artists.
Since the acquisition of the rival PRIDE Fighting Championship in 2006, White hasn’t had to answer the question nearly as often.
He had better brace, though, because it seems that tired old question is going to return with a vengeance.
This time, though, he’ll be asked about signing fighters for the World Extreme Cagefighting organization, which Zuffa, the White-led company that owns the UFC, purchased in late 2006.
The WEC purchase has been more than White could have hoped for. He acquired the talent of brilliant matchmaker Scott Adams in the process, as well as the contracts of a passel of elite fighters.
Two of the WEC fighters, featherweight champion Urijah Faber (No. 5) and bantamweight champion Miguel Torres (No. 7), are ranked in the Yahoo! Sports top 10 poll of the world’s best fighters. Its
welterweight champion, Carlos Condit, is in the top 20.
Zuffa’s decision to trim the WEC from six divisions (light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight) to four by folding its light heavyweight and
middleweight divisions into the UFC, however, will make it that much harder to fill cards.
That’s particularly true given White’s plan to add pay-per-view shows to the WEC’s offerings, perhaps as early as May.
Since Zuffa bought the WEC, it has put on 11 live events in 20 months. The 12th will be on Sept. 10 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when Faber defends his title against Mike Brown.
White, who holds as tight a rein on the WEC as he does over the UFC, said he’s not certain exactly how many WEC cards Zuffa will stage in 2009.
Laughing, though, he said, “We’re still figuring that out, but I can tell you this: It’s not going to go down.”
Therein lies the problem for Joe Silva, the most unappreciated man in mixed martial arts. Silva is Zuffa’s vice president of talent relations and matchmaker and he makes the WEC’s fights in conjunction
with Adams along with all of the UFC cards.
The number of available fighters will drop by 33 percent – two of its
existing six divisions are heading to the UFC – but the number of shows will increase.
And as good as Faber and Torres are, they can only fight a finite number of times.
The WEC has ridden Faber hard since adding him to its stable in 2007. Counting WEC 36 on Sept. 10, Faber will have fought in the main event on five of the 12 shows since Zuffa has owned the company, and was in the co-main event once.
There’s no way he’ll be able to keep up that pace, particularly if the WEC expands to 10 shows next year. Though White said he’s not sure how many shows the WEC will do next year, going to 10 would seem likely, given the fact he said it’s going to increase and he has a contract with the Versus cable network that he needs to fulfill.
And while losing the light heavyweights won’t matter much to the WEC –
only ex-Marine captain Brian Stann was headline worthy from that division and, as he showed at WEC 35, he’s clearly a work in progress and far from an elite fighter – losing the middleweights will have an
Middleweight champion Paulo Filho is among the four or five finest 185- pounders and there are some who believe he’s worthy of being rated among the pound-for-pound best.
Only Faber seems capable of carrying a pay-per-view show now among those on the WEC roster. Torres undoubtedly will as he gains more exposure and Condit may in the future, as well.
If ex-UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver stays motivated, he’s another who could do it. There aren’t, though, many more good options.
There are plenty of excellent fighters, but not those who have the charisma, the fan base and the fighting skill to make a pay-per-view card a success.
White, as usual, insists he’s hardly concerned. And while he defended the decision to add pay-per-view to the mix on the WEC side, he clearly isn’t worried about oversaturating the market.
“Have you ever heard one person who said there are too many NFL games on,” White asked.
No, but NFL games, he was reminded, are free. Fans are asked to pay $45 for the UFC pay-per-views.
Still, White said the same marketing that helped the UFC rise from near-extinction to become the sport’s dominant promotional company will allow the WEC to succeed.
“We have a track record and all you have to do is see what we’ve done in the past to know what we’re going to do with this thing,” White said of the WEC. “There are a lot of moving parts right now. I have a
million and one things on my plate. But I know this: The WEC is stacked with talent and there are a lot of exciting fights that we can make.
“We’re going to do what we do and market the (expletive) out of this and build it day by day. The fighters are there, too, believe me. We’re not new at this thing.”
The fight game takes a physical toll on its combatants, however, and with a smaller pool of fighters to choose from, the same men are going to be asked to headline and appear on the pay-per-view shows. And if there aren’t enough bodies to go around, White could come to rue the day he decided to lop off the middleweights and light heavyweights.
White, though, is undaunted.
“We’re starting from a position in the WEC where guys like Faber and Torres, so many people know how great they are already,” White said. “Remember where we were when we took over the UFC. We were off cable and we couldn’t even get (venue operators) to answer our phone calls.
“The WEC has got great talent that people know and a good TV contract (with Versus). We’re still going to put a lot of our best fights on Versus, so this thing is only going to get better.”
To do it, he may have to raid the Japanese MMA promotions, where high-quality fighters such as Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto are competing.
Because without an influx of big-time talent, this may be one challenge even White isn’t up to filling.