Cuban's slow brew

Kevin Iole

From the minute billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban announced his entry into mixed martial arts, it was assumed that the price tag for free-agent heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko would skyrocket.

That may yet turn out to be true.

But somehow, I get the feeling that Cuban, the maverick owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, isn't ready to sink his teeth into the big-name market yet.

Cuban's cable television channel, HDNet, which he says is available in more than 65 million homes, has plans to compete directly with the 800-pound gorilla of MMA promoters, the UFC.

HDNet will broadcast a fight card on Oct. 13 from the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

It will mark the first steps in a journey that Cuban hopes ends at the highest level of the business. That can only be good news for MMA fans, who could use someone to challenge the UFC to spur competition.

Guy Mezger, the former UFC fighter whom Cuban appointed as commissioner of HDNet Fight, believes there is plenty of room for both companies to succeed.

"We want to be United Airlines to their American Airlines," Mezger said. "Our intent is to coexist."

Cuban became an MMA fan by watching fights on the cable channel he founded in 2001. HDNet, looking for programming to fill time in its earlier years, broadcast fight cards from many smaller promoters in its infancy, loaded with fighters looking to build a reputation.

While the fighters weren't necessarily household names, they competed with a ferocity which attracted Cuban.

"My favorite fights aren’t necessarily the (one with the) big names," Cuban said. "I most enjoy fights and fighters who never back down."

His favorite fighter, he says, is unbeaten 19-year-old lightweight Chris Horodecki of the IFL's Los Angeles Anacondas.

"The kid looks like he is 12 and won't stop attacking," Cuban said.

Even though he's one of the world's richest men and played a significant role in turning the Mavericks from a moribund franchise into one of the NBA's elite, Cuban faces a daunting challenge.

There is no player draft each year in which he can stock his roster and the UFC has most everyone anyone would want under contract. Nine of the 10 fighters in the Yahoo! Sports top 10 poll are under contract to the UFC.

So Cuban has a dilemma: Does he go out and try to blow the UFC's salary structure out of the water and try to attract a number of its stars to make a splash or does he quietly try to develop his own talent from the ground up?

Though Cuban admits to talks with representatives of Emelianenko, the erstwhile Pride heavyweight champion and the top-ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports poll, expect him to groom his own stars.

Give the guy credit for some smarts. He's a native Pittsburgher, but has resisted numerous pleas from Pirates fans to buy the team. That shows plenty of wisdom, the kind he'll need to compete with the UFC given the head start it has.

While representatives of many of the world's best fighters have let it be known they'd be willing to listen to Cuban, don't be shocked if Cuban tells them "Thanks, but no thanks," for a little while as he builds.

"There have been no shortage of big-name fighters proactively contacting us wanting to work with us," Cuban said. "Some are trying to decide what they will do when their contracts end with other promoters. I think the prevailing thought among fighters is that competition is a good thing and that more than a few of them want to explore alternatives. We think we are well-positioned to sign a few of them.

"We will also put a priority on signing and developing talent. We don’t have to conquer Rome in a day."

Cuban is already laying the foundation for success. He's announced an MMA show, "Inside MMA," which will debut Friday on HDNet. The 30-minute news magazine show will cover the entire MMA scene and will include profiles of top fighters.

Ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who fights Keith Jardine in the main event of UFC 76 on Sept. 22, will be the guest on the premiere show.

It's a brilliant move by Cuban, even though some may see it as aiding and abetting the enemy.

By featuring Liddell, arguably the most popular fighter in the game, he's bound to attract significant numbers of fans. That is a way to let them know of his plans.

And Cuban realizes it doesn't have to be either-or for him to be a success. If he can sign a big name or two as he's building, he'll be able to keep the interest of fans as he makes his ascent.

And though nearly every top heavyweight in the world is under contract to the UFC except for Emelianenko, his brother, Alexander, and Josh Barnett, Cuban may still make a run at signing Emelianenko.

But if he gets one, he'll have to get at least three, because mismatches are bound to kill any fledgling MMA organization.

"We realize that unless we provide significant competition we won't be able to serve MMA fans," Cuban said. "No one wants to see a top fighter take on tomato cans."

And while an Emelianenko-Barnett fight would be highly interesting, not many would want to see it six times a year.

That's why the slow approach is probably the way Cuban will go.

I'm certain UFC president Dana White isn't losing any sleep over Cuban's arrival into the business, but don't be surprised if Cuban builds himself an MMA powerhouse over the next five years.

And that means it's a good time to be an MMA fan. There's going to be a lot to look forward to in the next couple of years.