After a day that started out as a public relations nightmare for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, with three of the company's top rated fighters about to be kicked to the curb, everything is now back as it was.
UFC president Dana White said on Wednesday he was getting rid of the entire San Jose-based American Kickboxing Association team after several AKA fighters refused to sign the company's new merchandising agreement.
Those affected were Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, generally considered two of the top five welterweights in the world, Cain Velasquez, who many thought was the future of the heavyweight division, and Christian Wellisch, a journeyman heavyweight.
Fitch and Wellisch were released on Wednesday while Koscheck and Velasquez were to be released as soon as the company could legally cut them, which would be either when their respective contracts expires, or when they suffered their next loss.
But after Fitch spoke with Zuffa LLC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta on Thursday afternoon, Fitch agreed to sign the merchandise agreement and before long, all problems between the sides appear to have been settled.
White had played hardball with the camp, upset that Velasquez tried to get some wording changed in his basic contract in new talks, and that Fitch refused to sign the merchandise deal. Fitch had said the problem was the clause about giving Zuffa lifetime exclusive merchandising rights. UFC already had nonexclusive merchandising rights. He attempted to get the time frame changed from lifetime, to a time period of five to 10 years.
"A big part [of the settlement] is that Fitch and Dana had a conversation, and then Fitch and Lorenzo had a conversation," said Bob Cook, Fitch's agent and the CEO of Zinkin Entertainment. "Fitch is a laid-back guy and he talked it out with Lorenzo. I think the problem was settled."
While not confirmed, Cook believed that Fitch (21-3) would be back fighting Akihiro Gono on Jan. 31 in Las Vegas. It is known UFC was looking for a new opponent for Gono on Wednesday and Thursday before Fertitta and Fitch reached the reconciliation.
Fitch had tied the UFC's record with eight consecutive wins before losing by decision to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre on Aug. 9 in Minneapolis in a welterweight title match. While St. Pierre dominated the match, winning every round solidly, Fitch came out of the fight as a bigger star than he ever had been after taking tremendous punishment and still going the distance. Fitch had two fights left on his current contract, but UFC deals give the promotion the right to release a fighter after a loss.
Wellisch, who had agreed to sign the merchandise deal ahead of time, was cut because White had at that point decided to get rid of everyone from American Kickboxing Academy, and Wellisch could be legally cut since he was coming off a loss.
Koscheck could have been legally cut, also coming off a loss, but the company felt they owed him for taking his Oct. 25 fight with Thiago Alves on less than two weeks notice, saving the company from a jam after Diego Sanchez was injured.
Koscheck was also already advertised to headline UFC's next show, a Dec. 10 Spike TV special, "Fight for the Troops," from outside of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., against Yoshiyuki Yoshida, but if he had lost, he would have been cut.
Velasquez (4-0) had two fights left on his contract, and would have been cut in the event of a loss, but more likely would have been hidden in preliminary matches and kept off main cards until the deal expired. He's currently out of action after knee surgery, but Cook said they are hopeful of getting him a fight in February.
Velasquez was considered by many as the company's best heavyweight prospect, as a former All-American wrestler from Arizona State, who is already top level in both stand-up and jiu-jitsu. He figures to be a serious title threat by the end of 2009. There was plenty of talk after Saturday night's show in Las Vegas of a potential showdown next year with Velasquez vs. Brock Lesnar.
Smith steps in at Strikeforce
Scott "Hands of Steel" Smith will always be best known for being in the fight that stole the show on the most watched MMA broadcast in history.
On the first CBS TV special on May 31, he and Robbie Lawler went back and forth in an even fight for Lawler's EliteXC middleweight title. The fight ended without an outcome, as the doctor stopped the fight after Smith was poked in the eyes. The two picked up where they left off, headlining the second CBS special two months later, with Lawler scoring a second-round TKO.
Smith becomes the first EliteXC headliner to fight since the company's apparent, when he headlines Friday night's Strikeforce show at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. which airs live on HDNet.
Smith (13-5) faces another former UFC fighter, Terry Martin (18-5) in a three-round main event. The fight was announced earlier in the week, but Smith said it was first floated to him, and he expected it, three weeks ago. Smith had been in training for a Nov. 8 fight for EliteXC when the company went down.
"I don't know where my contract stands right now," said Smith, who is one of the names on contracts that at one point were scheduled to be auctioned off by Showtime this past Monday, but the auction has since been postponed.
Both fighters have wrestling backgrounds, but are known more as heavy hitters, each being in two of the best comeback knockouts in recent UFC history, with different results. Smith, who participated in the fourth season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show, was on the verge of being knocked out by Pete Sell, and on his way down, when they threw a desperation punch that put Sell out. Martin, about one year ago, was winning a slugfest with time running out in a fight with Chris Leben. Martin had Leben rocked, when Leben clocked him with a one punch knockout.
Smith was confident that he'd get a full schedule of fights even with Elite down for the count.
"I think I can get a lot of fights because I'm always in exciting fights," he said. "I think this will deliver fireworks."
The other televised matches have Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Bobby Southworth (204), a villain from Season 1 of "Ultimate Fighter," defending against heavily-favored former UFC pay-per-view main eventer Renato "Babalu" Sobral (204); Yves Edwards (164) vs. Duane "Bang" Ludwig (163); Randy Couture's wife Kim "Sugar Free" Couture (132) vs. Lina Kvokov (133); Joe "Diesel" Riggs (170.5) vs. Luke Stewart (170.5) and Brad Royster (134) vs. Darren Uyenoyama (136).
Fedor falls in sambo tourney
Fedor Emelianenko, the consensus No. 1 heavyweight in the world, was an interested onlooker in Saturday night's Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar match. Ever since Couture won the heavyweight title from Tim Sylvia in 2007, both Couture and Emelianenko had talked of doing a fight, which garnered more talk when Couture quit UFC partially over an attempt to make a fight.
With Lesnar as champion, Emelianenko and his Russian promoters, M-1, issued a grandstand challenge (a term for a fight that everyone knows politically can't happen), for a match against the massive former pro wrestler.
Emelianenko (28-1) has a career record of 11-1 against former or current pro wrestlers in Japan, including his lone fluke loss to Tsuyoshi Kosaka.
Less than 24 hours after Couture's loss, Emelianenko, in his original sport of combat sambo, found himself defeated for the first time in eight years by Bulgaria's Blagoy Ivanov, who went on to win the world championship.
"My Bulgarian opponent wasn't a surprise," said Emelianenko through an interpreter. "I always understand there could be the possibility of losing a bout. My opponent was European champion in combat sambo. But for me, sambo is a hobby. I enjoy participating in the sport, but it's a different sport. It's a sport scored based on throws and being taken to the ground. That's happened to me in MMA with [Kazuyuki] Fujita and [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira. It's not my occupation or my work, which is MMA. I think the result would be different under MMA rules."