LAS VEGAS – When the Ultimate Fighting Championship started as a made-for-pay-per-view event in 1993, it was a learn-as-you-go proposition since nobody knew what to expect.
Over the past few years, in attempting to turn whatever it started out as being to a legitimate sport with unified rules and commission regulation, there have been a new set of growing pains. The more popular the sport gets, the more controversies there seems to be regarding judging criteria, referee stoppages and rule interpretations.
Last week, when the Association of Boxing Commissions came up with changes to the unified rules at its Montreal convention, among the many people who had no idea any of this was coming was UFC President Dana White.
"There's going to be a fight," said White when talking about new rules being implemented. "And you know I don't roll over easily."
White unequivocally said they have no intention of changing or adding to the company's current five current weight classes: Lightweight (155-pound maximum); welterweight (170); middleweight (185); light heavyweight (205) and heavyweight (265).
The new unified rules include an ill-thought-out 14 different weight classes, particularly the addition of 215 and 225 pound divisions, which makes little sense with the dearth of quality heavyweights from 205 to 265 pounds to begin with.
"No, we're not following that," he said.
The commissions said that the promotions have the option of doing whatever weight classes they want. But doing so would create an inconsistent sport.
It becomes an interesting game because from Day 1 after taking over the promotion in 2001, Zuffa has attempted to become regulated and fight under commission rules that would be universally recognized.
There were many officials in the previous UFC ownership that weren't thrilled with some of the rules, in particular banning of knee strikes on the ground, that the New Jersey State Athletic Control board implemented in 2000. Those rules have been used as the framework in most new states that have since regulated the sport. But commission regulation, both of which they agreed and didn't agree with, was a necessary evil in the big picture of the sport's survival.
With these new changes, including a ban on putting hands over the mouth or nose, but legalizing the straight up-and-down elbow strikes that had been banned, White believes he's got a new enemy. And it's a referee who at one time was the longest-lasting fixture in the company.
"It's John McCarthy," White said. "He doesn't want to be a referee anymore, now he wants to change the rules. And he's announcing for Affliction." McCarthy, who retired as a ref last year to join The Fight Network, a Canadian cable station, spoke at the commission meetings, where many commissions, including New Jersey, will interpret blows to the back of the head as being a straight line down the center of the head and the illegal zone would be one inch on either side. However, in California, commission head Armando Garcia said their interpretation of the illegal zone is everything behind the ears.
McCarthy will also be doing commentary for the July 19 Affliction pay-per-view event, a promotion that White has declared war on, to the extent of running a free show on Spike TV head-to-head featuring middleweight champ Anderson Silva.
Whatever the rules are, there needs to be consistency because companies run shows in different states with the same fighters, and being penalized in the middle of a fight for what was perfectly legal in the last fight isn't fair to anyone.
Among other things White talked about in an impromptu post-press conference mini-conference is a late-October Chicago debut for a pay-per-view show and plans for a Boston debut in November. The former is closer to being finalized than the latter, as Massachusetts still has to finalize regulation of the sport.
He also has 2009 goals of running in places like the Philippines, where he said UFC is on the equivalent of a major network and doing phenomenal television ratings, as well as Germany, Brazil and Dubai. Some shows would be smaller in stature from the type of pay-per-view level shows people are used to.
"When I was spending four hours on Thursday at press conferences, Lorenzo (Fertitta) was in the office kicking ass," said White, who noted new UFC CEO Fertitta's key role is in expanding UFC internationally.
White also noted meeting this past week with lightweight champion B.J. Penn, who is intent on challenging welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, provided St. Pierre gets past Jon Fitch on Aug. 9 in Minneapolis.
The light heavyweight division was thrown into a state of flux with Forrest Griffin's win Saturday night. There was much talk about Quinton Jackson getting a rematch, which White didn't rule out. There are also people like Lyoto Machida, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Anderson Silva who are potentially in the mix.