Anatomy of a promotional fiasco

The success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which routinely draws multimillion dollar live gates for its major shows, has led would-be promoters to believe you can sign some former UFC stars, book a major arena, and you'll have a successful event.

The reality is altogether different.

For the second time in three months, a mixed martial arts event at a major California arena was canceled by the state athletic commission due to financial issues involving overreaching promoters.

Commission director Armando Garcia canceled the World Cagefighting Organization's Saturday night show at the San Diego Sports Arena, which featured name fighters such as former UFC stars Renato "Babalu" Sobral, Mark Kerr, Vernon White, Ricco Rodriguez, Joe Riggs and David Loiseau, just a few hours before the doors were scheduled to open. Garcia made the ruling because of financial issues; he wanted proof the promoters would be able to pay the fighters and other bills before allowing them to do the show.

"They didn't have the money," said Garcia. "The money they had couldn't be authorized until the end of the month."

But the situation was a lot more complicated. Rick Bassman of Valor Fighting, the promoter of record for the show, was at a Wells Fargo Bank branch in San Diego at 2 p.m. on Saturday, waiting for Bruce Bellocchi, the actual promoter, to sign over a deposit of $225,000 made in an account so that Bassman could be the only person to write checks. Wells Fargo couldn't verify that the funds were going to clear.

Bellocchi wouldn't sign off on the money until Garcia authorized that the show was scheduled to continue. Garcia had given the promotion a 10 a.m. deadline to have proof of funding for the $183,300 in total purse money as well as money that would be needed to pay the bills to the arena and commission.

He had extended the deadline, and would not allow the show to go on unless there was proof of sufficient money in an account that could be drawn on with a guarantee the funds wouldn't be withdrawn or that checks written on the account wouldn't bounce.

Bellocchi didn't make the first deadline, and Garcia had it extended a few hours. There was a standoff at the bank, and Bellocchi refused to sign off.

In October, a similar mess took place for a show scheduled for the Cow Palace in San Francisco which was canceled hours before the event was to take place because they didn't have a safe cage to fight in as well as concerns that the fighters weren't going to be paid.

In both cases, all fighters who had weighed in and had their fights approved by the commissions got 20% of their purses through the bond the promoters of record have to post with the state. In Saturday’s case, Bassman, who claimed his contract with Bellocchi stated Bellocchi was responsible for the financing of the event but they would use Bassman's license, ended up having to write checks totaling $36,660 to pay the fighters who didn't get to fight. He said he was preparing to take legal action against Bellocchi.

Garcia said he learned of the potential problems at Friday’s weigh-ins, from Bassman, who told him he was worried the money wasn't there to pay the fighters after Bellocchi's financier, Jim Miller, failed to deposit the $218,000 promised to cover costs at 9 a.m. that morning.

According to sources, Miller, Bassman and Brian Layne had met the day before at a different San Diego bank, with Miller talking about how the show was going to be a success, expecting a sellout in an 8,900-seat setup. He showed Bassman what he believed was a Ticketmaster report that listed 7,000 tickets sold for an advance of $230,000. Bassman was immediately skeptical, noting that with the exception of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has drawn large crowds in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, and Scott Coker's Strikeforce shows in San Jose, which have popular local drawing cards, nobody draws that kind of a paid crowd for MMA in California.

Bassman claimed that Miller called the arena and found out the real advance was 1,043 tickets sold for $70,000 at Ticketmaster outlets and the arena box office. There were another 480 tickets, for $33,000, out on consignment. He said it appeared Miller had received a forged report. Bassman said a phone message on his home phone from Layne stated Miller's agreement was all the box office receipts would go directly to him, but that when he talked to the arena people, they knew nothing of such a deal and weren't authorized to do so.

Similarly, the October San Francisco Cow Palace event that was called off had only 300 tickets sold.

Publicity for the show was poor. Jonathan Iosim, an avid MMA fan in San Diego, said that neither he nor any of his friends who he classified as hardcore fans, even knew such a show was taking place. Bellocchi at first contacted a cable advertising firm in the city in December about buying a schedule, but had earmarked a low advertising budget for running such a major arena. He ended up not buying anything at the time, but came back the week of the show, and got ads in local cable rotation the last three days before the show.

The prime audience to attend such an event would be those who watch UFC programming on Spike TV. But the final episode of Spike's UFC programming last week was on Wednesday night, the day before the ads started running.

"At 9:01 a.m. on Friday, I got a phone call from Brian Layne, saying there's bad news and good news," said Bassman. "The bad news is, Jim pulled out. I asked how there could be good news. He said that Bruce had agreed to put up the money."

At 10:40 a.m., Bellocchi, who was unable to be reached by Yahoo! Sports for comment on Sunday, made a $225,000 deposit in a Wells Fargo account under the name World Cagefighting Organization. But Bassman said only $5,000 of the money could be drawn starting on the 15th, three days after the show, and the remaining $220,000 couldn't be drawn until the 25th.

With Garcia on the verge of canceling the show, Bellocchi had a meeting with the fighters, where he asked at least some of them if they would tear up their contracts, and sign new contracts that would only guarantee them $100 to fight, promising he would then pay them the rest of their promised purses later in the month. Bellocchi claimed to Garcia and Bassman that all of the fighters had agreed, but Bassman said when he called fighters, the ones he spoke with claimed they never agreed.

Garcia indicated it was ridiculous to even consider allowing such a thing.

Bellocchi blamed the commission in an interview with MMA website He noted he attempted to apply for his own promoters license on Friday, but it would be impossible to process such an application on such short notice, and it fell short of commission requirements.

"With our promoter's license application in limbo, there was nothing we could do this late in the process," he told "I'm seriously considering never doing business in California again. I'm kind of in a state of shock. When you're dealing with people that are unreasonable, it's tough to get by." Bellocchi had run MMA shows in the state previously, most recently a Nov. 7 event in Hollywood where he used the license of well-known boxing promoter Jackie Kallen, that came off smoothly.