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After the highly publicized split Thursday between heavyweight champion Randy Couture and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the next thing to consider is the ramifications for both.
For UFC, the game is long-term. What level the company can reach in North America is unknown, as there are numerous factors that we can't predict:
Is mixed martial arts' recent success a fad, or has it put down deep enough roots to be a fixture on the sports scene?
Will the company consistently be able to make new stars after the first generation of television-created headliners runs its course?
What happens after the Ultimate Fighter reality show wraps?
Those are just some of the major questions that can't yet be answered. Couture was the company's biggest drawing card. At 44, he's not going to be an active fighter much longer. But he was part of the company's foundation. Most UFC fans expected that when he retired, he'd be promoting the brand, announcing, and appearing on TV specials hyping and analyzing upcoming fights – the same role he served in most of 2006 after being knocked out by Chuck Liddell and retiring.
Couture's quitting hurts in the sense that however many fights he would have had left would have drawn significantly more revenue than those matches will with a different heavyweight title match. In addition, if Couture were beaten, the new champion would gain far more credibility beating the "face" of the company than winning a tournament for a vacated title. But the truth is, come 2009, the company will be affected very little by Couture's decision to retire – if he doesn't fight again and if he's the only one to leave.
But it's pretty clear Couture's goal right now is to face Fedor Emelianenko, the heavyweight champion since 2003 of the now-disbanded Japanese-based Pride organization. The idea would be with Couture as a free agent, they could offer the fight to the highest bidder. That introduces a lot more variables.
The key thing next is, what exactly does his contract state? Couture seems to believe that he is free of his contract in nine months. UFC president Dana White said Couture has two fights left, and until he fulfills those fights, he's not free and clear. While we don't know the specifics of Couture's deal, we do know that most UFC contracts with top stars have a clause that if the star retires, the time limit in their contract is frozen. That means if Couture signed an 18-month contract for four fights at the beginning of this year when he came back to face Tim Sylvia, leaving the organization in mid-contract may freeze that time limit until he fulfills those fights.
It's pretty clear lawyers from both sides are going to be arguing wording. If legal proceedings drag out, time is not on Couture's side.
But the significance of a challenge to the contract goes much deeper than just Couture.
Don't think other top fighters aren't watching the proceedings closely. If Couture can get out of his contract, many of the top fighters at least will consider trying to follow.
UFC still is the best place to make a name, which is why the company is able to sign fighters to long-term deals. But for genuine UFC money stars, those with the ability to be a free agent will find themselves in a buyer's market.
There is an alphabet soup of companies and rich owners who are readily willing to lose large sums of money to try to gain a foothold in the industry filled. A bidding war after the departure of a UFC champion, or another champion following Couture's path, would weaken UFC's status as the industry leader. More than anything else, that may be the key to how much long-term impact this divorce has.
Since the origination of the UFC in 1993, no other MMA promotion has done significant numbers on PPV. But there are a half-dozen or more promotions with significant money at their disposal. Couture vs. Emelianenko represents the best chance for someone other than UFC to move their brand name to the forefront.
The match easily would be the biggest non-UFC PPV show in history. Ken Shamrock was the biggest American draw in MMA with UFC and gained more fame in pro wrestling. But when he came back to fight in Pride in 2000, they didn't do big business. Nor did Royce Gracie's 2000 return to Pride draw big. Of course, nobody in the industry was drawing at that time anyway. Even before UFC got television, the return of Shamrock in 2002 took UFC pay-per-view to a level they hadn't reached in almost seven years.
But when both Shamrock and Gracie returned to UFC last year both older and past their primes, they did gigantic numbers. As one of the original coaches on Ultimate Fighter, Couture is one of the first two stars created by cable television (Liddell being the other). Far more people saw his fights, and his popularity is more widespread than Shamrock or Gracie.
Emelianenko, even though rated by almost everyone as the top heavyweight in the world for the past four years, has little name recognition and drawing power in the North American market, since most of his key matches were in Japan. The Russian fighter, who is ranked No. 1 in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 poll, fought on numerous Pride shows that didn't do well in North America. When Bodog Fight put him against Matt Lindland earlier this year, the result was only 13,000 buys, a disaster so bad that Bodog Fight hasn't put on a PPV event since.
It's those numbers that played at least a small part in Couture leaving UFC. The company made a huge offer to Emelianenko. It's believed to have been between $1.5 and 2 million per fight guaranteed, by far the largest numbers the company had guaranteed for any fighter.
Couture thought if the company could afford to pay that to someone who never had worked for the organization, then he, as the champion, biggest star and a major part of building the brand, should at least be getting the same. Couture says he was told Emelianenko wasn't being offered anywhere near that figure. Emelianenko ended up turning down the deal.
When he agreed to come out of retirement at the beginning of this year, Couture was guaranteed $250,000 per fight as well as an undisclosed percentage of the PPV revenue.
It's that percentage that has become an issue. Couture claims that UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta and White told him a few weeks ago that he was the second-highest paid fighter in the company. White maintains he is. Couture says he has checked with other fighters and he isn't.
As far as base pay goes, he is behind Chuck Liddell and Mirko Cro Cop and would have been well behind Emelianenko had that deal come together. But when you throw in percentages, his total compensation is not as clear because we don't know his contracted cut compared to other main eventers. He also could have the second-highest contracted cut, but because other fighters happened to headline matches that drew more, they may have wound up making more per match.
Couture, who returns at the end of this week from filming a movie in South Africa, also felt UFC wasn't treating him with respect. UFC officials countered that there was nobody they respected more. The company signed Couture to a six-figure contract to announce and promote fights during his year-long retirement and gave him a championship shot on his first match back.