Biggest fight not on the card

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The Ultimate Fighting Championship claims it's spending a whopping $1.7 million for just three episodes of "UFC Primetime" airing on Spike TV. The show follows the training of B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre in advance of their Jan. 31 megafight in Las Vegas.

The show looks expensive and is not just visually captivating, but smartly establishes a sort of good vs. evil story line that can draw in casual viewers to mixed martial arts. It may translate into enough pay-per-view buys to immediately make the investment worthwhile. Even if it doesn't, UFC president Dana White says the investment is worth it in the long term.

It's the kind of promotional tool that industry leaders have at their disposal and the UFC isn't just an industry leader in MMA, it is darn near the entire industry, the way the NFL is to professional football.

Both its November and December pay-per-view cards are believed to have had over a million buys. To most people, the UFC looks impossible to stop at this point.

Tom Atencio isn't most people.

Atencio made his money producing Affliction brand T-shirts and now he's trying his hand at Affliction promotions. The company will stage its second card Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Like the first one last July, it's a big-time, major league effort. There's a decent undercard leading to a monster main event between Fedor Emelianenko, considered the sport's top heavyweight, and Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC champion.

"This is an extremely strong fight card," Atencio said.

It features most of the best non-UFC fighters in the United States. The question is whether that's enough to find a niche in a sport where the UFC holds almost all the power and isn't afraid of using it on any would-be challenger.

The business of cage fighting is as tough and cutthroat as the sport. You don't have to like MMA to appreciate the brutality in the boardroom. White won't – and shouldn't – apologize for trying to snuff out competitors.

So you watch Atencio try to fight the good fight and wonder, even with an ace in the hole like Emelianenko, how it can work? It's in the interest of hardcore fans of MMA for Affliction to survive – more outlets mean more fighting. But are there enough of them to care?

White has no problem with some promotions – most notably Strikeforce, which airs on NBC in a weekend graveyard timeslot – but he's stated that he wants to take Affliction out. Even before Atencio teamed up with Oscar De La Hoya and Donald Trump, White declared, "I don't like the guy."

It shows.

"I think they've proven they'll do what it takes to hurt our business," Atencio said.

Here's what the UFC did this time – either by plan or coincidence – to cut down the potential revenue streams for Affliction, which would probably be pleased with just 100,000 pay-per-view buys.

It sandwiched Saturday's Affliction card by staging one pay per view last week from Dublin and another, the Penn-GSP monster, a week later as its tradition Super Bowl weekend event.

While last week's card likely only did a couple hundred thousand pay-per-view buys, it did play to the hard core fans who will now have to decide whether to buy a fight three weeks in a row – few of them are missing a fight as big as Penn and St. Pierre.

If that wasn't enough, as counter programming Saturday night, the UFC will rebroadcast its November card featuring two of its most popular fighters, Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture on Spike.

Finally, its sister organization, World Extreme Cagefighting, has a strong event Sunday in nearby San Diego. That won't help Afflictions gate at the Honda Center, which isn't close to sold out at this point.

Taking on White is like taking on Emelianenko. He's direct, hits hard and will wait you out until he can slap a submission on you. Atencio can only try to brush it off. He claims his card, top to bottom, is stronger than the UFC's a week later.

"B.J. Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre is a great fight," Atencio said. "Fedor and Arlovski is an amazing fight as well. But you'll also get seven other great fights, all on one card. You get one big fight in the UFC.

"Not to take anything away from Penn-St. Pierre, it's an unbelievable fight, but that's one fight."

Which card is stronger is debatable. Atencio can only hope he can draw in enough buyers to continue staging fights. He says the plan is four major cards in 2009, although by taking six months between his first effort and this one it's clear he's playing it cautious.

He's watched other promotions drown in debt and grand ambitions. His tie-ins with Trump and De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions give an air of strength, but Golden Boy isn't helping by staging a boxing card Saturday at Los Angeles' Staples Center that will be broadcast on HBO. While the audiences for boxing and MMA are mostly different, there has to be some crossover.

Atencio can only point to Emelianenko, the devastating Russian, who alone gives Affliction a chance that no other rival to the UFC ever has.

That said, he admits he needs to continue to do a better job running things. Yahoo! Sports' Dave Meltzer reported on Monday that Affliction is paying Arlovski at least $1 million for the fight, an incredibly high number. It stands to reason Emelianenko is getting similar payout, if not more.

Atencio said he'd never reveal a contract figure, although he didn't deny the number was accurate.

"If it's public knowledge, there's nothing I can do about it. It doesn't matter. Whatever I do people are going to criticize me. If pay them too much or not enough, people are going to be critical."

He pointed to the UFC, which has a reputation for paying fighters under similar circumstances less.

"I need to learn from them," Atencio said. "I don't need to pay certain fighters a certain amount. I can't have fighters coming to me for double, triple, four times what they get elsewhere.

"For the first card, decisions were made I need to shore up. I've learned [about the] pay scale on both sides, overpaid and underpaid."

If there is an audience for two major MMA promotions, we'll find out Saturday. The card Affliction is putting on is good enough to attract a big audience. It carries too much cost, however, to be called a success if it fails to deliver a good number. Affliction has money for promotion, but nothing like "UFC Primetime."

Atencio has done an admirable job keeping expectations low, quality high and ego in check. He knows the challenges. He's undoubtedly good for MMA. The question is whether MMA will be good to him.

"There's nothing certain," he said. "I don't want to get cocky. I don't want to get overconfident. I want to put on good shows and see where it goes."

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