It’s difficult to count the number of times we’ve been told to expect some sort of “major” statement coming out the UFC’s Las Vegas-based office at an upcoming press conference, only to have the company announce some relatively minor piece of news. Not this time. This time, it was a doozy.
UFC President Dana White called MMAFighting.com video interviewer and the sport’s top journalist Ariel Helwani into his office on Saturday and dropped a bombshell: In what already seems like a shoe-in for 2011’s biggest story of the year, the fight promotion’s parent company, Zuffa, LLC., has purchased its biggest rival, Strikeforce.
As White himself might say, that’s game, set and match, bitches.
Maybe the biggest shock was that the UFC managed to pull off a deal of this magnitude in relative secrecy. In a time when social media entities like Twitter and Facebook tell us what our favorite fighters are eating for breakfast – almost in real time – the world’s largest MMA promotion somehow managed to buy the world’s second largest MMA promotion without warning, without rumors swirling and without any hint that it was about to go down.
As if to underscore the stunning gravity of the situation White did his best to play it off like it was no big deal. He repeatedly used the phrase “business as usual” while answering Helwani’s questions and even made the somewhat dubious claim that the UFC’s interest in “acquiring Strikeforce” (as he put it) grew from a need to simply have more fighters and more platforms with which to expand its product as it continues to hatch more TV deals and forge new international relationships. This coming from a guy who keeps a Styrofoam tombstone in his office bearing the names of those who’ve tried and failed to challenge the UFC in the marketplace.
Strikeforce, White said over and over again, will continue to operate as an entirely separate entity from the UFC. CEO Scott Coker and all of the company’s other employees – including the fighters currently under contract – will retain their jobs. Strikeforce’s deal with Showtime will remain in place. We will not see crossover superfights or significant talent sharing or anything of the sort. Nothing will change, the boss insisted, except that Strikeforce now exists under the Zuffa, LLC umbrella.
All that may have been true at the moment the words tumbled out of White’s mouth, but let’s be clear about one thing: This is not business as usual. Purchasing Strikeforce didn’t give Zuffa a legal monopoly over the sport of MMA, but it’s sure starting to look like White and Co. now enjoy practical monopoly. If you are a mixed martial arts fighter, there is no really nowhere to ply your trade at the highest level that isn’t owned by Zuffa. That fact alone should make the Josh Barnetts, Dan Hendersons and Paul Daleys of the world a little bit nervous, despite White’s claims that nothing will change.
The truth is, we have no idea how Zuffa will run things moving forward. The company made similar claims about preserving the lives of its last two major acquisitions – Pride and WEC – only to eventually fold those properties and their fighters into the UFC. It’s hard to imagine that the same won’t happen to Strikeforce. The reality may well be that doing it now would simply be too much of a hassle, so Zuffa will wait for Strikeforce’s current fighter contracts and TV deals to lapse before obliterating its brand from the MMA landscape.
Early reports indicate the UFC paid in the neighborhood of $40 million for Strikeforce, though almost half of that may have gone toward debt repayment and giving the smaller company some investment capital with which to continue on. It also begs the questions though, if Strikeforce keeps operating with a loss, what’s the point in keeping it alive?
Right now, we don’t know. There are a lot of things we don’t know about this deal. One thing is clear, however: We continue to have to rely more and more on Dana White and his partners to find out what will happen next.
Chad Dundas writes about MMA for CraveOnline, Versus.com and CagePotato.com. He lives in Missoula, MT.