One of the beautiful things about MMA is that it’s such a new sport. Most sports have a professional league that is the de facto gatekeeper for all the top talent. Where do the best football players go? The answer is, of course, the NFL. For sure, there are some alternative leagues where a football player can make a living, like the CFL, but 98% of the players in the CFL would jump at the chance to play for virtually any NFL team. That 2% that would stay – that’s just being conservative and accounting for a statistical margin of error. The reality is that basically all of them would make a living in the NFL if they could. It’s the biggest stage for the sport of football, and all of the guys on the field during the NFL season undoubtedly grew up watching the NFL. It’s so ingrained in the culture that it’s not going to be going anywhere anytime in the next century, unless by some seismic shift in the public perception of football itself.
Unlike the established sports, the UFC has only been around for 20 years – and for the first 10 years of its existence it was pretty much viewed as nothing more than obscene violence by the general public. The idea of MMA as an established, respected sport by the mainstream is less than 10 years old, and the UFC was the organization that pioneered and worked very hard to change public opinion. Still, the UFC is a financial minnow compared to the NFL, NBA and the like. They’re definitely the big dog in the yard, but they don’t quite have the monopoly on the MMA world that they would have you believe in their advertising. If you dig deep enough on the internet – or flip on the TV to the right channel at the right time – you can watch other MMA organizations in action. Although the production value is sometimes a bit of a joke compared to the UFC, they have quality fighters, exciting cards, and small but dedicated fan bases. Next time someone tells you ‘I train UFC, bro,’ kindly point them in the direction of these companies and let them know that MMA isn’t always about the UFC.
5. Maximum Fighting Championship
Maximum Fighting Championship (MFC) is an MMA organization based out of Edmonton, Canada. Founded by Mark Pavelich in 2001 – and run with the assistance of other family members Dave Pavelich and Manon Pavelich – they have remained focused on promoting events for their hometown Edmonton audience. In 2011, after a decade in business, they signed a 5-year TV deal with HDnet, and a few months later signed another to air some of their events on TSN2 in Canada.
MFC has gone on to become known as one of the biggest MMA promotions in Canada and has attracted top talent from around the world. MFC operates according to the unified rules of MMA, but unlike most mainstream MMA promotions, they’ve opted to use a traditional ring instead of a cage, like the now-defunct PRIDE FC. Recently, they’ve launched a bantamweight division and created a championship for the heavyweight division, which for years was considered too thin to merit a championship. They’ve held 38 events, all of which were held in Alberta, with the exception of MFC 29 in Windsor, Ontario. MFC has wisely never reached out to expand beyond its means and has already displayed more longevity than most MMA promotions, so expect to see them continue to quietly expand in the Canadian market.
4. Invicta FC
Invicta FC is perhaps the most interesting organization on the list, if only because it caters to a very particular kind of MMA; women’s MMA. The entire Invicta roster is composed of female fighters, and is without a doubt the top destination for women’s MMA outside of the UFC. Formed in 2012 after the closure of Strikeforce – before the UFC began promoting a women’s division – Invicta was created by Shannon Knapp, who had worked as an executive for Strikeforce. Their initial events were aired for free on the Internet to attract the attention of the MMA community, but they have since moved on to the pay-per-view model for their productions. Some of the UFC’s well-known female fighters first made their name in Invicta, like Sara McMann and Liz Carmouche. Recently, the UFC bought up the contracts for virtually all of Invicta’s strawweight division for Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, which will be the first all-female edition of the show. At the moment Invicta is content, acting as somewhat of a feeder organization for the UFC, but don’t be fooled, there are quality fights on their cards and they still have a wealth of talent – especially in the women’s atomweight and women’s featherweight divisions that the UFC doesn’t do business in.
3. ONE FC
ONE FC, the only MMA organization outside of North America on this list, is the premier MMA promotion in Asia. Based in Singapore, ONE FC has successfully promoted several events at home and has also produced events in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila. They’ve made a name over in North America by poaching some of the best talent to fall through the cracks, like Shinya Aoki and Ben Askren. It has a long-term TV deal with ESPN Star Sports, and has TV deals in both the Brazilian and Canadian markets. ONE FC is also unique in its willingness to collaborate with other MMA organizations such as DREAM, and kickboxing organizations K-1 and GLORY. The ONE FC network, an alliance of the previously mentioned organizations and other MMA fight camps and promotional teams, have agreements for cross-promotion and talent swaps that have strengthened the overall quality of the Asian MMA market. Their first event, ONE FC: Champion vs. Champion, took place in September, 2011. Since then, they have successfully produced 14 events, and have generated enough success to increase the frequency of their productions. In May of 2014 alone, ONE FC has 2 events scheduled, one of which will host the debut of undefeated American welterweight star Ben Askren.
2. World Series of Fighting
World Series of Fighting (WSOF) operates right in the UFC’s backyard of Las Vegas, Nevada. The fledgling MMA promotion started running events in 2012, but has since attracted a sizeable and vocal fan base. The organization uses a 10-sided cage – a decagon – and operates according to the unified rules of MMA. WSOF came out the gate strong, with a TV deal with NBC Sports before even producing their very first event. Since then, they have gone on to successfully become the 3rd biggest MMA promotion in North America. In 2013 they quietly expanded the brand into the international market, creating subsidiaries WSOF: Central America in Nicaragua, WSOF: Canada, WSOF: Japan and a rumored expansion into Australia. They’ve signed top talent such as Yushin Okami, Andrei Arlovski, Jon Fitch, Tyrone Spong and Rousimar Palhares – who recently became WSOF welterweight champion by defeating Steve Carl at WSOF 9. The young company still has lots of room to grow in the future, and if the results thus far are any indication of the future, the sky is the limit.
Undoubtedly the UFC’s biggest competitor at the moment, Bellator is an MMA organization backed by Viacom – the entertainment multinational giant – that broadcasts its product on Spike TV. Founded in 2008 by Bjorn Rebney and based out of Newport Beach, California, Bellator has quietly become the biggest destination for MMA talent outside of the UFC. Bellator has acquired UFC stars Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Tito Ortiz, and came very close to signing Gilbert Melendez earlier this year. They’ve also showcased and developed their own top talent, particularly in the lighter weight classes, such as Eddie Alvarez, Michael Chandler, Patt Curran, Daniel Straus, and Eduardo Dantas.
Bellator is moving forward with the company’s first pay-per-view event, Bellator 120, with one of its strongest cards ever. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of numbers they can draw, because if they can produce a successful pay-per-view that sells well, it’ll herald the arrival of the first real competitor the UFC has encountered in the North American market in quite some time.