The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) continues to captivate fans both old and new as 2014 kicks into gear. The first major event of the year, UFC 169: Barao vs Faber II, will be headlined by UFC Bantamweight Champion Renen Barao and MMA veteran Urijah Faber, with Barao’s championship on the line. Both men have only been in the UFC for a little over three years, but in that time have become some of the most recognizable fighters out of a roster of 428 people. For MMA fans that only follow the sport through its premier organization, UFC, it’s a sudden rise. Hardcore fans won’t be surprised to see these two headlining this upcoming event though, they remember Urijah Faber’s reign as the WEC Featherweight champion and Renen Barao’s dominant performance when he burst onto the North American MMA scene in that same organization, World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC for short).
WEC is one of many organizations that the UFC has bought out over the years, and they join a list that includes other organizations such as PRIDE FC, Strikeforce, World Fighting Alliance (WFA), and the International Fight League (IFL). UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, employed similar corporate takeover strategies when purchasing all of these entities; acquire their content library, acquire their fighter contracts, and disband the organization. Zuffa has responded with extreme prejudice to anyone who’s tried to get a piece of the MMA pie, but the assets they’ve acquired through these hostile takeovers have spurred the growth of the UFC. Many of the UFC’s past and present stars originally fought for their rival organizations and only made their name in the octagon after having their contracts transferred to Dana White and friends. The UFC may subtly downplay the level of competition with the organizations that would eventually become their subsidiaries, but make no mistake about it, some of these events played host to extremely high-level fights. Let’s take a look at the history of these five organizations.
5 World Fighting Alliance (WFA): 2001-2006
MMA promoter John Lewis founded the WFA in 2001 when mixed martial arts competitions were legalized in the state of Nevada. The WFA approach to MMA involved scantily clad dancers, a nightclub atmosphere, and musical performances, making it difficult for the business to build traction as serious competition. The inaugural event took place in late 2001, and they held two more events in 2002 before pulling the plug on the entire operation. When MMA began to take off in the United States around 2005, they adopted a more serious approach and held a comeback show, entitled WFA: King of the Streets, featuring future UFC Champions Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Lyoto Machida. It reportedly sold a measly 50,000 PPV’s and attracted a crowd of only 5,000. WFA assured fans they were in a good financial position, but in December 2006, Zuffa announced they had purchased select assets of the WFA, including fighter contracts, and they immediately ceased operations.
4 PRIDE: 1997-2007
Pride Fighting Championship is remembered fondly by fans of MMA for its intensity, unrelenting physicality, and extremely high level of competition. Founded in 1997 and based out of Japan, PRIDE was considered by many to play host to the highest level of MMA in the world. UFC stars such as Anderson Silva, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Filipovic, Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem all plied their trade in PRIDE before venturing into the UFC. PRIDE was also home to, arguably, the greatest MMA fighter of all time and without a doubt the biggest talent to never fight in the UFC, Fedor Emelianenko, who went 14-0 during his tenure in the organization.
MMA’s popularity in Japan peaked during the PRIDE era. In 2002 they filled the Tokyo National Stadium with 91,000 people for ‘Pride: Shockwave’, setting a record for MMA attendance that still stands to this day. However, the success was not without controversy. Allegations of Yakuza (Japanese mafia) involvement only intensified in 2003, after company president Naoto Morishita was found dead, hung in his hotel room. Officially it was labeled a suicide, but the Japanese media remained suspicious and some people believed PRIDE was, to some extent, a front by the Yakuza used to launder money.
In 2007, after years of bad press and a Japanese market that began to grow tired of MMA, PRIDE found itself in financial trouble. Zuffa, smelling blood in the water, stepped in and acquired the struggling company for an alleged $70 million. This was only months after their acquisition of WEC, and initially they intended to keep PRIDE alive as another brand in an MMA portfolio. After a few months that arrangement was deemed too difficult as Zuffa could find no support from Japanese TV networks. The organization was dissolved and all of the fighter contracts were acquired by UFC.
3 International Fight League (IFL): 2006-2008
Most MMA organizations take their own unique spin on the rules and structure of the sport, but the IFL may have had one of the more ambitious concepts. Instead of a series of one-on-one fights, IFL events were billed as team vs team. The fighters trained together in their camps and were guided by a coach with MMA experience. Veterans like Renzo Gracie and Ken Shamrock were head coaches of their own camps, and some of the fighters on the roster included Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson, Robbie Lawler, and Vladimir Matyushenko.
The deep pockets of IFL founders Gareb Shamus and Kurt Otto allowed the IFL to be different when it was founded in 2006. They didn’t pay their fighters using the traditional ‘purse’ method inherited from boxing where a fighter is given a lump sum payment after their fight, instead choosing to keep them on salary and include benefits. This was a strategic move more than it was a charitable one, as they believed that system to be more conducive to producing a television series, which was the ultimate goal of the IFL. The decision was justified when they became the first MMA organization to broker a major TV deal in the United States, having their content aired on Fox-owned MyNetworkTV. Despite the innovative structural and business practices of the IFL, there was a distinct lack of top talent within the organization, something they tried to fix by allegedly attempting to buy out major UFC fighters in a move that deepened the hostility between the UFC and the IFL. By mid 2008 the experiment was over. The IFL folded, citing financial difficulties, and sold select assets to Zuffa.
2 World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC): 2001-2010
The relationship between the UFC and WEC was the exception to the ‘conquer and assimilate’ strategy of Zuffa. Founded in 2001 by Scott Adams and Reed Harris, the WEC operated out of California and featured bouts from the full spectrum of weight classes defined by the unified rules of mixed martial arts. In 2006, Zuffa acquired WEC. Instead of dissolving the company and acquiring the fighters, they decided to operate WEC as a separate brand. To distinguish it from UFC, they gradually phased out all weight classes starting at welterweight and higher and introduced Flyweight, a 125lbs division. Zuffa would use UFC to promote bouts with heavier fighters and WEC to promote the lighter weight divisions, although each organization had a lightweight (155lbs) division. Most of the UFC’s top stars in the lighter divisions either got their career started in WEC or were champions in the WEC, such as the aforementioned Urijah Faber and Renen Barao, but also Jose Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson, Demetrius Johnson, and Joseph Benavidez.
The brand experiment was mildly successful, but in the end Zuffa opted to run all MMA activities under the UFC banner. In 2010, after 4 years of operating side by side, WEC was absorbed into the UFC. The WEC roster was used to create the Flyweight, Bantamweight, and Featherweight divisions in the UFC. The addition of these lighter divisions gave UFC the depth to handle the increased number of produced events, and in retrospect the acquisition of WEC by Zuffa was as successful as it was important to the future of the organization.
1 Strikeforce: 1986-2013
Originally founded as a kickboxing organization by Scott Coker in 1986, Strikeforce became, upon the closure of PRIDE, the second biggest MMA organization in the world. It held its first MMA event, ‘Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Gracie’, in 2006, which at the time set the record for attendance at an MMA event in North America with 18,265. Strikeforce signed a deal with the Showtime network that allowed them to broadcast up to 16 events per year, and for the first time the UFC had legitimate competition for the North American MMA market. Strikeforce successfully brokered a three-way formal alliance with Russian MMA promotion M-1 Global and Japanese MMA promotion DREAM, allowing for fighter exchanges and cross-company matchups in 2009. They also successfully ran a women’s division, proving that WMMA was viable to the mainstream audience.
2009 was the same year Strikeforce signed Fedor Emelianenko to a three-fight deal. They banked on Fedor’s dominance to be a huge draw against the UFC, who had a heavyweight star of their own in Brock Lesnar. Unfortunately, just as the legend of Fedor ‘The Last Emperor’ Emelianenko was born in PRIDE, it came to die in Strikeforce. He would fight 4 times in total for Strikeforce, winning his first, and then losing 3 in a row, his first 3 losses after a decade of victory. Although he still gave them a bump in ratings, they had failed to create the monstrous heavyweight star they wanted to give them the edge over the UFC. All of these deals and high-profile signings had taken a toll on Strikeforce’s financials, and by early 2011 they had put their business in a bad place. Zuffa decided to end the rivalry once and for all, and made an offer that was accepted. Strikeforce’s top talent was raided by the UFC and the company was gradually drained, although they continued to produce events all the way until January 2013, when the fighters who were left on the Strikeforce roster were fully absorbed into the UFC.