Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mixed martial arts 101 - Breaking down the different MMA organizations

Casual MMA fans would be surprised to know just how many promotions run MMA events worldwide. Here is a primer on the many mixed martial arts organizations that run fight cards.

The most well-known fighting entity in the United States, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is synonymous with mixed martial arts to many. Founded in 1993, the company was first built as a blood sport to settle which fighting discipline was the strongest. Over time, it evolved into more of a sport with stricter rules, weight classes and judges. The promotion was successful on pay-per-view in the mid '90s, but the way the events were promoted led to a backlash. UFC was banned in many states and lost most of its pay-per-view clearance.

In 2001, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the company and used their connections to gain greater pay-per-view clearance. The company ran its biggest events in Las Vegas and gained greater mainstream popularity with The Ultimate Fighter television show on Spike TV. In 2006 its pay-per-view buy rates exploded. The company broke its all time pay-per-view record on five separate occasions last year. The promotion is now a global phenomenon and is expanding its operations to run events in many new markets. Many of the sport's biggest stars including Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Matt Hughes fight for UFC.

Pride FC
While UFC is the most well-known fighting organization among American fans, it is the Pride Fighting Championships promotion that has had the greatest long-term success. Founded in 1997, it was initially built around Japanese pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada taking on Brazilian jiujitsu legend Rickson Gracie. Takada was never the fighter his pro wrestling fans thought he was, and the promotion had financial problems.

Those problems went away with the rise of a charismatic Japanese fighter who could back up his popularity in the ring. Kazushi Sakuraba became Pride's greatest star by carrying the mantle for Japanese pro wrestling against the Gracie family. Sakuraba scored wins over four members of the Gracie family, including a famous 90-minute win over the legendary Royce Gracie.

Pride's calling card became its Grand Prix tournaments, which featured star-studded lineups of elite fighters. The promotion regularly sold out the Saitama Super Arena and was a successful entity on Japanese television. Recently, however, the promotion was brought to its knees by scandal. Allegations that Pride's ownership group was affiliated with the yakuza -- Japanese mob -- cost Pride its highly valued television deal in Japan.

Unable to secure another outlet, Pride piled up losses and was forced to sell to the Fertittas (of UFC) earlier this year. The future of Pride remains in doubt with new ownership. Many of Pride's best fighters are being brought to the UFC.

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K1 is a Japanese kickboxing powerhouse. The promotion has been very popular in Japan dating back to the '90s, and provided a start for MMA stars such as Bob Sapp, Mirko Cro Cop and Mark Hunt. The promotion now runs its own MMA organization, K1 Heroes, which has an opportunity to make headway in Japan with Pride in turmoil. The promotion also has plans to run in the United States, and ran a show earlier this year at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

K1 badly needs an influx of star power. Top draw Kid Yamamoto left the promotion to pursue his dream of wrestling in the Olympics. Yamamoto may return, which would be a major boon. Sapp, who became embroiled in a contract dispute with the company, reached an agreement to return, but has not yet signed a long term pact with the company. Kazushi Sakuraba was brought in from Pride, but he is on his last legs as a fighter. Yoshihiro Akiyama was going to be the next big star, but he disgraced himself by cheating in a fight with Sakuraba.

Elite XC

In EXC's first broadcast on Showtime, Frank Shamrock (above) was disqualified in his bout against Renzo Gracie.
John Medina/WireImage
EXC is a new MMA outfit founded by boxing promoter Gary Shaw. The company is affiliated with the Showtime Network, and ran its first Showtime event in February. That event featured a controversial main event when Frank Shamrock was disqualified against Renzo Gracie. Since then, EXC has collaborated with the K1 and Strikeforce promotions.

EXC has signed a number of prominent fighters, including women's star Gina Carano, superheavyweight Antonio Silva, Chute Boxe star Murilo "Ninja" Rua and top welterweights Nick Diaz and Jake Shields.

WEC was a small MMA group that ran shows for a number of years in California. UFC ownership purchased the group in 2006, and now runs the organization as a showcase for lighter weight fighters. Many of the top lighter-weight fighters in the world fight for WEC, which runs shows on the Versus network.

The promotion's top star is featherweight Urijah Faber, who may be headed for a showdown with former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver. Rob McCullough, Carlos Condit and Brock Larson are among the promotion's other top stars. WEC also recently signed elite middleweight Paulo Filho.

Bodog Fight
The biggest wildcard in MMA's future is Calvin Ayre's Bodog Fight. Ayre built a financial empire around online gambling and has put some of his extensive resources into starting an MMA company. What makes Bodog Fight intriguing is its willingness to bid against UFC for top stars, which could open up opportunities for success.

Bodog's biggest signing thus far was Fedor Emelianenko, widely regarded as the best fighter in the world. He signed a one fight contract to fight at home in Russia. He defeated former Olympic silver medallist Matt Lindland in the main event of that show, which was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bodog Fight is currently losing lots of money, but has the backing to be patient and hope for a breakthrough.

IFL is a publicly owned MMA company which features a unique team concept as its hook. The promotion features teams of five fighters which represent various cities. Each team has a coach and many are major names. Those teams compete for the IFL team championship, which will be decided at the end of the 2007 season. IFL runs shows Monday nights on My Network TV, featuring fighter profiles and past fights. The challenge, going forward, is selling the team concept in a sport that has always been sold on stars.

Strikeforce is an MMA promotion based out of San Jose, which has put more of an emphasis than most MMA organizations on running in the black. It has primarily concentrated on shows for the San Jose market, building around local stars such as Frank Shamrock, Daniel Puder and Cung Le. Strikeforce recently ran its most ambitious show in conjunction with EXC on pay-per-view. Shamrock defeated Phil Baroni in an exciting main event.

Cage Rage
The top MMA promotion run out of the United Kingdom, Cage Rage brings in stars from around the world to its events. The promotion has most of its clearance in Europe and has run over 20 events. Cage Rage features a mix of British stars such as James Thompson, Mark Weir and Ian Freeman; and foreign stars including Vitor Belfort, Butterbean and Shaolin Ribeiro.

Icon Sport
Formerly known as Superbrawl, Icon runs shows out of Hawaii. Much like Cage Rage, the promotion mixes local stars such as Cabbage Correira and Renato Verissimo with UFC veterans like Robbie Lawler and Frank Trigg.

Shooto is a small Japanese MMA organization that serves as a breeding ground for smaller Japanese fighters. The promotion runs frequently and provides experience for fighters on the rise. Most of Japan's top light-weight fighters have competed at one point for Shooto, including Tatsuya Kawajiri, Hayato Sakurai and Shinya Aoki.

Pancrase is one of the original mixed martial arts companies and was a starting point for major stars such as Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock and Bas Rutten. The promotion isn't a major factor now, but does feature many rising Japanese fighters.



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