Mergers and hostile takeovers. They happen all the time in the corporate world. But in mixed martial arts, they’re more rare, and almost always involve the UFC gobbling up another organization.
From its purchase of the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion to its absorption of PRIDE FC and Strikeforce, the UFC has maintained its slice of the MMA consumer pie by putting out a consistent product, and snuffing out the competition. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s just business. So let’s take a look at their history of eating other organizations, shall we?
For the purposes of this article, we can narrow down the reasons for the UFC to buy another promotion to two things: to acquire that organization’s assets, and to take that organization’s market share for their own.
And since the UFC’s product and brand is so strong, and its promotional apparatus so finely tuned, it’s safe to assume that when we talk of “assets”, we’re talking about the fighters under contract with that other organization. After all, it’s not like the UFC bought PRIDE because they really wanted Larry the Camera Dude and Shinsaku the Caterer, right?
World Extreme Cagefighting – December, 2006
In the beginning, when the UFC was owned by Semaphore Entertainment Group, the game was all about survival under adverse conditions. The sport, as it was, was banned nearly everywhere, and with no significant broadcast distribution channels, avenues of revenue were narrow.
The UFC wasn’t going to be buying anyone then – they just needed to stay alive.
But Zuffa LLC eventually bought the organization, and after The Ultimate Fighter turned things around, suddenly the UFC had the wherewithal to make some dynamic moves.
Since greater mainstream popularity meant a greater demand for their product, the UFC needed to do more shows. For that, they needed more fighters. And rather than flood the handful of weight classes they were actively using (lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight), they opened the door for the smaller divisions. Where would they get the fighters for them?
World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). A primarily West Coast organization, the WEC had fights in nearly all divisions, but they seemed to specialize in smaller dudes. And they had some budding stars, like Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz.
Zuffa bought the WEC in 2006, but the game plan had the WEC churning out its own product for a few more years. Still, when the UFC needed fighters, they would end up cannibalizing the ranks of the UFC, taking first the heavier stars (like Carlos Condit and Brian Stann), then absorbing the lighter fighters.
Eventually, the inevitable happened: the UFC needed those assets. They wanted Faber and the rest to stock up their featherweight- and bantamweight divisions, and boom, that was all she wrote. Bye, bye, WEC.
World Fighting Alliance – December, 2006
The World Fighting Alliance (WFA) was somewhat regional Las Vegas promotion, and there were actually two incarnations of it. The first one was plugging away back in 2001-2002, and was run by former fighter John Lewis. It petered out after a few shows… only to be revived by some cat who really wanted to take a bite out of the UFC’s market share.
Keep in mind that this was back when promotions actually thought they might have a chance at doing that, so homeboy scrounged up the cheddar to scoop up some free agents that the UFC would’ve wanted for themselves. Namely, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida.
Of course the WFA’s pay-per-view extravaganza failed. Of course it did. So it was just a matter of time before the UFC bought it for the assets they wanted (those luscious fighter contracts) and left it for dead.
PRIDE FC – March, 2007
Thus far, the UFC pretty much bought promotions for their assets, but when it came to PRIDE FC, they really wanted that market share. You see, PRIDE was huge in Japan. They owned Japan. And as long as they were around, every half-hearted foray the UFC made into that massive market was laughable in comparison to the epic events PRIDE was putting out.
For the longest time, PRIDE was the UFC’s only true rival. But just like how PRIDE owned Japan, the UFC owned the United States, and both organizations knew that international expansion was the key component for growth. So when PRIDE took a run at the US with a couple of Las Vegas-based pay-per-views, and they failed to generate sufficient revenue, the end was nigh (of course, being embroiled in Japanese organized crime scandals didn’t help matters).
When Zuffa first bought PRIDE, they announced their intention of using the organization’s promotional apparatus to finally gain that foothold in Japan that they’d wanted for so long. But Nevada casino owners can’t get mixed up with Yakuza stuff, and PRIDE’s books were an accounting nightmare, so it ended up being about scooping up PRIDE’s fighters and closing down the shop.
Strikeforce – March, 2011
Oh, remember when I implied that it was fruitless to try to snatch away a piece of the UFC’s market share? Yeah, Strikeforce was the exception to this rule.
Somehow, regional kickboxing- and MMA promoter Scott Coker made all the right moves. He had solid connections to PRIDE’s fighters (like Fedor Emelianenko), understood the appeal of cage spectacle, and put together a heavyweight grand prix that made fight fans realize that the UFC’s heavyweight division wasn’t the end-all, be-all.
The UFC had the bucks to nip their Strikeforce problem in the bud, and it wasn’t like the UFC was ever in any danger of losing their position at the top of the heap. But damn had Coker made an impact on the bottom line, so buying Strikeforce had to be done.
Ultimately, assets were bought, but this acquisition could be framed more as a “protect your market share” thing than anything else.
To Buy or Not to Buy
Hey, guess what? It turns out the UFC doesn’t need to buy every organization out their and take their stuff for their own. They can instead “partner up” (in a way), and use these other organizations as breeding grounds for future UFC fighters.
The best, most recent example of the UFC doing something like this is with Invicta FC. When the UFC went big on female fighters, and wanted to expand beyond the Ronda Rousey Division, they needed ladies to fill the ranks. So all-female promotion Invicta has become the spot.
When TUF vet Angela Hill needed more seasoning, the UFC sent her down to Invicta, where she did her thing and earned her spot back in the Octagon. When the UFC needed to put Cris Cyborg somewhere because they were not yet ready to form a featherweight division just for her, they parked her in Invicta (and reportedly paid for her high salary).
For various reasons, it’s smarter for the UFC not to buy, kill and pick this organization’s carcass over for parts… so they don’t.
There you have it. A brief history of the UFC being a hungry beast. Albeit, a beast that has learned not to eat every competitor it encounters.