You'd probably never heard of MyNetworkTV, at least not until they shocked the cable world by acquiring WWE Smackdown in 2008. I certainly hadn't back in 2007, unaware that the channel existed, let alone that me and 96 percent of Americans had ready access to it.
But soon enough, mixed martial arts fans throughout the country were all too familiar with the fledgling network, made up mostly of old UPN and WB affiliates looking for a home. MyNetworkTV, you see, was supposed to be the platform for a fledgling new promotion, one with an entirely new vision and a myriad of fighter-friendly policies, to challenge the mighty UFC head on. It was the vehicle the International Fight League (IFL) was ready to ride all the way to the top of the combat sports world.
To say it didn't work out that way is one of the world's great understatements. And the promotion's demise all started with the disastrous decisions it made on that very first night, proving there is truth in the old maxim "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
Before we get too deep into what didn't work, which was most everything, we should talk a bit about what did. The IFL, founded by magazine magnate Gareb Shamus and real estate guru Kurt Otto back in 2005, wasn't just another UFC clone run by boxing promoters looking to cash in on the next big thing. At least not in the beginning.
Shamus and Otto were both real-deal MMA fans, but fans with a heart. They had seen the seminal HBO documentary The Smashing Machine which followed former champion Mark Kerr from the top of the sport all the way down to the depths of depression and drug dependency. There had to be, they thought, a better way to take care of fighters while still raking in the piles and piles of cash that were right at that moment allowing UFC president Dana White to buy his first Ferrari or rhesus monkey, or whatever it is really rich people do with their money.
Bless them, though, Shamus and Otto put their money (albeit most of it was other people's money in the form of a public stock offering) where their mouths were and completely shifted the paradigm, reinventing what the sport could be and what it might be again one day in the future.
Focusing on a team concept, similar to a wrestling meet, a competition once uniquely individual in nature became something more. Fighters were now part of a group, competing for points in five weight classes. You weren't just fighting for yourself anymore—you were fighting for team. Stocked with young talent, the teams didn't feature any well-known superstar talent. That was reserved for coaches like Pat Miletich, Renzo Gracie and the Shamrock brothers, some of whom spiced up fight cards by competing against each other in super fights.
Changes didn't stop there and they were more than conceptual. They were life changing for many. The company offered fighters, most used to living from check to check, sometimes going broke between fights, a regular paycheck. More than just a salary, they offered health benefits, a precursor to the UFC's current injury insurance. Fighters loved the IFL. If you want an angry man with cauliflower ears to mess you up something fierce, go ahead and say something bad about the IFL. I dare you.
Of course, one man dared, dared to say whatever he wanted. As the most powerful man in the industry, White had carte blanche to let his feelings be known. And he was not happy about the IFL, particularly the defection of Keith Evans, a UFC executive, to the competition.
"I'm going to f *cking crush these guys," White allegedly told Miletich. In a sworn statement, Miletich went on to explain that it was clear to him that there would be repercussions for signing with the IFL. "When the dust settles, anyone associated with the IFL would not be associated with the UFC."
The battle lines were drawn and history has shown White to be a man of his word. With just a few exceptions, Gracie being the most prominent, former IFL coaches, many of them UFC champions and pioneers like Maurice Smith, Carlos Newton and Matt Lindland, remain at arm's length from the UFC. White was playing for keeps.
Lawsuits went back and forth, with the UFC claiming that the IFL, through Evans and former UFC employee Steven Tornabene, had access to their proprietary information. The IFL countersued saying the UFC was threatening potential partners, including Fox Sports Net with whom they eventually signed a television deal.
It was on Fox Sports that Miletich's Quad City Razorbacks won the first two IFL championships, but their stockpile of cash raised in a 2006 public offering was running low. The company was spending more than a $1 million at every event, despite a TV contract that paid just $50,000. That math simply didn't work out over the long haul.
Fox Sports Net, like it had been for the UFC years earlier, served almost as a commercial for the brand, advertising the show to potential buyers. The network, with its limited reach and funding, wasn't going to cut it. The IFL needed a big-time television partner and that's where MyNetworkTV came into the equation.
Brought in to produce the show, called IFL Battleground, was former Showtime executive Jay Larkin. A major player in boxing, Larkin had essentially brought the sport to the pay network, at different times working with the likes of Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler and Julio Cesar Chavez. He had not, however, always been a huge supporter of mixed martial arts, something White was quick to point out, essentially dismissing Larkin and other boxing promoters as carpet baggers and Johnny Come Latelys.
"Jay Larkin is a guy I talked to five years ago that wouldn't put it on Showtime," White told CBS Sports' Sam Caplan. " Didn't believe in it at all, now he's getting a paycheck from one of the companies and now he's all about it. These are all guys who didn't have the passion for it, didn't like it and didn't see the future in it."
To White, Larkin's lack of bona fide love for the sport would prove his undoing. And, in a way, he was right on the money. Larkin's first IFL broadcast was a disaster, every fight fan's worst nightmares all come to pass in two excruciating hours.
Repeating the UFC's early marketing missteps, the IFL emphasized the extreme violence on display. The show opened with coach Frank Shamrock telling viewers his fighters "are ready to fight to the death for their team," followed by an injured fighter going into convulsions as a heart-rate monitor flatlines in the background. Ambulances and even a 911 call were featured prominently.
The show would later use the fact that an athlete had to leave the ring on a stretcher as a selling point, seven times using a fighter's injury as a tease to keep viewers locked in. It was ugly, and to MMA fans sensitized to potential backlash like the kind that nearly killed the UFC, completely unacceptable. MMA reporter Zach Arnold spoke for many on his blog Fight Opinion:
Every possible negative stereotype that MMA enthusiasts and backers have been trying to fight against for the past decade reared its ugly head on this show. Portraying fighters as uneducated college dropouts needing father figures, stretcher job teasers everywhere, mostly stand-up fighting and little ground work, it was the complete definition of dumbing down the way you present a sport.
Worse still, the IFL was in such a rush to share all the great action from 2006 they actually attempted to fit nine fights into a two-hour block. That meant the bouts were heavily edited, sometimes in a confusing manner that left it unclear exactly what was going on. It was clear, however, that the edits were made by someone who didn't appreciate MMA as a unique sport, eliminating ground fighting almost entirely and focusing instead on concussive standup attacks.
After the show aired, the MMA Internet exploded with furious indignation. To their credit, the IFL quickly responded, with CEO Shamus telling the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer the show was a work in progress:
We have seen the feedback from the fans and industry professionals and are addressing their concerns... we felt that overall the show had a great production value and will expose the sport to a wide audience. We have already made some significant strides moving forward for our future episodes. We are going to present the incredible stories of our athletes each week and get to the fights...including many that have not aired anywhere.
While Shamus was good to his word, what he couldn't fix, at least not right away, was the fact that IFL Battleground was a taped program in a world where live sports is king. By the time the promotion finally negotiated a live fight show with MyNetworkTV in late 2007, promising to double their average rating which fluctuated right around a million viewers, if given the opportunity, it was too little and much too late.
By June 2007, their stock price, once a robust $17, had slipped below a single dollar.
Soon, after a last ditch effort in 2008 that saw them abandon their principles, including fighter salaries and benefits, they were out of business with $36 million in debt. It was an ugly end for a promotion that had started with such hope.
"Here's the truth," Larkin told me in a 2008 interview. "MMA is a one-promotion industry and that promotion is the UFC. They have done an incredible job of branding and marketing and they are the name synonymous with the sport. The UFC is MMA."