The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organization is synonymous with mixed martial arts and has spearheaded the sport's transition into mainstream culture. While upstart competitor brands like Pride, Elite XC and the IFL have appeared and folded, the UFC’s brand continues to thrive and gain positive attention.
But, owning the majority of the market has given the UFC a false sense of security along with a real case of short-sightedness.
In the long run, the UFC is making itself vulnerable because of the too often unprofessional attitude and business style of its "face," UFC president Dana White, and because of the organization's treatment of its most valuable assets: the fighters.
Understandably, the UFC is a business and its main purpose is to profit, which it is undoubtedly succeeding at, and handsomely. In this environment, President Dana White should be building the most comprehensive stable of talent in the world and hosting the best and most competitive fights. The organization's way of conducting business should be of the highest professional quality, befitting a major worldwide business.
The problem is that the UFC is failing on all these counts.
They have adopted a cutthroat negotiating style with fighters and an unwillingness to compromise. This has disrespected key fighters and led to the departures of some marquee combatants. Dana White's in-your-face, "gangster style" of operating is more appropriate for a start-up fight club based in a back alley than for a billion dollar global enterprise.
Yes, White understands UFC's position in the market place. His company is, ultimately, the only real game in town—the gold standard and major leagues of MMA.
But White believes he can stonewall anyone who objects to the UFC's practices. Differences in opinion are simply not tolerated. The actions of fighters are either aligned with what the UFC wants, or they are expendable.
Over the past year, notable figures such as Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski and Tito Ortiz were not re-signed. Arlovski is still relatively young at 29, with incredible skills and a knack for entertaining in fan pleasing bouts.
Although aged and one dimensional, Ortiz is one of the most significant draws in the entire sport and was not re-signed due to his deteriorating relationship with White.
Allowing such talented and marketable fighters to leave is mind boggling.
Compounding the issue has been the recent release of Fabricio Werdum and Jon Fitch.
Both fighters are atop their division and among the world's best.
Fitch is a warrior who went five rounds in an entertaining bout with champion GSP. He is 8-1 in the octagon and holds a win over Thiago Alves. Despite displaying tremendous heart in many bouts, Fitch seemed disenchanted with the organization's negotiating.
“We tried to negotiate five or 10 year deals with them," he said, "but it wasn’t good enough. It was all or nothing. He (White) wanted our lifetime. He wanted our souls forever.”
Even if Fitch’s situation is resolved, White’s unrelenting, in-your-face attitude is eventually going to backfire for the company.
According to reports, the fighters' relationship with the organization soured when they were asked to renegotiate their contracts and give the organization a lifetime contract for their likeness on the UFC’s upcoming video game.
Because of Dana White’s stubbornness and the UFC’s uncompromising attitude regarding its fighters, fans suffer the consequences. Instead of seeing one of the best welterweights in the world challenge the likes of Josh Koscheck, Matt Hughes or even B.J. Penn, Jon Fitch will be forced to fight sparingly in lesser known, far less visible promotions.
The stubbornness of the organization has never been so glaring. Top heavyweight and legendary fighter Fedor Emelianenko shunned White’s attempts at courtship because of what he felt was a lack of respect and refusal to cooperate in negotiations. This take it or leave it attitude hurts the fans the most.
White’s products are his fighters. Continuing to alienate groups of them is not a prudent business approach. Feuds with Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and in-their-primes Josh Barnett and Frank Shamrock have marred White’s successes.
In regards to Fitch and other fighters with whom he has disagreed, the outspoken White spewed this gem, “Affliction is still out there trying to build its company. Let [Fitch] go work with them. Let him see what he thinks of those [expletives]. [Expletive] him. These guys aren’t partners with us. [Expletive] them. All of them, every last [expletive] one of them.”
As always, White is all about the "low road" and allows personal feelings to cloud reasonable business decisions. At the end of the day, the UFC will be held accountable about whether they have the fans' and fighters' best interests at heart.
The UFC risks the rise and popular support for a governing body for fighters that would put an end to further injustices.
The average UFC combatant fights three times a year. And with only a few fighters making more than six figures a year, its clear most are underpaid. At UFC 91, Ryan Thomas and Rafael Dos Anjos made $3000 and $4000, respectively. With all the expenses a fighter incurs, these guys aren’t even making a profit.
As the sport continues to grow and rival promotions like Golden Boy and Affliction keep investing money, it’ll be increasingly difficult for the UFC to maintain its superiority based on its current style of doing business.
Maintaining superiority requires preserving the deepest roster of talent in the world. Forcing stars like Fitch and Werdum out of the organization is a major setback for fans who wish to see elite fighters compete.
In the coming years, the UFC's rule-by-an-iron-fist must be replaced with a more enlightened business approach of cultivating talent. That's how fans will get the best product and UFC will assure its long term success.