The UFC is a meat grinder that constantly requires new talent to feed the relentless machine that appears almost every week on TV or pay-per-view.
Over the last seven years, the UFC has drastically expanded its operations, transforming itself into a regular fixture on network and cable television in addition to its steady efforts on pay-per-view. In 2009, the promotion ran 20 events and 215 total fights; in 2016, it held 40 events and 493 fights.
The newly formed Legacy Fighting Alliance, the result of the merger between the venerable Legacy Fighting Championship and Resurrection Fighting Alliance promotions, wants to dominate that pipeline and become known as the college football to the UFC's NFL.
The president and public face of LFA, Ed Soares, has been a fixture in MMA for a decade as the manager of stars such as Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and many more. He has left management behind now, focusing solely on promotion, after juggling both for years as president of RFA.
In a space where promotions come and go with regularity, Legacy and RFA were notable for their longevity and profitability. Mick Maynard ran Legacy for years before the merger and is still a partner in the new LFA, though he's no longer involved in the day-to-day operations after taking a new position in the UFC's matchmaking department.
LFA plans to run 30 events in 2017, which sounds like a huge number for a smaller promotion. Soares pointed out, however, that Legacy and RFA did a combined 27 shows last year, which makes this just a small increase. "That's what being a good promoter is all about, making it sound bigger than it actually is," Soares said.
"We're smart and calculated," Soares continued. "We don't let our egos get ahead of us or take a bigger step than we can take. We're realistic about what we do. I want to constantly progress and make a better product, but I don't want to take too big a step and fall. Everything comes with time." In 2018, he said, LFA intends to expand further, with tentative plans to increase the number to 40 events.
Soares has no illusions about competing with the UFC or even Bellator on a national scale; instead, LFA wants to be the primary launching pad for tomorrow's stars, a developmental promotion where the biggest names and talents of the future can hone their skills in and out of the cage.
"As a manager, I know what fighters need, and I know the platform we're building on AXS TV is exactly what they need," Soares said. "Before, you'd go from fighting in a ballroom to all of the sudden going into an arena with cameras and everything, and there was no in between. When you're a feature fighter on one of our cards, you're going to have a lot of media commitments."
Andrew Simon, CEO of AXS TV Fights, echoed Soares' sentiments. "Every Friday night, you've got something. Is it the best fighters in the world? No. Are they the best fighters of the future? No doubt. This is where those fighters are coming from. We want to be the building block."
Simon fondly recalled boxing's Friday Night Fights in the 1990s, watching young fighters like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins climb the ranks. That's the goal with AXS TV Fights, which runs shows every Friday night. "We're creating the stars of the future. This is the place where you can say, 'I saw them first.'"
"The future is now," said Soares. "The next Jon Jones, the next Ronda Rousey, the next Conor McGregor, is most likely going to come from our organization."
Legacy and RFA have already sent more than 100 fighters to the UFC, Simon said. Holly Holm, Valentina Shevchenko, Sage Northcutt, Henry Cejudo, Sergio Pettis, Thomas Almeida and Mirsad Bektic are just a few of those alumni. If that weren't enough, World Series of Fighting featherweight champion Lance Palmer fought in RFA, and rising Bellator bantamweight Darrion Caldwell had his first three fights in Legacy.
The pipeline of talent is already making waves—Holm's knockout of Ronda Rousey certainly didn't hurt—and as these young fighters develop further, the top ranks of every UFC division are likely to include a few fighters who got their starts in LFA and its parent promotions.
To some extent, that has already happened: 12 fighters currently ranked in the UFC's Top 15, and a disproportionate percentage of the young, up-and-coming elite, had at least one fight in Legacy or RFA.
The fact that Maynard is still a partner in LFA and also works as a UFC matchmaker seeking out new talent doesn't hurt, either.
But LFA isn't the only smaller promotion sending fighters to the UFC, and the UFC's own Fight Pass platform is the 800-pound gorilla in any conversation about the future of smaller shows. It hosts a staggering array of that sub-UFC content, from the well-known Titan FC and the all-female Invicta FC to Russia's Eurasia Fight Nights, Combate Americas, Shooto Brazil, the Midwest's Victory FC and Alaska FC.
Simon isn't shy about labeling Fight Pass competition for AXS TV Fights, but he's confident in the benefits of AXS TV over an online-only platform. Fight Pass has between 500,000 and 700,000 subscribers, Simon said, while AXS TV is currently in 46 to 50 million homes in the United States, not counting its overseas presence.
"It's the wave of the future, but I'm not sure the model is there for the promotions to be successful financially. I'm not sure the exposure is better," Simon said. "I'm not sure Invicta has better exposure today than they did when they were [streaming free] online. Some of the other promotions that are on there now that were with us are maybe not flourishing financially."
At least one promotion currently on Fight Pass that had formerly been on AXS TV (presumably Titan FC) has talked to Simon about returning to AXS, he said.
Soares had talked to Fight Pass about LFA, he acknowledged, but he touts the benefits of being on AXS TV. "Fight Pass is a great platform," Soares says, "but there's nothing like being on TV."
Simon made that point even more forcefully. "Sean Shelby, Mick Maynard, they're clearly watching AXS TV Fights. You're not getting seen if you're on a regional show unless [UFC President] Dana [White] happens to come with Lookin' For a Fight. We are the place to be seen if you're looking to get to that level."
LFA will be taking up 30 of the 45 Friday-night slots on AXS TV this year, and it can no longer be considered a regional promotion. "Between Legacy and RFA, I believe we've done 21 states," Soares said. "In 2018, our goal is to be doing 40 shows. You'll see us doing 12 to 15 markets two or three times per year. We're going to be spreading that across the U.S., from the East Coast to the West Coast."
That requires a tremendous infrastructure of relationships with gyms, coaches, trainers, managers and of course fighters, but Soares isn't worried. "One thing there's not a lack of is talent. As we do these different areas all around the country, we have to develop talent from that area."
Developing local talent is a necessity for LFA, not a choice. "A good percentage of our budget still comes from ticket sales," said Soares, which means the promotion needs local fighters to sell those tickets to friends, family and fans to fill the venue and generate revenue.
There's a refreshing lack of hyperbole in the approach that Soares and Simon have charted out for LFA and AXS TV Fights, and they're grounded in a deep knowledge of the business landscape of combat sports and a realistic appraisal of where they fit. It's still an aggressive, forward-moving approach but one based on sharp, sober analysis of what's possible.
"We know we have budgets," Simon said. "Our network is not Showtime or HBO, spitting off money. This is our budget. What can we do with this budget to get the promotions that make people want to tune in every Friday night?"
The answer to that question is to embrace the identity as the home to future stars, a halfway point between the developmental emphasis of Triple-A baseball and the inherently quality product of good college football.
Soares and Simon know exactly what they want to build and how they want to build it. They have a brand that focuses on providing quality fights between up-and-coming fighters every Friday night, and everything else builds off that foundation.
If this formula works, as it has so far for RFA and LFA, the benefits will be there for both the promotion and the fighters who fill its cards. There are no restrictions for any fighter who receives a contract offer from the UFC or Bellator, Soares says.
"The more successful they get, the more successful we become as a promotion. A lot of people say, 'I don't understand your concept. You build a guy up and then you let him go?' But that's why people are interested in watching us. People are tuning in to watch future superstars in the making right now. That's why you tune in.
"As these fighters move on in their career, and become successful and become superstars, that's what makes our content valuable," said Soares. "Their success is our success."
All quotes obtained firsthand.