Let the Debate Begin: Why UFC Should Have Kept Pride FC Alive

October 4, 2007 not only was my 21st birthday completing my ascent into adulthood, but was also the day that Pride Fighting Championships officially terminated operations almost six months after the promotion was bought out by the Fertitta brothers and UFC.

The events and changes within the mixed martial-arts world over the past two years have seen the rise of UFC continue on an almost unstoppable climb while the industry itself in Japan has had to go through an almost total reboot with the formation of World Victory Road and DREAM (ironically co-produced by former Pride executives and former Pride rival K-1).

These two completely opposite fortunes within the MMA world has brought to my mind the theory about what the positives of keeping Pride open would have been. You have to remember that as of April 2007, the Fertittas and UFC owned Pride and initially did say that they were going to open a Japan office to keep the promotion alive. Of course Pride fans, MMA insiders, and any non-UFC backers didn’t buy into that and saw it for what it was: a smokescreen to keep the promotion going until the Yakuza scandal fizzled out and the many financial problems that plagued the promotions final days could be sorted out. Once everything was taken care of, the promotion was quietly put to sleep. But what if they had kept it going?

Oh, and by the way, I don’t want the financial implications of keeping Pride going to be a counterpoint from any anti-Pride pro-UFC people because considering the Fertittas were still billionaire casino owners at this time, I’m doubting money would’ve been an issue.

Alternative without competition. This one should have been so obvious to the Fertittas, Dana White, and Joe Silva that they all deserve a smack in the back of the head for not seeing it. Again, THEY OWNED PRIDE AT THIS POINT, so any Pride shows equal dollars for them, so the competitive factor was out of the picture. Reality check: there will never be such a thing as unification in MMA no matter how many governing bodies or rule lists you make, there are going to be people who see things differently, this is a fact of life in this business. In the case of Pride, they offered longer matches, gave fighters more weight for what they could do, they had a ring instead of a cage, and a different and better scoring system. UFC could’ve used all that to their advantage and continued what Pride had started by immersing the American public to the main alternative in the MMA world. What keeping the promotion alive and offering even only a few shows a year in the U.S.—so as to keep UFC as the main Zuffa owned promotion—would’ve provided a nice 1-2 punch and would’ve eventually started to produce in my opinion because Pride PPV’s offered more matches on the show negating the hope that a few would run short so we could see some of the earlier fights, as is the case with many UFC shows. In short, the sport was still growing vastly at this point in time and even from a business standpoint this should’ve been a no brainer because, to reiterate an earlier point, if you own the alternative you can manipulate it to your advantage without having to worry about going out of business yourself, the Bushido series is the example of this from the Pride world.

The atmosphere. UFC runs its shows in arenas ranging from a 10,000-20,000 seat capacity and that’s it. During the beginning of the Zuffa era 10,000 was the absolute most they could expect for many of their shows; that was 2001. Compare that with the fact that by this point Pride had run the Tokyo Dome once a year every year of their existence except for 1999 (they had two Dome shows in 2000), they were running the Saitama Super Arena, an arena that has three separate configurations ranging from around 20,000 to 35,000, several times a year, and they also did smaller shows in smaller arenas as well. What three difference maximums for attendance provided were three distinct atmospheres for fight night. The fact that Japanese fans are traditionally more polite and softer in the noise they make is true, but that pertains mainly to the slower, more mat-based portions of a fight, the portions where American fans will boo almost the moment it begins. Japanese fans are far more patient and far more willing to embrace every style of fighting whereas Americans will always hold a soft spot for brawling and boxing, they will cheer other styles as has been evident by the bigger pops over the years for submissions, but it’s not the same thing. What I’m referring to in this case is the fact that in Japan, smaller arenas will generally mean louder noise for good fights than in the big arenas. However, the big arenas possess their own kind of great atmosphere because not only did the fans in Pride get loud for big fights and great fights alike, but there were a lot of them in the bigger arenas. While the noise level wasn’t as loud as the smaller arenas because of the containment factor, it was nonetheless an impressive visual to see 22,000-55,000 fans get loud; especially impressive considering the fact that UFC to this day still could not approach those attendance figures for any show.

Depth of roster. UFC is an American brand, so they push American fighters; simple enough. Pride did the same with their Japanese stars like Sakuraba, Takada, Yoshida, and Gomi. Where Pride differed from UFC and still does is in the depth of their International roster. UFC has gotten more International fighters in recent years, specifically fighters from Brazil and Japan, but throughout Pride’s entire history they had a full roster of fighters from across the globe, the fact that UFC immediately started filling their roster with former Pride fighters is no coincidence. The fact is that by keeping Pride going, they would’ve been able to keep their roster as it was and kept the entire Pride roster, with its International flavor, intact without having to bring them into UFC at all. Of course they’d always have the option and that’s much better than it being a necessity.

Would’ve given UFC an easy entrance into the Japanese market. The recent signings of Yoshihiro Akiyama and Satoshi Ishii sent shockwaves through Japan and the MMA world at the same time as two of the biggest names in Japan MMA (Ishii had made his intentions clear long before signing with UFC) were heading to America to fight for an American promotion. Akiyama was one of the biggest T.V. ratings draws in Japan and Ishii was the man many believed could save or at least stabilize the MMA world in Japan with his debut and first few fights. Instead they are going to be used at some point as UFC’s way of trying to get into the Japanese market after an unsuccessful first attempt in 1999-2000. Again, the continued operation of Pride would’ve given UFC that entrance to the Japanese market two years ago. UFC fighters had already fought notably in Pride with examples being Chuck Liddell’s performance in the 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix, Jens Pulver debuting in Pride at Shockwave 2004, and Murilo Bustamante’s infamous run in Pride. So how would it have been any different if a bigger influx of UFC talent would’ve made its way into Pride in post-buyout 2007? The added bonus—for fighters who would want to take advantage of it—would be the lack of state athletic commissions meaning that a person could fight multiple fights in as many months as long as that fighter doesn’t get KO’d in the U.S. The mixing in of UFC talent in Pride more and more would’ve assimilated the Japanese fans to UFC fighters being regulars in Pride and thus a UFC-only show would have a better chance to draw good numbers in Japan. If UFC were to go into Japan today without Akiyama or Ishii, they would have to rely on the former Pride fighters on their roster to draw. Imagine two years of UFC talent going to Japan for Pride shows more and more. Win or lose, it really doesn’t matter over there nearly as much as it does here (see Cro Cop and Shogun).

The monopoly would be complete. You’ll notice that Pride didn’t even think of venturing into the U.S. until the tail end of their existence. There’s a reason for that: (1) they had to deal with the rivalry with K-1 in Japan, and (2) they had no reason to head to the U.S. Pride as a promotion was the standard bearer for a successful MMA promotion in terms of attendance figures, T.V. numbers for big shows, quality of shows, etc. and all of this was within the country of origin for the promotion. The same can be said about UFC right now, but the difference is that in America it seems that once that first burst of success comes your way, nothing short of world domination is enough. Vince McMahon has always been someone that people compare Dana White to and for good reasons: they both are eccentric and public personalities for their respective promotions and businesses, they both head the most successful promotions in their respective businesses, and both believe their way is THE way that things should be done. Think about it: pre-2005, Dana’s main concern was building UFC to the point where it could thrive in the U.S. Once Couture/Liddell and TUF came into the picture, it was all about creating a monopoly in the MMA world and that was something that would have been complete with the purchase AND continued running of Pride Fighting Championships in Japan. And in case there’s some disagreement, here’s some extra proof for you: the Pride executives that went to K-1 and formed DREAM would’ve still been employed and still been in charge of Pride had it kept going so no DREAM, and with Pride still going there would have been no need for World Victory Road because with new management at the top of Pride the Fuji TV ban would’ve more than likely been lifted by the end of ’07, AND with all of those things considered, the major stars that made HERO’S a legit big promotion would’ve likely jumped for the more stable exposure. So taking all of those things into account, Pride FC (owned by Zuffa) would’ve been the only major MMA promotion left standing by the end of 2007 leaving a host of smaller promotions to provide the building ground for new young talent in the same way that WEC functioned at its beginning in the U.S.

I am a Pride fan and always will be. There I said it. I am not saying that I dislike UFC; in fact anyone who’s read this column since its inception will note that I believe UFC is the only MMA promotion on this planet doing things the right way. The fact is that Pride is dead and gone and never coming back no matter how much DREAM wants to be like Pride, it will never be like Pride simply because K-1 is running things means that it will never fully be the same. The point of this article was to illustrate the negatives of shutting Pride down and the rewards that the Fertittas and Dana White and Joe Silva and UFC could’ve reaped had it been kept going.

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