Inside Fights Interview: WEC Executive Reed Harris

They say big things come in small packages. If you’ve seen Miguel Torres, Mike Brown or Uriah Faber fight, then you’d be hard pressed to dispute that notion.

While we spend most of our time and energy focused on the fighters, it’s also important to speak with the guys that make everything run behind the scenes. Meet Reed Harris. He is the man that started the WEC, along with Scott Adams, and he is the man that is currently the brains behind the operation – along with the support of UFC President Dana White.

But Reed has more much than just the brains to steer this ship — he also has the passion and the vision. Reed was not content with having the WEC be a feeder organization for the UFC. He wanted the WEC to develop its own brand and carve out its very own marketplace. It’s safe to say that Reed Harris & Co. are traversing toward that destination.

We had the opportunity to speak with Reed Harris and he was very candid on a number of issues ranging from the future of the WEC lightweight division, Brown vs. Faber II, his relationship with Chuck Liddell and much more.

Take a look.

Brian Oswald: You and Scott Adams started the WEC in 2001. In December 2006, Zuffa purchased the WEC and you took on the role of general manager which has you involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, including production, recruiting, domestic and international expansion, along with broadcasting. Can you talk to us more about the specifics that your job entails?

Reed Harris: There are a lot of things that go on day-to-day in running of this company. At the end of the day it is a business like any other. I am involved in a lot of forward planning, event and site selection, etc. I also look at WEC as a brand – where we think the brand should go. How to penetrate new markets, how to get our product out there so more people see and recognize it.

We are where the UFC was a few years ago, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. I am using my own business style to implement all this, but we have a template in front of us which the UFC has given us that we know works. There is no better MMA promotion company then the UFC. They have been there, done that, they know how to get their product out there.

Especially from a production standpoint, when bought us the first thing people saw was the value and quality of production in our quality show. It got to where it equals the UFC, the premiere organization when it comes to production and television content when it comes to MMA.

Brian Oswald: I have heard enough MMA fans say that they have seen WEC shows that were even better then some of the UFC shows they have seen. That has to bee compliment and real testament to what you guys are doing over there.

Reed Harris: I have heard that too and it is a real compliment. Whenever anyone even compares us to the UFC I feel complimented. The fact that we did a different color scheme when we revamped the company, the fact that we went with a smaller cage (26 feet vs. 30 feet) helped push the action, and the fact that early on we decided to focus on the smaller divisions and not just be a feeder organization to the UFC.

We did not want to live under their shadow, but rather go out on our own. Establish our own market and establish our own fans. There are enough fans out there for both of us. It’s like with college football and the NFL. Most of those fans are interchangeable and then you have fans that just watch one or the other.

My goal is to grow the WEC to be as big as the UFC. And the UFC is helping me do that because; it is of course, their goal as well.

Brian Oswald: Tell us about the executive decision to disband the heavier weight divisions (170,185, 205) to focus on the lighter weight divisions. Who made the final call to create a distinction between the UFC and WEC in terms of weight classes?

Reed Harris: Dana White makes the final call with decisions like this. What we looked at behind the scenes was, could we incorporate all these divisions and be deep enough to where we could give enough fighters the amount of fighters they need. That is a priority for us. The fighters need to be active. With all those divisions, we did not think we could keep all of our fighters busy enough. The divisions needed to be deep enough

So it came down to how we build our company through the different divisions. If I am looking at 185, and I am looking to build up that division, it is going to be pretty hard to compete with the UFC, same with 205. So we decided not to compete with them and create our own divisions and our own marketplaces.

So far so good…we feel the response has been very good. That fact that we have some of the top guys in the smaller divisions and the fact that I have people calling me from Japan, Europe and Brazil that want to come and fight for the WEC means that we are successful in what we are doing.

Brian Oswald: I am sure it was a hard thing to let go of a guy like Carlos Condit.

Reed Harris: You mention the exact guy I adore. Losing Carlos was really difficult for me. It was even more difficult for my family – they all love him. He is one of the most genuinely nicest guys you will ever meet. I introduced my teenage son to him and as we walked away I said ‘that is why you don’t ever pick fights.’ Carlos may not look or acts like a mean guy but if you get on the wrong side of him he is going to put the hurt on you. Then he watched Carlos fight that night and he was ‘Oh my gosh’.

Brian Oswald: How old is your son…is he training to be a mixed martial artist?

Reed Harris: He is 16 and is training MMA with one of our WEC fighters. I was actually a Taekwondo teacher back then MMA was not around so we watched a lot of Bruce Lee movies. One of my intentions when I started the WEC was to bring the honor and discipline I learned to the sport of mixed martial arts. My teacher insisted that our classes be run with respect, graciousness, and honor. I wanted that to translate into our shows. Our fighters are respectful to each other and to the people that run the business and vice versa.

Most of our fighters have a collegiate sports background or a mixed martial arts background. In college when two guys wrestle, they shake hands afterwards. For me, it is gratifying that the sport of MMA has evolved in that direction. The guys truly do understand that they are athletes. Every once in awhile we get one guy mad at another, and that makes for a great fight, but at the end of the day there is a lot of respect, and that is good.

Brian Oswald: Over the last sixteen years, the perception of the fighter has really changed. This sport used to be referred to as human “cock fighting” and now it’s attracting some of the best athletes in the world. And not only are they great athletes, they are great human beings.

Reed Harris: That is exactly the case. There is not a fighter in the WEC that I would not let stay at my house. These guys are good guys, and at the WEC level, these guys are the cream of the crop, the world’s best. Let’s talk about a guy like Miguel Torres.

I went back to Chicago and Miguel Torres, in his hometown, is a hero. He literally takes kids in that can’t afford martial arts and teaches them martial arts. I grew up in Chicago so I understand the area Miguel trains in. When Miguel runs at 2am in the morning, the gangs give him a pass because they all respect him for what he is doing for the kids. For so many, community is all they got. We need more guys like Miguel Torres.

That is the best part of being involved is sport is meeting these guys and becoming friends of theirs. That is not something I expected when I started doing these shows. That I actually get to really know great guys like Chuck Liddell, Miguel Torres, Urijah Faber, and Mike Brown. You can’t meet better people.

Brian Oswald: Are we going to lose the WEC lightweight division in the future or will that division act as a point of intersect between the UFC and WEC?

Reed Harris: We will not lose the lightweight division; it will act as a point of intersect. We have been working real hard to build up the division and we have signed some new fighters which I can’t divulge yet. In the next month or two you’ll see some new blood. One guy we have recently signed is James Krause who is fighting Cerrone at WEC 41. Krause is 10-0 and has only had one fight make it out of the first round. We feel comfortable with the 155 division going forward so it is here to stay.

Brian Oswald: How is the flyweight division (125 pounds) coming along? Are you in the process of stockpiling good fighters?

Reed Harris: Yeah we have been talking to a lot of guys. Our Matchmaker Sean Shelby is heading up that charge. Just to be honest, we had a back log of fighters so we are working through that. We have to keep our fighters busy. It makes them better and it allows them to do this full time as their living. Part of the reason to eliminate the 170 pound division was to feature the 125 pound division and focus on the lighter weigh divisions.

Brian Oswald: How aggressive are you in recruiting the lighter weight MMA talent in Japan?

Reed Harris: We are always aggressive in recruiting the best guys. What a lot of people don’t realize is that these fighters are contacting us. There are two types of fighters. Guys that are fighting for the money and guys that just want to fight the best.

Look at Chuck Liddell. I have known him for years and we are good friends. He never cared about the money but because of that it came. He only cared about fighting the best. He never wanted to fight a guy that was ranked eight. We get calls from a lot of guys that just want to fight the best. And the money will work itself out.

And there will be a lot of great talent coming in from Japan.

To be real honest with you, I did not know a lot about Takeya Mizugaki. Now am I a huge fan. Not only can lay claim as the first to push Torres all five rounds, he did it with such grace and honor. After the fight (at the press conference) he said to Torres, thank you for teaching I have some holes in my game. I am like “wow” that is a pretty interesting take for a guy who you just went to war with. It showed me, he just wants to be the best and fight the best.

Brian Oswald: How do you feel about guys from the UFC coming down to the WEC like Manny Gamburyan?

Reed Harris: It is great because, like Manny said, that is probably where he should have been fighting to begin with. The same goes for Jens Pulver. The only real reason they were fighting at 155 is because there was no place at 145 where they could fight the best. So with guys coming down to 145, it’s a more natural weight for them and I am looking forward to seeing Manny fight there.

Brian Oswald: Are you currently talking to any other UFC lightweight fighters who would be a good fit in the WEC featherweight division? As you mentioned, getting guys in the right weight division.

Reed Harris: That is totally up to each individual fighter and then Joe Silva. Anybody that is fighting in the UFC at 155 can certainly talk to Joe Silva and say that they wan to drop to 145. If those fighters want to come down, then it starts there. We don’t actively seek them though.

Brian Oswald: You have a great title rematch coming up with Mike Brown versus Urijah Faber: the rematch. Talk to us about this fight.

Reed Harris: Mike might be unstoppable. I will paraphrase what he told me. Keep in mind, Mike is a quiet guy. He told me, “I am going to go to Sacramento, put my glove on Urijah’s chin, knock him out, pick up my belt and take it back to Florida where it belongs. End of story.” If he would have said that before he fought Urijah the first time we would have never believed it.

I am a huge Urijah Faber fan though. I would never count him out of any fight, certainly not this fight. He is the consummate mixed martial artist. I have seen him train; those guys will spend an hour with some body behind them in a rear naked choke. I asked Faber, “Were you worried when Jeff Curran got your back and he said ‘dude I train that everyday, I wasn’t worried at all.'”

This fight has the potential to be the best fight we have ever done. It has the potential to be fight of the year. Every fight has potential; this fight has the potential to be a very special fight. I don’t know how you lay odds on this fight.

With four ounces anything can happen. Urijah got caught, he got caught hard. Can Mike Brown repeat that; especially if he is fighting a more conservative Urijah, who will still be throwing knees and elbows and has great takedowns? It will be a fascinating fight with a lot more strategy this time on both sides.

Brian Oswald: Originally this fight was talked about as being the WEC’s first PPV. Why did that change?

Reed Harris: The determining factor was VERSUS has been a great partner of ours and they really wanted the fight. They’re a great broadcast partner, have been since we started, we have a future with them. We are the most watched show on the entire network. They came to us and said it was a fight they wanted to do on VERSUS so we agreed to do that. It is a relationship that will continue to grow and further develop over time. That being said we still plan on adding PPV’s in due time. The plans for the WEC are big; we just have to put in the work.

Brian Oswald: You have talked about making a move to Mexico; can you tell us about that? Do you think the fans in Mexico, who traditionally resonate with boxing, will resonate with the smaller weight classes the WEC offers?

Reed Harris: If things work out I would certainly like to go to Mexico for an event. We have a television partner down there that broadcasts our events in Mexico City and are ratings are great. So we have big plans for that market. As Dana once said, MMA is the only sport where guys like George St. Pierre can come out in Ohio and get bigger cheers then the guy from America. I see that with the Hispanic fans as well.

We took Urijah Faber down to Mexico and he got a huge response. Everyone knew who he was. They were very kind to him. Faber thought it was the best trip he had ever had. So not only do we have the top Hispanic fighters in the world; there is going to be a real crossover with the fans in Mexico with some of our other fighters. The borders seem to come down when it comes to mixed martial arts.

Brian Oswald: Miguel Torres is quickly cleaning out his division. It feels accurate to call him the Anderson Silva of bantamweight division. If he keeps going at this rate it makes sense for him to move up to featherweight right like Silva has moved up to light heavyweight right?

Reed Harris: Miguel Torres has certainly established himself as one of the best fighters in the world. Frank Mir said he is the best fighter he has ever seen. We have a lot of guys coming in that will be coming in to challenge Torres. Trust me when I say I am working hard to get Torres the best opponents and Torres doesn’t have an easy fight left in his career.

Torres told me just how tough the Mizugaki fight was. Torres knees Mizugaki in the clinch in the fourth round and Mizugaki makes a noise and Torres thinks it’s the beginning of the end of the fight. Then as Torres pushes Mizugaki away, Mizugaki punches him in the face. Torres was like “wow I better finish this guy quick.”

Initially, I don’t see Miguel fighting at 145 for awhile. I could see some guys from 145 drop down to fight Miguel at 135 though. That dynamic will likely play out. Anything is possible though. The WEC wants to put the best and biggest fights together.

Brian Oswald: A lot of fans are really looking forward to see if Brian Bowles can mount a challenge against Miguel Torres at WEC 42. Do you think Brian really stands a chance to upset Torres in his first title fight?

Reed Harris: You know how I see Brian Bowles; I see Brian Bowles as a smaller Forrest Griffin. They both fight out of that Southeastern area. They have similarities. You know how Forrest has surprised us over and over again; that is Brian.

I think he is very dangerous and Miguel is going to have his hands full. Brian is going to strike toe to toe with Miguel; Miguel better watch out for his guillotine. Miguel is not looking past this guy at all. Miguel has told me he is training his ass off for this fight.

Brian Oswald: If Miguel Torres is Anderson Silva and Brian Bowles is Forrest Griffin that will give us the WEC version of UFC 101.

Reed Harris: (Laughs) You could look at it like that.

Brian Oswald: Talk to us about the Jaime Varner-Donald Cerrone fight. Do you feel the fight ended in controversy or was it simply an unfortunate series of events? And, will we see a title fight rematch in 2009?

Reed Harris: Well I think it was an unfortunate series of evens that ended in controversy. There are a lot of questions about the fight and everything that went down. Jaime is doing everything he can to heal from his injuries and get back in the fight game.

The day after the fight I started calling Varner him Hellboy. You know how Hellboy had that one big hand. My wife said to me, “Don’t say that to the guy” and I said, “Don’t worry, he wont hit me!” His hand was absolutely huge so he has had a couple of operations to repair it. Varner is telling me August or September he will be ready to go again.

As far as Cerrone, he is calling me every week asking, “When do I get to fight Varner again?” Cerrone has a tough fight in front of him in James Krause (10-0) though. So Cerrone is training hard down at Greg Jackson’s gym. He will be ready for his fight and if he wins then we can talk about a Varner-Cerrone rematch.

Brian Oswald: Jens Pulver is fighting Josh Grispi at WEC 41. Where does Jens Pulver fit into the current MMA landscape; is he in the same boat as UFC fighters like Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell?

Reed Harris: I think Jens Pulver is still dangerous. Urijah even told me in the second match that he was concerned because Jens has knockout power. And I know Jens is concerned about this 20-year old Grispi kid. I have the new kid on the block versus the cagey veteran. As you know Cub Swanson, he was green and Jens took advantage of that. So where I see Jens, I still see him as a top 10 fighter.

He has the potential to fight for a while. He still has a future and he will find his place. Just because he lost to Leonard Garcia and Urijah Faber does not mean Jens is done with MMA. On a personal level, everyone at Zuffa loves Jens Pulver. It took me 10 minutes to like the guy. He is the nicest guy you will ever meet. He is real; there is no pretense to Jens Pulver. What you see is what you get.

Brian Oswald: Speaking of Chuck Liddell, the two of you are good friends. Have you been part of Liddell’s counsel during this tough time in his MMA career?

I have a very close relationship with Chuck. But he does not need my input on this. He knows in his heart what he wants to do and as a friend I am allowing him that. I am in the business so we have discussed a few things. But on my end of that discussion is, “do in your heart what it is what you need to do.” That is what I have to do as a true friend and just support him in whatever he decides to do.

Chuck Liddell is a fighter. It is not like you have to force him out there. I asked Chuck a few years ago if he every got scared and he asked back do you ever get scared when you go to work.

Chuck said, “It is my job. That great thing about my job is that I get to do what I love. The training is the work and the fight is the payoff. The fight is the fun part.” How profound is that. When you put it like that it changes the perspective of what these guys are going. Chuck will make the right decision.

Brian Oswald: It looks like we are wrapping things up Reed. It’s been a pleasure and thanks for being so candid.

Reed Harris: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

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