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By: Rich Hansen, MMA Torch Columnist
I'm just thinking out loud here about the fact that World Series of Fighting (WSOF) matchmaker Ali Abdel-Aziz (AAA) challenged Bellator to a WSOF vs. Bellator ten-fight co-promoted pay-per-view (PPV) event this week.
AAA went on Ariel Helwani's The MMA Hour show to throw down the gauntlet to Bjorn Rebney, wanting him to accept a joint PPV event where 10 WSOF fighters matched up with ten Bellator fighters, ostensibly to win the title of the world's number two mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion. Of course, that's a title which is already held by Bellator, so this is really all just a gigantic public relations (PR) maneuver by AAA and WSOF.
Or is it?
First the card itself.
My first impression of the graphic is that WSOF needs to hire someone who knows that there's this super-cool icon that allows you to center images. That WSOF logo is way off-center. Second thought in my mind was that the logo itself is god-awful, and if they're going to be taken seriously maybe they should ask Sig Rogich for $500 to invest in something better than MS PAINT.
But as to the card itself, WSOF's biggest star, Nick Newell, isn't given a fight. Bellator's best fighter, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire isn't on the proposed card, presumably because AAA knows that Lance Palmer wouldn't last sixty seconds against Pitbull. Rick Glenn vs. Pat Curran should be on there, even though Curran would be a heavy favorite against the young featherweight from Roufusport. There are several other good Bellator fighters who aren't on this proposal, but just from those examples alone, it's pretty clear that AAA wants Bellator to accept a bad card based on the premise that if they say no then they're cowards.
But this could be overcome. Let's say Bellator was intrigued in co-promoting a PPV. After all, Bjorn Rebney pulled a similar stunt years ago when he tried to get Eddie Alvarez vs. Striekforce's Gilbert Melendez done. I'm sure that Bjorn Rebney and AAA could sit down with a bucketful of mimosas and hash out a card that worked for both promotions. The winner of the card could be not only the number two promotion in the world, but could also be given rights to Ben Askren in Spring 2016.
Of course, this is all just a fantasy. Bellator has nothing to gain, and everything to lose. They are currently the number two MMA promotion in the world right now (all apologies to Mark Pavelich), so why would they accept? Why would WSOF offer a challenge that they should know would go declined by Bellator, if not flat out unanswered? The second question is the better question to ask.
Why indeed, why would WSOF do this? What's in it for them, really? The unofficial title of "NUMBER TWO MMA COMPANY IN THE WORLD" is about as meaningless as winning the NFC North was this year. Even if the card went down unchanged from AAA's proposal, and even if WSOF won six or more of the fights, what really would change? Would NBC suddenly promote every subsequent WSOF card from the NBC Sports Network to NBC? Would Fox Sports Latin America suddenly decide to rescind their deal with Bellator? Would Viacom give up on the sport and close up shop, thereby ending Bellator as an entity? Would Bellator's roster suddenly be transferred to the WSOF, thereby creating a roster deep enough to be a threat to the UFC?
Ah. UFC. Those three magical letters. Nothing in MMA can happen without the UFC's interests being discussed. How does all of this affect the UFC? Nothing in MMA should ever happen without the UFC's interests being the first question you ponder.
All apologies to One FC, but UFC, Bellator, and WSOF are the three dominant promotions in the MMA world, and that's pretty generous to WSOF if we're being honest here. At this point, let's pretend this isn't business; let's pretend it's a poker tournament. In seat one is the big stack, the UFC. UFC holds 85% of the chips. In seat two is Bellator, with maybe 10% of the chips. And over in seat three is WSOF, sitting on the remaining 5% of the chips.
Basic poker tournament structure is that everyone keeps playing until only one player holds all the chips. It's like Highlander, but no one has Adrian Paul's hair. So as long as there's a challenger with 'a chip and a chair,' the game continues. By definition, The UFC is going to do what they can to eject the short stacks, and the short stacks are going to keep trying to peck away at the big stack.
When you're the monster stack at the table, basic poker strategy implies that you want one of the short stacks to knock off the other short stack, because then you have the same number of chips that you had a moment before, but you have the massive advantage of only having to focus your energies on one player. And at every poker tournament that has gotten to three-handed play with one monster stack, that monster stack always has an opponent he wants to play against heads-up, and one he wants to avoid in heads-up play. Accepting this premise, it is only logical for the big stack to do what he can to influence which short stack conquers the other short stack.
Sig Rogich is the World Series of Fighting Chief Executive Officer (CEO). He's a political kingmaker, not just in Nevada politics, but on the national scene as well. Rogich has been influential in getting dozens of Republicans elected in Nevada; he was influential in the 1984 re-election campaign for President Ronald Reagan, and held many roles in the administration of George H.W. Bush's campaign, including Ambassador to his native country of Iceland. And to be accurate here, Rogich was instrumental in getting Bush elected, as he was the man in charge of the advertisements that marked the beginning of the end for Bush's challenger Michael Dukakis. And despite all of this power in the GOP, Rogich also offered an extremely strident endorsement for US Democrat Senator Harry Reid. Rogich is what we would call a political fixer, certainly one of the most influential and wealthy men in Nevada. And if he's willing to put his own party politics aside to help re-elect the most powerful Democrat Senator in the country, that leads one to realize he's cagy as hell. Put it all together and one must ask the following question: What in the hell is a big wheel like Sig Rogich doing in MMA? If he wanted the ego stroke that sports ownership offers, why didn't he get involved in trying to buy a team in the NFL, NBA, or MLB? Why has he been so invisible in his stewardship of WSOF if he's looking for a sports ownership ego stroke?
In the current landscape, WSOF is a distant third to Bellator, proportionally almost as far from eclipsing Bellator as Bellator is to eclipsing UFC. Their business model seems muddled, and their decisions seem to be made almost completely at random. Why did they sign Yushin Okami? Why did Dana White publicly mention WSOF with every public breath he took as a landing spot for Ben Askren when Bellator let Askren go? Why did they sign Jon Fitch and not give him an immediate title shot? Better yet, since everything that happens in MMA needs to be viewed through the UFC prism, why did the UFC let go of Okami, pass on Askren, and cut Fitch in the first place?
In my world, the UFC wants to have a place to stash fighters they don't want to hold onto, but don't want to see in Bellator, either. I'm not insinuating that Bellator wanted Fitch or Okami, and they did let go of Askren several months before he would have been free anyhow. But even if Bellator didn't want Fitch or Okami, the UFC sure as hell didn't want Fitch or Okami to have even a small part in making the second biggest chip stack a little bigger. Miraculously, they both wind up with WSOF, the short stack at the table, which makes WSOF a much bigger threat to Bellator, but only microscopically more dangerous to the UFC. And had Ben Askren followed Dana White's advice and headed to WSOF, the same principle would have applied to that WSOF signing as well.
Of course, to this point of my thinking, there's one big hole in my logic. And that logic hole goes something like this... Just because the UFC might want WSOF to do something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen. UFC might be the big stack at the table, but that doesn't mean they have influence over the decision making processes of anyone else at the table.
Oh, hey, did I forget to mention about five paragraphs ago that Sig Rogich and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta have a history together, and presumably still have a close relationship? We all know Fertitta had a seat on the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) before he bought the UFC. Want to take a guess who was the Chairman of the NSAC back then? No, not Keith Kizer. No, not Marc Ratner, the current UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs for the UFC. In fact, Sig Rogich was the Chairman of the NSAC when Lorenzo Fertitta sat on that commission. Politics is such a small world.
So let's put some of these pieces together, shall we? The UFC has zero influence on Bellator. If Bellator wants to do something, they're going to do it with or without the UFC's blessing. If the UFC wants Bellator to do something and Bellator doesn't want to do it, it ain't happening (see Alvarez, Eddie). The UFC has more fighters than they know what to do with, and need to occasionally get rid of high profile guys. They don't want any of them to go to Bellator, because Bellator has Viacom money behind them. That Viacom money means Bellator could be around for a long time, constantly irritating the powers that be at Zuffa headquarters. Then there's the WSOF and Sig Rogich, who sure seem to make decisions that don't bother anyone at UFC HQ. I can't think of anything they've done that has ever irked the UFC even slightly. They might not be in cahoots with one another, but they certainly seem symbiotic, don't you think?
Bellator is currently in the same place now that Strikeforce was three years ago, and WSOF is currently where Bellator was three years ago. If you recall, Bellator and Bjorn Rebney were both beloved as the little engine that could, and Rebney earned major PR points - all of which have since been pissed away, times infinity (see Alvarez, Eddie) - when he publicly campaigned Scott Coker to put aside any business and personal issues and help promote a fight between Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez. Rebney was publicly complimentary of Strikeforce's Melendez, and eventually Melendez publicly campaigned Coker to do what was needed to get this fight together.
Of course, Coker knew that no good could come of this co-promotion, because at that time Strikeforce was number two with a bullet, and Bellator was struggling to survive (without a power player like Sig Rogich bankrolling them, either). Publicly, Coker told the world that he was open to the idea, but it never happened. To this day one must wonder how much Coker rally wanted to do this fight. And every time Coker heard Melendez speak out about wanting to fight someone from tiny little Bellator, his heart died a little. Strikeforce wound up getting spread too thin, their money partners wanted out, and barely a year after Rebney floated that Alvarez vs. Melendez balloon out there, Strikeforce wound up being sold to the UFC.
History has a funny way of repeating itself, don't you think? Now AAA is floating the same balloon at Bellator. Learning from Strikeforce's downfall, Rebney knows damned well that the best course of action is to act as if WSOF doesn't exist. Don't refuse the co-promotion, don't negotiate over the structure of the card, but solidly and emphatically ignore the challenge. Not just the challenge, but WSOF themselves should be ignored as loudly as possibly. It is 100 percent in Bellator's best interest to ignore WSOF's very existence. Up until a few months ago, the WSOF was a zero on everyone's radar. But the biggest jump one can make is going from being a zero to being anything at all. And by all estimations, WSOF has made a jump from a zero to at least being on the radar. And that has to scare the hell out of Bjorn Rebney, because he's cagy enough to see the small role he played in the downfall of Strikeforce.
Bellator is at a crossroad right now. They failed to keep Hector Lombard satisfied, and he left for Zuffa. They struggled mightily to keep Eddie Alvarez, and damaged their brand in order to do so. They were forced to release Ben Askren, because they knew Askren was going to spend the entirety of his matching clause period trashing their organization so significantly that they wouldn't be able to put out all the brush fires Askren's strategy of mutually assured destruction was sure to cause. Bellator signed Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz so that they could go on to PPV, and then failed to put on said PPV. Their image has taken a massive hit due to any and all of the above. Traffic on MMA websites barely shows any uptick on most Bellator fight nights. The last thing they need to worry about is getting a two front war, being attacked on their flank while they're trying to launch an all out assault on the UFC. An underdog is much less capable of winning a fight with a stronger opponent if they're being outflanked by a motivated third party. The WSOF's mere existence is an impediment that Bellator doesn't have the resources to combat at this moment in history.
See, that's the stuff that popped in my head within ten seconds of hearing about AAA's challenge to Bellator to do a co-promoted PPV. Not who would win the fights. Not how Dantas vs. Moraes would play out (Answer: awesomely!). Not wistfully wondering how Ben Askren would fit into this hypothetical PPV. Rather, what's the real reason AAA went on the offensive this week?
Do I think that Sig Rogich is backing the WSOF because Lorenzo Fertitta asked him to? No. Do I think they're in cahoots with one another? No, but mainly because I think that sounds highly illegal. Do I think they understand each others' end games, and will be pliant towards one another? Absolutely yes. Do I think that both the UFC and WSOF want to see Bellator collapse? Yes. Do I think Sig Rogich has long term plans for WSOF if and when Bellator folds? Hell no. Do I think that if Bellator folds the UFC will buy the WSOF within six months? Yup. Do I think Bellator's name would be on Dana White's famous headstone? But of course, because that headstone is his equivalent of Nixon's enemy list. Do I think that if all of that happens, and the WSOF sells to the UFC that the letters "WSOF" would wind up on Dana's headstone? Absolutely not. After all, that headstone is his enemy's list, and not for a second has the World Series of Fighting ever been the UFC's enemy.
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