Affliction, Fedor Prove MMA is Bigger Than UFC

Jul 22, 2008
There’s much to be said for selling out. For Affliction, it happens to be a good thing.

The clothing company turned mixed martial arts promoter packed the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday. Nearly 14,000 fans were treated to highlight reel moments of Dominique Wilkins proportions throughout the night. But it wasn’t all fashionable fun in the organization’s inaugural show.

From the try-hard red carpet that ushered VIPs in and out of the arena to the distracting, unnecessary smoke machines that went on through most of the event, Affliction’s presentation had enough plot holes to compete with the latest batch of summer blockbusters.

Ask Paul Buentello (Pictures). Staying warm is essential to a fighter’s performance, and the American Kickboxing Academy representative and opponent Gary Goodridge (Pictures) were both iced. They were brought to the ring, attempted to stay warm and were eventually sent backstage before finally returning because the promotion mishandled its presentation. Buentello is also still waiting for his postfight speech to be heard since the microphone was never turned on.

The production was abrupt and awkward. Vitor Belfort (Pictures) entered to delayed entrance music. Megadeth -- one of the premier staples of any self-respecting metal fan’s diet -- was met with so much indifference they could have been playing at a dirt mall. Not for lack of performance.

A captive audience doesn’t always make for the best one. Megadeth’s powerhouse riffs ironically sucked the adrenaline out of the night post-Arlovski and pre-Fedor. This allowed for enough time to reflect on the company’s poor fact-checking when its graphics claimed Ben Rothwell (Pictures) is a former IFL heavyweight champion.

However, Affliction hit a stride when Michael Buffer started the pay-per-view with his million-dollar-phrase: “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” Thinking about the IFL’s vanilla debut, the resurgence of the WFA, and yes, the Yamma, Affliction seems like the stork drank jet fuel and listened to “The Black Album” while making its deliveries. Before fans knew it, they were in a sold-out arena watching elite mixed martial arts competition.

Affliction’s identity crisis of being high-end and underground could have steered the night in the direction of a K-1 Dynamite repeat, confusing and angering fans. The series of mishaps made Affliction the “nu-metal” of MMA promotions. None, however, were unforgivable. Chalk it up to rookie mistakes. Lucky for Tom Atencio (Pictures) and crew, fights have a way of speaking for themselves.

Abraham Mercado, a business consultant for public relations firms, likened Affliction’s inaugural show to recent UFC shows he’s attended.

“It’s the same energy, same feel,” said the 25-year old, whose familiarity with the sport prompted him to attend the much-hyped show.

Linda Simon, an older woman with stylish, close-cropped blonde hair, had no idea what she got herself into. But she loved it.

“Barnett!” yelled the hairdresser.

She was vocal throughout the night, starting chants for fighters she had never known. Simon plans on watching all fighting now, including the UFC. Unaware of Zuffa’s counter-programming happening on the same night, she was not conflicted like others in the know.

The two fans -- the hardcore and the neophyte -- enjoyed the fights from the third deck. Mercado offered up a simple explanation for co-existence in fighting: “It’s MMA. It’s just the same sport, different people. And in some cases, the same people going back and forth.”

If only it were that easy. Randy Couture (Pictures), Tito Ortiz (Pictures), Pat Miletich (Pictures), “Big” John McCarthy, Frank and Ken Shamrock (Pictures) were all present in Southern California. Standing in a row, they can be viewed as the “victims of Dana White” lineup. Add in Matt Lindland (Pictures), Renato Sobral (Pictures), Josh Barnett (Pictures) and Andrei Arlovski (Pictures), who all fought on the card, and there is an array of disgruntled and exiled UFC employees. Individually, they have criticized the UFC’s business practices for not acting in the best interest of fighters and the sport. As a unit, they have made a definitive statement: MMA is not UFC.

Then there is Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) -- White’s big “what if?”

From the start of the pay-per-view bouts, Emelianenko received the biggest pops. His cheers overlapped Megadeth’s performance. Russian flags popped up throughout the audience.

Celebrities were ever-present -- featuring such stars as James Toney, Manny Ramirez and Michael Madsen -- but the Red Devil fighter shattered assumptions that he lacked drawing power when he brought about bigger cheers than all the celebrities combined simply by showing up on the big screen.

Each fight received progressively louder fan reactions. Even referee Herb Dean (Pictures) was cheered by fans, a sign they appreciated more than brain rattles and limb torques. By the time Emelianenko demolished the former UFC heavyweight champion in 36 seconds, the arena was deafening.

There is a reason money magnet Donald Trump -- a man who garnered a serious ovation himself -- involved himself with Affliction and the World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts, which crowned its inaugural champion in Emelianenko on Saturday night. Trump sees the long-term monetary gain, the impact on the sport. Indeed, UFC President Dana White’s current model of exclusivity was directly challenged when Emelianenko became the first independently recognized champion.

What better fighter to mark a starting point in MMA history?

The defunct nature of Pride left Emelianenko without a viable strap, but it did not strip his credibility as an elite pound-for-pound fighter and the heavyweight king. Had Sylvia won, Dana White could have championed his criticisms of Emelianenko. But instead he has to retract them. With Emelianenko having twice dominated current UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures), White is left with little recourse to continue perpetuating the UFC as the entire MMA world. His steadfast anti-anything-not-UFC stance has taken a concussive blow.

Meanwhile WAMMA -- like the fighters and personalities that came out to make Affliction a success -- is setting the most positive precedent in MMA since rules and weight classes were instituted. Whether Affliction sinks or soars, the belt around Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures)’s waist is a direct call to make MMA a unified sport, to create battles between the best of the best.

Will the UFC president give up his hard-line position?

Maybe it’s time for Dana White to sell out.
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