Ghosts of the Fallen

By Zach Arnold May 1, 2014
Gina Carano may be Octagon bound. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com



When Gina Carano announced on Arsenio Hall’s talk show that she was planning to have a meeting with the Ultimate Fighting Championship about possibly returning to the cage, social media melted down. Carano has her fans, a lot of them. She has her critics, too, and they promptly mocked the prospects of Carano facing UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. “Who wants to pay to see a female version of Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes?” they asked.

Apparently, there may be quite a few fans interested in paying to watch that fight. Carano is a star, and the UFC needs stars to sell pay-per-views. No one understood the philosophy of building stars over brand first better than former EliteXC frontman Gary Shaw and Showtime. EliteXC, for the time it existed, built stars on Showtime and CBS media platforms. The goal of the CBS telecasts was to increase the mainstream appeal of mixed martial arts. Ken Hershman, the onetime executive vice president and general manager of sports and event programming for Showtime, backed Shaw’s vision. Shaw burned through tens of millions of dollars in cash during his short tenure in the MMA space but managed to leave an impression on the scene that carries value in today’s environment.

Becoming a star outside of the UFC framework gives you leverage, especially if you are a women’s bantamweight. The UFC is running out of fighters to challenge Rousey. It has Cat Zingano and Alexis Davis, and both are quality opponents. So was Sara McMann, and Rousey had little trouble beating her. If the UFC has trouble finding opponents to keep Rousey active and on top of cards in the next couple of years, eventually she will be faced with the decision of either remaining an active fighter or going the same route Carano took into Hollywood full-time. That decision has not hurt Carano, as her services in MMA are wanted more than ever. Among most casual fans, Carano is considered a pioneer of women’s MMA. That is something the UFC can never take away from her.

What happens if negotiations do not pan out with the UFC? The UFC will have to consider working with Cristiane Justino, the woman who happened to dethrone Carano as the queen of MMA in Strikeforce. “Cyborg” was managed by Tito Ortiz. UFC President Dana White has been busy talking down “Cyborg” as a potential opponent for Rousey, perhaps partly motivated by the desire to drive down some of the bargaining leverage she possesses. “Cyborg” may not have the same star power as Carano, but she is still undeniably a star with bigger name value than anyone on the UFC’s women’s roster not named Rousey.

There is a reason fans cared about Carano-“Cyborg” years ago and why they still matter in today’s MMA environment. The people complaining about the prospects of a Carano-Rousey matchup are the same fans who probably watched Kevin Ferguson, aka “Kimbo Slice,” on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Remember, “Kimbo Slice” was all the rage years ago, a backyard fighter who taught a lesson or something to 1988 Olympic gold medalist Ray Mercer. He was going to teach a lesson to Ken Shamrock, only to be humbled when Seth Petruzelli replaced “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” on short notice at EliteXC “Heat.”

Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

“Kimbo Slice” found his way to the UFC.
EliteXC went down with “Kimbo Slice” on that October night in 2008, but his star power remained and the UFC took advantage of it. To that end, how is the concept of the UFC booking Carano any different than its prior “Kimbo Slice” booking? They draw ratings. It is fine to mock the competition, drive it into oblivion and then tout the idea that your brand-first business model is supreme. However, that does not sell pay-per-views. Stars do.

White has never publicly expressed much respect for Hershman or Showtime, but the lessons they learned from their many years of promoting boxing helped EliteXC and Strikeforce build new MMA stars. EliteXC drew numbers on CBS that the UFC would love to get on Fox. For EliteXC, network television was a top goal. For the UFC, network television is just a small piece of the brand-building exercise. Funny enough, however, is the fact that many of the top stars that EliteXC helped promote on network television have played an important role in post-EliteXC MMA.

There is a reason Nick Diaz can go on Twitter and trend number one when it comes to talking about “wolf tickets” or his desire to get paid a minimum of $500,000 per fight despite his modest record in the UFC. There is a reason his brother, Nate Diaz, can get into a war of words with White about his career situation. They are stars. They talk a good game because they can. Writers and fans often sympathize with fighters who do not get paid enough but then quickly turn on those who attempt to leverage their situations into bigger paychecks. This is the fight business.

One way to gain leverage with the UFC is by becoming a star outside of the promotion. This is something fighters in EliteXC and Strikeforce understood very quickly under the Showtime banner. Jake Shields, who recently was cut from the UFC, managed to make a fair amount of money as a fighter while not competing in the UFC. Then he reached the UFC and found himself fighting Georges St. Pierre at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in a mega-fight witnessed by more than 50,000 fans; Robbie Lawler, who bounced out of the Octagon and showed up to have wild brawls in EliteXC and Strikeforce, returned to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and managed to headline a UFC 171 in a classic five-round title bout against Johny Hendricks; and on that same card, Tyron Woodley was putting some leather to Carlos Condit before the “Natural Born Killer” blew out his knee. Somewhere, Strikeforce founder Scott Coker had to be smiling at seeing what took place in Dallas on March 15.

Take a look at the list of Strikeforce and EliteXC alums that have upcoming meaningful fights. Fabricio Werdum was pegged to headline UFC on Fox 11 against Travis Browne in Orlando, Fla. Werdum, the man who dethroned Fedor Emelianenko in Strikeforce, is close to challenging for heavyweight gold in the UFC. Daniel Cormier -- who would have been in that same mix -- is now at 205 pounds and appears ready to take on another Strikeforce veteran in Dan Henderson. Gilbert Melendez, who in his UFC debut gave former lightweight champion Benson Henderson everything he could handle and then engaged in a crazy scrap with Diego Sanchez, will be a coach on Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter” before challenging Anthony Pettis for the 155-pound crown later this year.

So much for “Strikefarce,” as White once called it.

The value of creating fighting icons with star power, especially when it involves a media entity like Showtime, is huge. Its track record of building stars that people care about watching in MMA and boxing is quite real. EliteXC and Strikeforce may be dead, but their spirit remains present in today’s MMA through the many fighters they helped promote and mold into recognizable, household names; and the UFC currently relies on some of that star power to sell tickets and pay-per-views.

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