Small Time: Does the WEC Still Matter?

By Jake Rossen and WEC.tv Oct 5, 2009
On Oct. 10, the Versus network will present the 43rd installment of World Extreme Cagefighting. The most recognizable name on the program is Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who will face Benson Henderson.

And yet Cerrone is far from well known, achieving character-actor status at best. The promotion’s two major attractions -- Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres -- have had their titles ripped away by fighters better on the nights it counted. And the potential audience for the series has shrunk by roughly 14 million from WEC 42, all thanks to some corporate sniping between the cable station and DirecTV. (Is money the problem? Better question: When isn’t money the problem?)

There are purists who would argue that the WEC provides an invaluable service: By highlighting the talents of smaller fighters, gifted athletes can be acknowledged regardless of lat width. And there are few complaints against fight footage with no surcharge.

Others see the promotion as an extraneous appendage to Zuffa’s primary body of Ultimate Fighting, a vanity project that languishes well into the upper tier of cable lineups and forces those same great athletes to fight for insulting purses. There’s no business model for the WEC in place to pay Faber -- or his conqueror, Mike Thomas Brown -- on the level of any of the UFC champions, the least profitable of which still commands a six-figure base salary.

(Interesting aside: This past week, “The Office’s” resident social outcast, Dwight Schrute, fantasized of manhandling a rival co-worker. He let his scenario play out in his head until he began to get excited at the prospect of fighting for “$18,000 and a shot at the title.” Brian Bowles, who defeated Torres for the bantamweight title in August, made exactly that. This would be funny, if it weren’t so sad.)

Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Brian Bowles.
So what’s to be done with a promotion that invites as much pity for its participants’ bank accounts as their physical afflictions? Some have floated the idea of folding the 135- and 145-pound classes into the UFC; others believe Zuffa sees the WEC as a placard that helps keep competing promotions off of Versus. Like a coat thrown over a theater seat.

If the UFC devours it, the benefits for talent are obvious: 135- and 145-pound fighters can benefit from the UFC’s lucrative bonus system and pay scale. Their marketability from Spike appearances will boost sponsorship dollars. Some, like Faber and Torres, could conceivably see a pay-per-view percentage take, which would be nominal even if they draw flies. (The UFC brand is good for a minimum amount of business, regardless of the card.) And the lighter weights would clearly help boost Spike’s aging “Ultimate Fighter,” now planning an 11th season and incapable of milking Kimbo Slice indefinitely. With this season’s batch of sluggish heavyweights, the action of 16 determined featherweights would be an adrenaline shot.

The argument for the current structure: With some fighters making as little as $2,000 a bout, they’re probably poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

The WEC has its own independent agenda. Plans for a pay-per-view, floated for years, might finally transpire in 2010; the show is scheduling monthly events from now until next summer; and Versus, which is unlikely to remain off of DirecTV forever, is plotting a reality series of its own.

But where, exactly, do those plans take off from? There is no “must-see” bout under the company’s current talent hierarchy that would convince someone to pay $30 to $45 for what they’ve been getting for free. It’s possible a Miguel Torres/Urijah Faber catch fight could -- and it seems feasible now that both men don’t have belts to dull the shine on in the loss -- but that lost dominance also affects the value of the fight.

“The Ultimate Fighter” works because fans can sympathize with hardscrabble contestants working for a shot at the blood-choke equivalent of the NFL: If a reality series focuses on them aspiring to the WEC, it’s a little deflating.

When the promotion debuted on Versus in 2007, WEC 28 pulled roughly 400,000 viewers. Two years later, WEC 42 drew 670,000. In between, Faber’s title fights with Brown and Jens Pulver broke the one-million mark. These are good numbers made better by the fact that “small” men traditionally don’t appeal to audiences as much as two tow trucks slamming into each other. But they’re not great.

If you enjoy fights, you can’t argue in favor of the evaporation of the WEC. There’s enough depth to the lighter weight classes to warrant their own subculture. What’s needed is a balance between their limited profit potential and the need for their freelancers to pay a mortgage. Pay-per-view events for major title bouts should be a reasonable $10 or $15, a number pushed hard to consumers. This ignores the psychology of viewers thinking something that costs more is therefore more valuable, and it probably wouldn’t work for a start-up -- but people know what they’re getting with the event. And rather than get pissy they’re being asked to fork over dough, they’d probably appreciate the discount.

Fighters making $2,000 and another $2,000 to win aren’t going to move into another tax bracket anytime soon, but bonuses should increase substantially, a cost hopefully offset by the pay-television revenue. There’s no reason to keep champions off of the UFC’s product: Interviewing Faber, Torres or Brown for a countdown show and getting their faces circulating is risk-free; and with more 125-pound talent popping up, it would be wise to dissolve the 155-pound weight class and let those athletes drift toward the Octagon. The WEC lightweight title compared to B.J. Penn’s is a waste of leather.

There’s a place for the WEC. It just needs renovation.

For comments, e-mail jrossen@sherdog.com
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