Ultimate PRIDE?

By Jake Rossen Mar 27, 2007
"We're going to get everybody" was the prototypical restraint on display from UFC President Dana White in response to constant badgering from the media about his plans for 2007.

The phrase has taken on greater meaning as the biggest combat news story of the year continues to evolve: the acquisition of the PRIDE brand by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

White's proclamation is only partially true: if "we" is to indicate the Zuffa regime, then he was slightly off base. PRIDE's assets would technically fall under the ledgers of the casino magnate brothers, not the UFC's parent company. Through the eyes of fans, it's little more than a technicality. The ceaseless rivalry between the two cornerstone brands — largely an invention of an ornery fan base — is over. And the UFC, long thought to be the boorish middle class of the various promotions, has logged the kill shot.

Ending Dream Stage Entertainment's control over PRIDE has immediate and far-reaching effects for the UFC, which has struggled in recent months to provide soluble contenders for the touted light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions.

While mainstream observers seemed satisfied with the influx of rematches and ill-prepared contenders, there was an undercurrent of grousing from fans that were aware of how fractured the "world title" picture truly was.

The UFC has made no secret of its plans for world domination, Doctor Evil-style. They've opened offices in the UK and continue to pursue ground in Mexico and other starving markets. Asian countries are certainly on the docket, and going in with a brand as established and engrained as PRIDE gives them tremendous footing in what has to be considered a risky expansion. Japan is, after all, a culture with wildly different tastes and traditions. The template laid out by DSE is invaluable, one that its operators would have difficulty replicating.

Strange, that the Fertittas' adoption of the decaying franchise mirrors their salvation of the UFC in 2001. Like DSE, Bob Meyrowitz and his staff at SEG were embroiled in political persecution and unable to carry the brand any further. Like DSE, they were viewed as damaged goods that nonetheless had crucial real estate in the public consciousness.

And like DSE, their wares had gone from the spectacular to the regular employment of turgid attractions.

In SEG's case, the high tide came when Meyrowitz found himself in the middle of a perfect storm of contempt for his product: boring main events had gutted his audience, and cable operators — no longer enticed by record business — bowed to pressure from astonished politicians and cranky company counsel. For DSE, the end came when their broadcast sponsor, FujiTV, abruptly terminated their relationship amid public accusations that the Japanese mafia exerted influence over their business.

PRIDE tried to hang on just as SEG did, running scaled-down events and trying to crack other markets. (Curiously, both companies went overseas to find ancillary income: the UFC to Japan, and PRIDE to the States.) Both entities brayed about their strength, with the UFC announcing nine events in 1999. They wound up running six. PRIDE declared the signing of Mike Tyson. He never fought.

It seems plausible that the final clot in PRIDE's bloodstream came when U.S. liaison Ed Fishman brought legal action, citing breach of contract issues. Without Fishman's aid, running in the U.S. — thought to be a crucial piece of their new business strategy — would be difficult and expensive. It's little coincidence that, days after Fishman filed, rumors swirled that DSE was finally vacating the building.

Unless the Fertittas make the unlikely move of re-enlisting all of the agents associated with Yakuza dealings, the deal would seem to invite a fresh start for the promotion, up to and including renewed interest from network television. But PRIDE's success overseas will depend largely on how American investors will be able to reconcile their desire for control with Japanese instincts. A compromised product may not be of interest to viewers on either side of the ocean.

More interesting is what becomes of PRIDE as a U.S. import. With a strong live gate in each of their two events stateside, would the Fertittas purposely dilute the marketplace and sanction events that could potentially undermine their trademark brand? If they don't, will the inevitable "crossover" mega-matches be all that mega without the casual Ultimate Fighter-weaned fan clued in to the brutal wonders of Fedor and Nogueira?

The mission here is clear: to unify belts in spectacular shows that eliminate any and all doubt about who's top dog in any given weight class. Whether this means the creation of a new unified belt is open to debate, and probably the kind of technicality that will keep Joe Silva up at night.

But it's that allure, that kind of infectious fan-boy confection, that seems poised to inject the UFC — and the sport — with a vitality and energy it hasn't seen in years. The idea that Chuck Liddell (Pictures) could theoretically be kept busy with huge fights until the day he retires makes his potential defenses against the likes of Rashad Evans (Pictures) or Keith Jardine (Pictures) seem almost quaint. (And to truly understand how substantial the scene has gotten, consider that the UFC was prepared to slot in Forrest Griffin (Pictures) for a title bid only a few short months ago.)

Common sense dictates that not everyone will pander to the UFC's plans: it seems likely that at least a portion of fighters are under loosely binding contracts that would allow them to entertain bids from such money vacuums as bodogFIGHT and K-1. That fact makes White's "We're going to get everybody" proclamation a little more hyperbolic than previously thought. (Or a little less, depending on your perspective.)

If this indeed the end of an era, PRIDE's contributions, while often haphazard, cannot be undervalued.

When the sport was marinating in the tobacco juices of backwoods arenas, PRIDE brought in a sense of tremendous dignity and pageantry. The current of blood feuds — Sakuraba vs. the Gracies; Silva vs. the Japanese; Fedor vs. everyone — cannot be revisited.

DSE successfully married a sense of showmanship with gore. It was almost operatic. And whatever the Fertittas or any other potential suitors might devise, it won't be quite the same.

"PRIDE never die," indeed. There's always home video.

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