News Flash: UFC-Strikeforce Deal is Not Good for the Sport

Dana White and Fertitta Brothers

(Fans may now choose between both kinds of music, country *and* western. Pic: MMAViewers.com)

It was almost like Dana White was shooting for some kind of bizarre performance art during his interview with Ariel Helwani on Saturday announcing Zuffa, LLC’s sudden acquisition of Strikeforce. It was as if the big bossman was trying to underscore what a huge moment this was for his company by assuring us again and again that it was actually no big deal. Instead of jumping up on the $5,000 coffee table and shaking his junk in our faces while yelling “Domino, motherfucker!” he played it cool – indifferent, even. White didn’t gloat, barely smiled and perhaps set some kind of personal record by conducting a 20-minute interview without really swearing at all. It was all pretty telling, in a roundabout kind of way.

If White’s very un-Dana demeanor didn’t clue you in to the fact his new “business as usual” catchphrase is total bullshit, well, you must be new to the sport. This is a dude who keeps a Styrofoam tombstone in his office bedecked with the names of his fallen enemies and over the weekend his company essentially sewed up total, indefinite control of the marketplace moving forward. Chances are, underneath it all he was pretty pumped. The Strikeforce deal may not give Zuffa a legal monopoly on our sport, but it sure looks like the company now has a practical one. So, maybe – just maybe – White’s “ah shucks” act and constant downplaying of this moment is a bit of strategery. Perhaps he’d like it very much if the rest of us would forget that this news is very, very good for him and his partners and very, very bad for almost everyone else.

Make no mistake, this is a great – fucking stupendous, really –  day for Zuffa. On the other hand it seems pretty obviously terrible for fighters, managers, sponsors, media, officials and ultimately, for fans. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the continued consolidation of power inside the UFC offices means fewer and fewer options for the people who actually have to worry about making a living in the sport.

When the UFC took possession of Strikeforce, it instantly made the already small MMA market a lot smaller. For athletes who wish to compete at the highest level, there is now really only one place to play. For people who want to advertise their products, there is essentially now only one cage worth stamping your logo on, if they’ll let you. If you’re an agent or manager, there is simply nobody else to negotiate with and nobody to get competing bids from. If a fighter gets cut from the UFC, now where does he/she go?

Answer: Nowhere, and fighters already know that. To find the evidence, one must look no further than the latest quotes from Josh Barnett. For years, Barnett vacillated between apathy and incredulity when the topic of a possible UFC return came up. Now that the company is the only game in town, he’s suddenly sounding a lot more complimentary. Dig it:

“This (sale) is major and great things can come from it and I just want to be a part of that and the way I can best do that is be the best fighter I can be … ,” Barnett told Sherdog this week. “If (White) hates me, he hates me … But you know what? I don’t hate Dana and I do business, and I’ll go out there and do the absolute best that I can do and if he happens to be my employer … literally, if Dana White has an office that I have to write into every day, because that’s the person I report to for my business, well that’s what I’ll do.”

Hmmm, that certainly sounds … desperate. Clearly, Barnett and his brethren understand what the rest of us knew from jumpstreet: That White can talk all day about Strikeforce continuing to operate independently, but it’s a sham. It can’t possibly make long-term sense for Zuffa to maintain two brands, especially when one of them just offers a slightly shittier version of the same product offered by its flagship company. That strategy didn’t work for the WEC, even when Zuffa could draw clear distinctions between the services offered by the two brands. Plus, if the money is coming from and going to the same place, Strikeforce’s alleged autonomy (for as long as it even lasts) is just a front anyway.

The UFC is drawing numerous comparisons this week to other leading sports brands like the NFL. That assessment however doesn’t quite fit. Where the NFL is a fairly loosely alligned group of owners who choose to affiliate under the same banner, the power enjoyed by the UFC is far more centralized. Where (up until last week) NFL players were protected by one of the nation’s most influential labor unions, MMA fighters have no such representation. Perhaps most importantly, where the NFL is ruled by clearly defined policy and regulation, the UFC is ruled by the sometimes crazy and vindictive whims of one man. Nobody is barred from playing in the NFL just because commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t like them. On the flipside, running afoul of Dana White can kill your career quicker than inking a 10-fight deal with Sengoku.

Brass tacks, the only thing “business as usual” about Zuffa, LLC buying Strikeforce is that even more roads now lead to White’s office. When the landscape of our sport is defined solely by one dude, that can’t possibly be good for the rest of us.