In the world of MMA, it’s not always solely the action inside the cage that moves the needle. The recipe for MMA’s success has many ingredients. The fighters, obviously, are the most visible. But there are executives, broadcast analysts, coaches and people in many other important roles that complete the MMA recipe. These are the difference makers.
In this two-part feature, Combat Press writer John Franklin looks at the 20 (or so) most relevant people in the mixed martial arts world. Earlier today, we looked at positions 20 through 11, plus a little something extra, in part one of this feature. In part two, we count down the top 10 difference makers of 2015.
The MMA media landscape is an interesting one. It’s super critical, but to a point. And that point is access. The promotions, in particular the UFC, has used access to its events as a way to passive-aggressively control the message that is being put out to the masses. It’s no mistake that the two biggest MMA outlets, MMA Fighting and MMA Junkie, both have very good relationships with the company.
However, there are some writers who have made themselves relevant in a different way. They seek out the stories that are in the shadows. The ones that may not paint everyone involved in a favorable light, but are important to the sport to make sure everyone is doing their jobs on the up and up. That, after all, is a major point of the media. The men that did that better than anyone this year were Mike Russell, Paul Gift and John Nash. Russell made it his lot in life to expose and ultimately bring down Ali Abdel-Aziz. The Bloody Elbow boys have reported on Abdel-Aziz’s conflicts of interest as well, but also reported a lot on the UFC antitrust lawsuit, Edmond Tarverdyan’s bankruptcy and many other financial issues. They also host a podcast called Show Money with Jason Cruz of MMA Payout that talks about the financial side of MMA.
The work and reporting these men do isn’t always fun, but it’s important and necessary.
For years, the non-fight programming for the UFC, with the exception of the Countdown shows, has been pretty mediocre. The way in which things were repackaged on shows like UFC Unleashed just seemed processed and lacked creativity. The trick is how to make content not seem time-stamped so you don’t have to keep redoing it, while still making it look relevant no matter when it’s viewed. Fight Pass has a huge feather in its cap in having the largest fight library in the sport. It allows them to do a Pioneer of MMA documentary on fighters like Bas Rutten and Kazushi Sakuraba despite these fighters having spent limited time in the Octagon. It allows the scope of Fight Pass to reach beyond that of even the day-to-day UFC product. That, coupled with the other promotions streaming on the site, gives Winter, the senior vice president and general manager of Fight Pass, a lot of resources at his disposal.
Winter may be the perfect man for the job. As a former head of Rivals.com, Winter ran a company that prided itself on user interaction. It was also a company with a national appeal, but on a very local level, meaning you don’t get anymore “down home” than high school and college football. That is exactly the type of person who needs to be a part of Fight Pass to make it grow. The service cannot thrive on the backs of diehards alone. There has to be a component added to it that brings casuals in, and that very well could be a regional fight-scene component. Winter has the skill set to do that, and where he takes Fight Pass from here is something to keep an eye on. Winter has already been very interactive with users, even offering them an opportunity to Skype with him to bring about ideas. He is taking the perfect leader’s mindset, which is that he doesn’t care where the ideas come from as long as they are good.
There are a few high-profile managers in MMA. Currently, these two are of the highest profile, but for very different reasons. Their client lists contain some of the best fighters in MMA. That alone makes them relevant. However, it’s what happened in 2015 and how that may affect 2016 that makes these two power brokers so interesting.
Let’s start with Kawa. Jon Jones, Kawa’s client, had his belt stripped amid legal entanglements in 2015, but Jones remains arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But of more interesting note may be Kawa’s clients Aljamain Sterling and Benson Henderson. They are two free agents with a lot of options — Henderson because of his championship pedigree, ability to fight at multiple weight classes and appeal in the Asian markets, and Sterling for his talent and youth. Kawa has shown enough of a willingness to push back against the UFC over the years that it’s certain he is going to advocate for his clients and explore all options. Kawa, Henderson and Sterling may end up setting the market for free agents and have fighters not afraid to leave the UFC moving forward.
Now, Abdel-Aziz. I’m not as bothered by the things he does as some. Partly, it’s because I think that there should be provisions in place to prevent this stuff and someone was maybe asleep at the wheel. I view him in the same way I view Chael Sonnen. He’s an enterprising guy who is going to push the envelope of what’s right and wrong to the extent that he is allowed by governing bodies. What makes Ali interesting is what happens next. Do the investigative journalists continue after him and uncover things that force him out of MMA altogether, or are they satisfied to have him relieved of duties with the World Series of Fighting to the point where they will move on to a story that needs their attention? Abdel-Aziz is front and center as the manager most likely of whatever may be the “B-side” of the next Conor McGregor fight. He manages Rafael dos Anjos and Frankie Edgar. He seems to be leaning Edgar, so we will see how much sway he has with all parties involved.
Silva and Shelby are the matchmakers for all non-Conor McGregor fights. While UFC President Dana White gets the credit for making fights happen — and it’s well deserved because he puts a lot of work in — it’s Silva and Shelby who manage the roster and book the fights of the ever-expanding UFC fight calendar. It’s Silva and Shelby that are the ones a fighter has to impress and keep impressed. They are the ones who determine how best to showcase a fighter. This job becomes very difficult to do at the prelim and early main-card slots, and these guys do it masterfully. It seems logical that having the pick of the litter would mean that this job is easy, but it may complicate it. How do you balance the pay structure of where a fighter who is at a certain level skill-wise is compensated with moving their career along and keeping each division stocked with relevant contenders?
The two matchmakers have to keep their eyes on the regional scene to not only bring guys in that may be up-and-comers, but also to ensure that they know what they are getting when helping out with decisions about cast members for The Ultimate Fighter. The expanded schedule may have benefited Brian Stann the most, but these are the guys it may have benefited the least. While it’s certain they have the resources to get all the info they need to make the necessary decisions, the workload is pretty crazy. However, it’s their position in the company and the decisions that come across their desks that makes them relevant.
Something is happening over at the World Series of Fighting. While the WSOF is a young promotion, it used some shrewd roster signings early on and good fortune to claim the No. 3 spot amongst the world of MMA promotions. The signings included Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Andrei Arlovski, Justin Gaethje and David Branch. The good fortune is the resurrection of Johnson and Arlovski’s careers post-WSOF and Gaethje and Branch having spectacular and historic years for the promotion. These are the things that new CEO Carlos Silva and president and matchmaker Ray Sefo having going for them. The other thing that they have going for them is that the WSOF, unlike Bellator, has been a place fighters can go and still return to the UFC. The path from Bellator to the UFC has not always been a clear one.
The future of this promotion is in the hands of Silva and Sefo moving forward because the third man who used to help them through all this has parted ways with the company. Ali Abdel-Aziz, for all his MMA acumen and connections, seemed to have a checkered background. While there are times Abdel-Aziz will be missed, the promotion can offer fighters some unique things. There is the combination of ancillary big-network exposure — the WSOF is affiliated with NBC (albeit NBCSN) — the ability to market themselves through sponsors not dictated by the promotion and, depending on weight class, some really high-level competition. In fact, the WSOF could resurrect the MMA apparel market with some shrewd business deals (partnership with Roots of Fight, anyone?). The organization has that type of flexibility. This makes the future of the promotion very bright and appealing to fighters.
The other gym that can claim to have top-two fighters in four divisions is Jackson-Winkeljohn. The camp has Holly Holm, Jon Jones, Donald Cerrone and Carlos Condit among its stable. Each fighter has fought or will fight for the belt in their division in calendar year 2015 or the first part of 2016. Andrei Arlovski and John Dodson are also high-level members of this gym. Jackson has been a perennial “Coach of the Year” candidate and the mastermind behind several championship runs. Winkeljohn has taken a step to the forefront, too, as a main trainer with the emergence of Holm.
The championship game plan that this gym employs and its proximity to putting a stranglehold on several divisions are two reasons why they are so important. Holm has the 135-pound women’s belt. Jones held the 205-pound belt until he was stripped, and he has a win over reigning champion Daniel Cormier. Condit fights for the 170-pound belt in January. Arlovski and Dodson both have wins over the champions of their current divisions. This not only means this gym’s roster is currently stacked, but these are the kind of credentials that draw even more high-level talent. Much of this success can be attributed to Jackson and Winkeljohn.
American Kickboxing Academy has always been a high-level gym with a great history. Frank Shamrock, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Josh Thomson and Gray Maynard all went through the halls in San Jose, Calif., before the gym was truly world-renowned. Then along came Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier and Luke Rockhold, and the gym went into the stratosphere. With those three fighters and Khabib Nurmagomedov, AKA can make an argument that it has one of the top two fighters in four different divisions. The constant through all of this has been founder Mendez and trainer/manager Cook. These two have taken highly talented, highly motivated fighters and give them the road map to championship belts, fat bank accounts and potential Hall of Fame legacies.
The most impressive thing about Mendez and Cook is how they have branded their gym and become the place to go if you have a deficiency as a striker. Koscheck, Fitch, Velasquez and Cormier have all transformed themselves into above-average strikers in their time at AKA. The gym hopes Nurmagomedov is next. In fact, AKA may be the one gym in the country that could close the gap on the feet between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm, should Rousey decide to switch camps. They have also pushed back on the UFC while maintaining a good working relationship. All of this shows great long-term health on the horizon for the snipers at AKA.
The braintrust of Bellator is quietly putting together some really good numbers operating in the UFC’s shadow. They are the embodiment of the age-old maxim that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Bellator, and by association Coker, its president, and Chou, its matchmaker, succeed in an area where the UFC seems unwilling to venture: the sideshow fight. And it works.
The UFC says to a guy like Kimbo Slice, “You have to be a success by our metric.” Bellator is happy to make the money and get the eyes off of Slice fighting a street fighter in a cage. Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock may be too old for the UFC, but not for Bellator. Speaking of Slice and Shamrock, if you think their fight was fixed, well, you’re entitled to your opinion. But you tuned in. While people are quick to say that Bellator is a place where washed-up fighters go to die (professionally, of course), the promotion is content to keep making the dollars off these fighters who they feel still have marketability. That’s their genius.
Coker and Chou have balanced nicely operating in the gaps in the marketplace and also having a traditional roster with fighters who are currently relevant and ranked with the best in the world. Does one draw attention from the other? Maybe, but you could also make the case that one funds the other as well. Bellator has succeeded by not being the UFC in a marketplace dominated by the UFC. Let’s not forget that outside of Pride, the Strikeforce company, run by Coker, gave the UFC the best run for its money. Former Strikeforce champions hold four of the UFC belts currently. Sleep on these guys if you want, and they may never overtake the UFC, but life isn’t so bad sometimes being Pepsi and Burger King.
Conor McGregor may be cashing the checks, but the ones writing those checks are still UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta and the company’s president, Dana White (and Uncle Frank Fertitta, of course). They are the ones who have been trying to make this thing legit since they purchased the promotion in 2001. They have taken some big strides over the years — regulation, blue-chip sponsors, a network TV deal, new insurance for fighters and, most recently, the Reebok deal.
Yes, the much maligned Reebok deal. Fighters aren’t crazy about it, fans aren’t crazy about it and the media isn’t crazy about it. Fertitta and White are crazy about it, though, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters. One minute you have your own sponsorship and the next minute it’s dead and these guys are holding the gun. In fairness to the brass at Zuffa, though, what Chael Sonnen says is true: The fighters lost something that really shouldn’t have been theirs in the first place. But that’s a discussion for a different day.
The beauty of Fertitta and White is how they offset each other. White is the outspoken one, taking on fighters and writers, all the while sending the message that the UFC is running things. Fertitta, typically behind the scenes but more out front in recent years, largely agrees with White, but occasionally exists to contradict and/or walk back a statement made by the outspoken president. These two make decisions every day that can change someone’s life. They are nothing short of MMA gods who are king-makers. If you think that is hyperbole, think about the people who are in their favor and those who aren’t and the difference in their professional lives.
“I’m the man that controls the numbers.”
“I’m the money fight.”
“A fight with me will change your bum life.”
Brash statements, all of them. And all made by the same man, Conor McGregor.
The other thing about all those statements is that they are all true and everyone knows it. For his UFC Fight Night winning effort against Ricardo Lamas, Chad Mendes made $96,000 (and he had to win to get it, as $46,000 was a win bonus). That’s $4,000 less than Clay Guida made on the same card. The very next fight, when Mendes fought McGregor, the payout was $500,000. The fight after against Frankie Edgar, Mendes made $82,000. It’s the McGregor effect, folks.
They all know it and they all want it, which is why Edgar (or someone controlling his account) is on Twitter calling McGregor out. It’s why lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos said his name after knocking out Donald Cerrone. It’s why José Aldo’s coach is trying to discredit the Irishman’s win. It’s why Max Holloway is trying to Jedi mind trick his way into a shot, and it’s why Nate Diaz is trying to tout his prowess as the best fight for McGregor. McGregor’s response? Get on your knees and beg for it.
The difference between McGregor and every other fighter in the history of the UFC is he is aware of his worth and actively looking to exploit it for his own gain. The only other people to get close were Chael Sonnen and Brock Lesnar, and neither of them ultimately had the skills to back up the bravado. So far, McGregor does. He’s a promoter’s dream who may turn into a nightmare if he uses all his self-awareness and business acumen against the UFC rather than for the promotion. There are rumors swirling that he has spoken with some of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s people, which could be great for McGregor but not for the UFC. However, as long as he keeps calling his shots and calling the shots, he will remain at the top of this list for years to come. He’s only 27 years old, folks.