Fighters are not always treated fairly. The big promoters, like the UFC and Bellator, are routinely accused of mistreating fighters in regards to pay, contractual obligations and inconsistent disciplinary action. To the promotions, a fighter is an asset to the business. To his or her family, friends, coaches and training partners, the athlete is a person putting in hard work and trying to make a living.
In 2011, as the UFC was nearing the end of its contract with Spike TV, both Fox and NBC Sports Network went to bat, trying to win the business of the promotion that helped put Spike on the map. After a vicious bidding war, Fox won out, and by the end of the year, the first UFC event aired on the network. While Spike eventually picked up Bellator events, NBC Sports, which used to air WEC events under the Versus banner, was left without a promotion in the fastest growing sport in the world.
In the summer of 2012, a new promotion was hitting the scene with an active mixed martial artist at the helm. The plan was to treat fighters better than the other big shows. The idea was to have an athlete-led organization that tries to take care of the people that keep the wheels turning. Enter the World Series of Fighting.
When it was announced that the WSOF was going to hold its first event in November 2012 and that “Sugar” Ray Sefo was at the helm, it sparked excitement in coaches, fighters, managers and fans. Sefo is a former boxer and world champion kickboxer who has been fighting since 1994 and has over 80 professional combat appearances under his belt. He was one of their own.
UFC President Dana White and then-Bellator chief Bjorn Rebney were not always considered the best bosses to work for, but Sefo was seen as a proverbial man of the people. However, with the meteoric rise of the sport, it is hard to create a different model from scratch. Like any top promotion, the growth was so rapid, it became difficult to immediately differentiate.
Fast forward to 2014. In less than two years, the WSOF has held 17 events spanning three different countries with a viewer reach extending into over 90 countries. That’s some extreme growth for a 23-month period. Business is good.
“Really good,” said Sefo in an interview with Combat Press. “We’re getting ready for October 11, WSOF 14 in Edmonton, Canada. Every day is a constant grind.”
World Series of Fighting 14 marks the 18th event for the company, with a 19th on the docket right after the two-year anniversary on Nov. 15. With one more event set for Dec. 27, the promotion is on track for consistent monthly events, and the management team has their biggest year ahead as they enter 2015.
“We have 16 dates for next year,” Sefo revealed. “We’re also going to start going global as well. We’re definitely going to be busy next year.”
With a busy schedule ahead, the promotion is set to get all the way into its 30th event in less than three years. But what happened to the fighters?
Business is business, and, as any rapidly expanding business can struggle with, the employees sometimes get easily forgotten. However, the WSOF wants to live up to its word, and if it doesn’t differentiate itself now, it could easily become just another industry laggard that is the equivalent of the promotional journeyman.
Anyone who knows a pro MMA athlete knows they are grossly underpaid, especially considering the hard work and sacrifice they put into their craft to make a small fraction of a percentage of what other mainstream pro athletes get paid. If there is one place that the WSOF could differentiate, it’s in the pay structure.
Last month, the promotion announced it would be instituting a method for profit-sharing with its athletes. Few details were immediately available, and the preliminary information hinted toward a 50 percent share of pay-per-view profits. Sefo, who is in no way a pay-per-view expert, was happy to further clarify where they are with the plan, which is still in its infancy.
“The guys on the main card will get percentages of the pay-per-view, and so on,” explained Sefo. “Regardless of whether you win or lose, everybody’s going to get a piece of the action. The winners will probably get 70 to 80 percent of that 50 percent, and the losers will get the other 30 percent. So, everyone will get a piece of the action on the main pay-per-view card.”
This is a big milestone for the WSOF. The promotion is proving that it wants to attract and retain great fighters. It all starts with basic athlete appreciation, which is seriously lacking in the other large promotions. While Titan FC and the Resurrection Fighting Alliance are becoming well known for taking care of their fighters, the WSOF is the only promotion with a major network deal that is taking strides in this direction. The plan is getting great reviews from the MMA community, for the most part.
“It’s all been positive,” Sefo stated. “Our PR team has done a good job of getting the word out. It reached something like 72,878,000 people that got to see it. There’s a lot of positive, positive feedback. There are always going to be people that say, ‘We will believe it when we see it.’ It’s good. In that sense, it challenges us to fulfill what we want to do, what we announced to do.”
Of course there are going to be naysayers, and it is a pretty daunting task to figure out how many pay-per-view buys it will take to make this a significant impact on a fighter’s paycheck, but the sentiment is in the right place. With 16 fights in 2015, the WSOF brass will have plenty of chances to find out the true impact, not to mention whether the pay-per-view model will even be viable, considering how difficult it has been for Bellator to crack that code. Regardless, people like what they are hearing, and it is a chance for Sefo to take care of his own. That may sound cheesy and cliché, but, even at 43 years old, the native New Zealander is still in the gym, at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, and getting ready for some of his own battles.
“I train every day,” Sefo said. “As a matter of fact, today, I will be in the gym at 4 o’clock, sparring. MMA sparring is tonight. Mondays and Wednesdays are the days we wrestle and do submissions and [jiu-jitsu]. The other days are sparring and pads.”
Joining Sefo at Xtreme Couture is a pretty deep stable of top fighters and coaches. Jay Hieron, Martin Kampmann, Evan Dunham, Dennis Davis, Robert Follis, Brenson Hansen, Bryson Hansen, Danny Davis, Josh Burkman and Jake Shields are all part of a small sampling of the talent that surrounds Sefo. He will need that type of atmosphere as he gets ready for next year.
“I had scheduled a kickboxing fight for November in Japan.” Sefo elaborated. “That didn’t happen according to schedule, so they pulled it back to next year. There are talks at the moment. I talked to a friend of mine—Scott Kent, who runs Lion fights—and most likely I’ll have a fight in there next year as well. There a few things in line, in the works.”
Nobody can doubt that Sefo has a completely different interest in his athletes than some of the other mainstream promoters. He’s not a groupie hanger-on. He is a tough-as-nails veteran of the sport who knows exactly what these people go through on a daily basis. The WSOF’s new plan is a chance to do something that’s not being done currently. Sefo wants to share some of the money, instead of just making some rich guys richer. Nobody can doubt that this is a great example to set for his son, Ramon.
“My son is the true love of my life,” Sefo admitted. “He just turned five a couple weeks ago. I spend most of my free time with my little man. Occasionally, I go to movies with him or the boys. I spend a lot of my time with my little man.”
Sefo has one heck of a legacy to pass on to his son, and the profit-sharing move may be subtle in the grand scheme of things, but it carries a lot of meaning that only those truly close to fighters can completely understand.
Professional MMA athletes are seriously underappreciated from a compensation point-of-view. However, the WSOF is taking a step toward showing fighters some appreciation that they are not getting elsewhere. Whether or not it will work is yet to be seen, but with a fighter at the helm, one can be sure the best effort will be put forth to make it happen. Nobody else is doing it, so Sefo could be making a game-changing move that boosts his promotion’s credibility among people without whom the sport would not exist.
Sefo would like to thank the media and fans who support the WSOF, as well as NBC Sports and IMG Worldwide. Follow Ray on Twitter: @SugarRaySefo
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