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It wasn’t that long ago when it was a struggle to find anyone who wanted to invest significant money in the sport of mixed martial arts. Before the 2005-07 popularity explosion, many of the best-known American MMA promotions were basically mom-and-pop operations. That has changed in a big way. The biggest story in MMA in 2018 has arguably been the massive influx of money into the sport. This will unquestionably play a major role in shaping the direction of the sport in the coming years. The big question is how.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s pact with ESPN was the biggest financial deal of the bunch, and it will be interesting to monitor when it goes into effect in 2019. However, there are few major MMA promotions that haven’t been touched by major financial developments. Changes in those promotions are also likely to be more noticeable, as the UFC is largely locked into its way of doing things and has been for quite some time. Other promotions are more apt to undergo major changes, such as the significant reconfiguration in approach when the World Series of Fighting became the Professional Fighters League.
The PFL is one of many players that have received significant investment. Really, the ability to raise money from powerful and deep-pocketed investors is the WSOF-PFL’s biggest accomplishment to date. The PFL has put its money into the prize pool for its tournaments, although there has to be disappointment that those elevated payouts didn’t result in a greater level of star power than if the money hadn’t been offered.
Bellator MMA President Scott Coker as a promoter has always focused on personalities and stars. That direction has continued in Bellator, and Bellator’s rich deal with DAZN offers Coker the opportunity to bid for more stars moving forward. Bellator’s ratings have declined significantly on Paramount under Coker. Combined with the ouster of longtime MMA proponent Kevin Kay, that might present some jeopardy for Bellator were it not for the DAZN deal. DAZN provides Bellator reasons for optimism and the potential that 2019 will be a growth year.
The most intriguing recent financial developments are arguably in none of those United States-based locations but rather in the Far East. The talk in the MMA world over the past couple weeks has centered on Asia’s One Championship and Rizin Fighting Federation. Both promotions have made surprisingly rich investments in talent in a bid to raise their stock, not only in their local regions but also abroad.
One Championship received another recent round of investment, and it immediately set about to use that money to heighten awareness of the organization. The signing of Eddie Alvarez was a major move in and of itself, but that was just an appetizer for the agreement it reached with the UFC that allowed One Championship to acquire Demetrious Johnson. From a skill standpoint, Johnson is one of the biggest departures from the UFC in quite some time.
For years, One Championship has focused on fighters thought to have particular appeal in the Asian market, like Eduard Folayang, Aung La N Sang and Angela Lee. The acquisitions of Alvarez and Johnson mark a notable shift in approach. Alvarez and Johnson will attract more attention for One in North America, with the promotion hoping to increase the number of eyeballs watching it and thus opening up new revenue streams.
The big question for One Championship is how much of a difference Alvarez and Johnson can make. Alvarez is an exciting fighter to watch and well-respected throughout the sport, but he compiled a 1-2 record with one no-contest in his last four Octagon appearances. It’s a legitimate question to wonder whether he is a fighter on the decline. There will be a certain level of interest in his One Championship fights, but he pretty much has to keep winning every time out to maintain his relevance.
Johnson is a different case. He did lose to Henry Cejudo his last time out, but it certainly wasn’t the sort of performance where there is widespread questioning of whether he is still an elite fighter. Johnson would likely be favored in a rematch with Cejudo and remains one of the world’s best fighters. The issue for Johnson is that he was never able to reach a level of star power commensurate with his ability. He’s being brought in to be a needle mover, and that hasn’t been his M.O. to this point.
As important to One as Alvarez and Johnson themselves are, the hope is that they can play a key role in elevating the name value of other organizational stars. If lesser-known One stars can rise in notoriety, they can carry events without costing the type of money it took to bring in Alvarez and Johnson. Creating new stars is a tricky business, but the previous approach by One clearly wasn’t working outside Asia (and maybe even in Asia), so Alvarez and Johnson offer up new hope.
While the news of Johnson and Alvarez moving to One Championship generated a lot of buzz in MMA circles, that paled in comparison to the mainstream sports coverage of the shocking announcement that Floyd Mayweather will be fighting on Rizin’s New Year’s Eve show. While the rule set will likely dictate the level of interest for the fight by the time it arrives, it’s unquestionably the biggest fight in Rizin history and could be a key moment in a revitalization of the popularity of MMA and kickboxing in Japan.
When the center of the MMA world was located in Japan, New Year’s Eve was often the location of the biggest fights of the year. Massive stars from various backgrounds competed on New Year’s Eve in front of huge television audiences, but Mayweather may be the biggest star to compete on that stage yet. Rizin is coming off its biggest success to date at Rizin 13 for Tenshin Nasukawa against Kyoji Horiguchi and a fight with Mayweather gives Nasukawa the opportunity to rise to an even higher level of notoriety.
The rules will almost certainly be skewed to Mayweather’s benefit, but that isn’t too much of an issue. Japanese fans are less concerned with wins and losses than American fans. A fighter can become a bigger star by taking on a big challenge and putting up a valiant fight. Just being associated with Mayweather will help Nasukawa whether he wins or loses, just as it did Conor McGregor.
The big risk for Rizin is of course the financial one. Mayweather isn’t coming to Japan to compete under new rules without being offered a massive guarantee. Rizin doesn’t necessarily need to recoup that money in one night, but it does need to draw big enough ratings to ensure it gets choice television money and time slots moving forward. Pride Fighting Championships’ television deal was the difference between thriving and being forced to sell, and Rizin is making a play to regain the status Pride once had. If it can succeed, it will fundamentally alter the worldwide MMA landscape.
There are plenty of major players making big moves in the MMA space right now. There is also a lot of uncertainty, but it’s highly likely this will be looked back on as a crucial period in the development of the sport. Many people with deep pockets have major dreams right now. Some are likely to pay off handsomely while others are going to lose an awful lot of money.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.