Can UFC survive the absence of the world's best fighter, Russia's Fedor Emelianenko?

The stadium scene.
Aug. 19 2009 2:45 PM

The Not-Quite-Ultimate Fighting Championship

Will the absence of the world's best fighter, Russia's Fedor Emelianenko, halt UFC's ascent to the big leagues?

Fedor Emelianenko. Click image to expand.
Fedor Emelianenko

At a certain point in the development of any sport, a single league or promotional body becomes synonymous with the sport itself. Ultimate Fighting Championship, which recently partnered with ESPN and is promoting fights that are about as successful as the biggest Mike Tyson bouts of yore, has basically reached that point. All of which makes it awkward, at the least, that the best fighter in the world doesn't work for them. UFC may be to mixed martial arts what MLB is to baseball—but Albert Pujols doesn't play in Japan.

The fighter is Fedor Emelianenko, a 32-year-old sambo specialist generally recognized as the sport's best heavyweight. Since 2000, Emelianenko has fought 31 times under MMA rules in Japan, the United States, and his native Russia, where two years ago he easily dispatched a 2000 Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling before an audience that included Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. In all those fights he's lost once, on a stoppage due to blood loss from an illegal elbow. Dutch and Croatian kickboxers, Brazilian submission artists, and two former UFC champions have all tried to beat him and failed miserably.

Two weeks ago, Emelianenko signed with Strikeforce, a relatively obscure California-based promotion. Before signing with the equivalent of MMA's minor leagues, the Russian fighter turned down an offer from UFC that may have been, depending on whom you believe, the biggest in mixed martial arts history. One figure that's made its way around fight blogs is $30 million. This number is too high—"The offer that we got from them was really miserable," claims Emelianenko, while UFC President Dana White will say only that he offered a "fucking assload of money." Whoever you want to believe, it's almost certain that Emelianenko would make more in one UFC fight than he could over a year with Strikeforce.

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The exact offer, though, is irrelevant. What's more important is why it's so hard to pin down precise numbers. MMA doesn't deserve most of the criticism it gets for its alleged brutality, which is no worse than that of boxing or, for that matter, football. But as a business, it absolutely is a regressive throwback. That helps explains why, for all its success, UFC can't boast control of the world heavyweight champion.

UFC fighters are paid like door-to-door salesmen. Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre each made nominal base salaries of $400,000 for their recent title defenses. They picked up the rest of their pay on commission.

Real money in MMA comes via a cut of pay-per-view profits. UFC 100, featuring Lesnar and St. Pierre, is believed to have sold at least 1.5 million pay-per-view orders at $44.95 apiece. A top star who earns even a dollar for each pay-per-view sold can make upward of $1 million per fight on top of his salary if he headlines a successful show—and UFC pays top draws much better than $1 per PPV. "I've got 12, 13 guys making millions and millions," White recently told me, implausibly claiming that he doesn't release the names of these stars because the sport's leading lights don't want hangers-on and family members knowing how much they make.

The sport's salary structure, and the secrecy around it—UFC refuses to release information on PPV sales or fighters' PPV bonuses—has helped mixed martial arts rise to the top tier of the American sports scene. Unlike in other sports, MMA chatter doesn't revolve around money, which makes the fighters seem easy to relate to and the sport seem more pure. The confidentiality also helps UFC in another way: Because the numbers aren't public, no fighter can be sure what kind of deals his rivals have cut. This is a method of controlling the locker room and reducing negotiating leverage that was pioneered by old-timey baseball owners.

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