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5 Oz. Feature: UFC always comes out swinging for the fences when backed into a corner

Saturday, November 19, 2005 is a date I will always remember quite well. It was the date of UFC 56 and the night that UFC President Dana White made a trio of Earth-shattering announcements.

First, White announced that B.J. Penn would be returning to the UFC. It was a shock at the time because Penn had been stripped of the welterweight title and taken to court the year prior after going to Japan to fight for K-1, which the UFC considered a violation of his contract. Right before the announcement was made at UFC 56, Penn and the UFC were set to go to trial a month later and the concept of Penn ever fighting in the UFC again appeared like a long shot.

That same night it was also revealed that Tito Ortiz had not only re-signed with the UFC but would be one of the coaches for the third season “The Ultimate Fighter” and that the opposing coach would be long-time rival Ken Shamrock. Furthermore, it was announced that the two would reprise their classic 2002 showdown at UFC 40 in a pay-per-view rematch following the airing of TUF 3.

Lost in the shuffle was the fact that White also announced a mega-rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell during the company’s year end show on New Year’s Eve weekend. Two months later the UFC promised another announcement to be made during UFC Fight Night 3 and it delivered when White told the world that Royce Gracie would be returning to the UFC and would fight Matt Hughes at UFC 60 in May later that year.

The UFC wasn’t out at that time and it wasn’t even down. But the company faced a lot of growing pains coming out of the enormous amount of success it achieved following the first season of TUF. While many pundits such as myself wondered if the UFC and the sport of MMA had plateaued, the company found itself with one of its biggest drawing cards on the open market (Ortiz) and in the midst what appeared to be an irreconcilable divorce one of its best pure fighters (Penn).

But suddenly with the wave of a magic wand, White and company not only addressed some of the hurdles it was facing as it attempted to continue its furious pace of growth, but they also managed to take things up a notch.

The company again most recently found itself at at a crossroads due to events that set things in motion last October. The Randy Couture express, which had kicked into high gear following another amazing performance at UFC 74 last August, came to a screeching halt on October 11 when the promotion’s reigning heavyweight champion announced his resignation from the company in less than amicable fashion.

In the months that would proceed Couture’s departure and all the ill-will that spilled over to the public, the UFC saw year long negotiations with HBO prove fruitless; saw rival EliteXC become the first-ever MMA promotion to be televised on prime-time network TV when the UFC balked at CBS’ conditions; severed ties to one of the biggest busts in company history in Mirko Cro Cop; saw the departures of Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia from its heavyweight division; and suffered a series of other minor setbacks.

All the while we’ve heard talk of buyout rumors; a Xyience scandal that seems to have vanished into thin air; how the butchered buyout of PRIDE would come back to haunt the company; how the Muhammad Ali Act could be applied to MMA and suddenly create wide-spread free agency; Quinton Jackson’s hit-and-run arrest, etc.

But here we are less than a year later and the UFC is about to announce that Couture is back and will be returning in a mega-money match against heavyweight sensation Brock Lesnar on Nov. 15. Not only that but the company is still in the mix to re-sign Ortiz and the New York Post reported this weekend that CBS could be looking to replace EliteXC with the UFC. And as for Jackson, he still is looking at some serious charges but both he and the company dodged a major bullet when the Orange County prosecutor’s office cleared him of have anything to do with the miscarriage sustained by Holli Griggs, one of the victims during Jackson’s alleged high-speed evasion of police.

The company still faces several minor issues like finding strong competition for Anderson Silva and re-building its heavyweight division. However, with the WEC’s middleweight division expected to be merged into the UFC, Silva could have a game opponent at middleweight in friend Paulo Filho. And the heavyweight division is bouncing back thanks not only to the addition of Lesnar, but to the additions of Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez.

Last year we had heard that while PPV revenue in 2007 was strong, it wasn’t going to live up to standards set in previous years. With major money matchups on the horizon such as Couture vs. Lesnar, Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre II, Chuck Liddell vs. Forrest Griffin, Hughes vs. Matt Serra, and Jackson vs. Wanderlei Silva or Mauricio Rua, the UFC appears to have been granted a license to print money. And I almost forgot about a possible Liddell vs. Anderson Silva showdown at some point in the future.

There’s also the fact that much of the competition that posed a threat to steal the UFC’s market share no longer seems so dangerous. The IFL has become yet another failed rival that the UFC has added to its trophy case and according to ProElite’s most recent SEC filing, EliteXC doesn’t have enough funding to last past December. Affliction put on a solid debut event on July 19 but it does not have a business model that has a chance to work over the long-term. We’re also hearing a lot of talk from the AFL, but not much action.

And the botched PRIDE deal that prevented the UFC entering the Japanese market? Maybe that was a blessing in disguise. In addition to the purchase price of PRIDE, the UFC would have had to spend a lot of money to operate the promotion. Considering the downturn of the MMA industry in Japan and the rumblings that DREAM could be over if ratings for its next event aren’t strong, maybe things not working out in the Land of the Rising Sun for Zuffa was for the best? Maybe the UFC could get away with doing one-off events, but a major investment in full-time operations could have been a money pit for the company.

Sure, the return of Couture is just one major development but knowing how the UFC operates, I would expect more press conferences in the months to come touting “a major announcement to be made by UFC President Dana White.” UFC haters may not like it, but they are going to have to learn to live with the fact that the UFC is not only the number one MMA promotion in the world, it’s number one with a bullet.

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