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Levick: How to Save Affliction

Watching UFC 96 this past weekend left me unfulfilled and wanting more MMA. While I am a big fan of Rampage and I found the amount of quick knockouts to be exciting the card left me feeling empty.

Unfortunately, having my needs met wasn’t so easy.

While DREAM held the first round of their featherweight Grand Prix early Sunday morning, I wasn’t awake to watch it. Japanese MMA really hasn’t caught my eye as of yet and while I am developing a thirst for it I have to admit the love affair is going through a long courtship.

It was at this point where I thought to myself: what if the North American MMA scene had a viable number two option behind the UFC?

What if?

Sure, Strikeforce seems like it is on the verge of becoming a solid number two organization and looks like it will grow from a strong regional show to a national organization to be reckoned with. But Strikeforce’s emergence into a true power is hardly a given in these tough economic times.

And while Strikeforce has a lot going for itself on paper, for whatever reason I just can’t stop thing about Dana White’s favorite t-shirt company, Affliction, as well as White’s favorite rival promoter, Tom Atencio.

A lot of people are counting down the days until Affliction breathes its last breathe but being that recent events haven’t satisfied my MMA fix, I am not one of them. I have some ideas that I think would help the fledgling promotion help keep its head afloat.

Most combat sports fans long for the days of a solid heavyweight division and Affliction certainly boasts some of the best big guys in MMA today. From Fedor to Josh Barnett, Affliction can matchup anyone of their heavyweights against the UFC’s.

That being said, Affliction still needs to work on some other aspects to help them thrive in a cut throat business.

Here are my suggestions…

The UFC does a magnificent job of humanizing their fighters with their pay-per-view preview programs. Their countdown shows really help a fan get into the head of a fighter inside and outside of the cage. For example, I have never been a big fan of Keith Jardine. While I respect him as a fighters and his accomplishments, he hasn’t done much to make me care about him.

From a fan’s perspective, Jardine doesn’t do anything to make me want to boo or cheer for him and apathy is a fighter’s worst enemy. People pay money to either see you win or see you get your head knocked off.
While watching the countdown to UFC 96, I learned a lot about Jardine and his work ethic. I learned how he started going to grappling events and winning them even though he really didn’t have much formal training. I learned that he is a deep person who is very intelligent and I also learned that he is the type of guy who would do anything to help a family member of friend.

During the UFC 96 Countdown special I also learned that Gabriel Gonzaga’s wife lost a baby during child birth. Some people may not care about these things but a lot of people do. It gives you a reason to cheer or boo for a fighter. It gives fans a sense of interest and when it comes to a lot of Affliction’s fighters, including their top dog Fedor, they are severely lacking in this area.

Most casual fans have no clue about Fedor and how dedicated he is to the sport or how hard he works. No one knows about how humble he is and how success has never gone to his head. Affliction needs to market these fighters to the casual fan because while hardcore fans will want to see the card regardless, a casual fan needs to have a reason to make that investment.

Get Tito Ortiz out from behind the announcer’s desk and into the ring. Whether or not Tito will ever be a viable contender again is not the question here. Tito knows how to sell himself and the fights that he participates in. No one in the world can self-promote like Tito. Love him or hate him the man has been one of the most watched mixed martial artists in the history of the sport.

Fans that no longer cheer for him love to see him get his ass kicked in the hopes that he will finally shut his mouth. There is a ready-made feud in place for him and against Renato Sobral that Affliction can exploit. The two have already thrown some verbal daggers each other’s way and as long as Tito is healthy this would be a very competitive fight.

Another fight that would pique the interest of both American and International fans would be Vitor Belfort vs. Gegard Mousasi. I realize that Mousasi has stated his desire to move up in weight but would it really hurt him to fight once more at 185? If weight is an issue then let these two fight at a catchweight.

Belfort has huge name recognition from his UFC and PRIDE stints. He has brought back a legion of fans waiting for him to resurrect his career following knockout victories over Terry Martin and Matt Lindland.
Meanwhile, Mousasi is riding high after capturing the DREAM middleweight Grand Prix in 2008. A figth with Belfort would give Mousasi the big name opponent he needs to gain traction with American fans. Belfort would also be able to attempt to continue his climb back to the top with a win over one of the hottest fighters to come out of Japan in quite some time.

Affliction needs to also go and out and find some of its own young talent instead of signing the UFC’s retreads. While Din Thomas is good fighter and brings an exciting style to the table, people will remember him as a guy who has a 4-3 career record while competing inside the Octagon. The promotion needs fighters that you associate with Affliction as opposed to rival organizations.

Highlighting young and talented fighters such as Dan Lauzon will help bring in exposure from whatever region they are coming from. Finding hot prospects from camps like Miletich Fighting Systems or the H.I.T. Squad would give Affliction an influx of young talent that it needs to help offset the high costs incurred by using so many established stars at the top of its card.

Another key to Affliction’s survival could be co-promotion. With Strikeforce having bolstered its roster following the acquisition of select assets from ProElite, it’s time for a potential partnership to be formed.
Affliction got into the MMA business to get targeted exposure for its clothing brand and working with Strikeforce in order to get its fighters on Showtime on CBS could help accomplish its goal in a more cost-effective manner than promoting pay-per-views loaded with high-priced talent.

Going forward, when Affliction does promote its own PPVs, it should look to establish itself in other markets. Trying to promote a show in the UFC’s backyard is a mistake but relying solely on Anaheim doesn’t ensure much of a long-term future. The UFC has long-neglected the East Coast and it is time for Affliction to gain some market share. Affliction should reach out to a well-known name such as Renzo Gracie and try to promote a show on one of Trump’s properties in Atlantic City. Or, why not contact Monte Cox and take advantage of Eddie Alvarez’s flexible contract and book him for a major Philadelphia show?

Additionally, Tom Atencio should go out and hire an experienced matchmaker and figurehead for the company. While a guest on HDNet’s Inside MMA, he did not come off as knowledgeable and lacked the charisma you’d expect from a fight promoter. What Atencio lacks for in charisma, he lacks for in experience. There is simply no need to sign fighters such as Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou for similar money he was making with the UFC. Sokoudjou’s contract defies logic considering he had been cut by the UFC after losing two out of three fights. Affliction needs to find MMA people who are more in tune with the going rate for fighters on the open market.

The final and most important piece of this puzzle is to not try and compete with the UFC. There’s no need to pay fighters more than what the UFC would pay them. Affliction is choking itself with exorbitant salaries. Andrei Arlovski is a great fighter who brings a lot to the table but where else would he have even sniffed a $1.5 million payday?

Worry about Affliction and not what the UFC is doing. If you have to offer a fighter four times what the UFC is willing to pay them just to sign a contract, then it just isn’t worth it. Most fighters are just happy to have another organization to fight for rather than being made to fight for the UFC. Find fighters who believe in the cause of building up a viable competitor to the UFC and get them to plant their flag with your organization.

Why write a column trying to fix Affliction’s many issues? It’s because those that want to see Affliction crash and burn continue to miss the big picture. Without competition we will continue to get main events like Quinton Jackson vs. Keith Jardine. At UFC 97, we’re going to see Anderson Silva against an under-qualified title challenger and an aging Chuck Liddell taking on one of the biggest busts in UFC history.

MMA fans deserve more and the UFC can do better. Perhaps if the UFC actually had something to worry about in Affliction we’d able to watch Silva vs. Liddell instead of Silva vs. Thales Leites and Liddell vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

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