Sports Nut

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

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.

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.

The most important effect of MMA’s salary silence may be that it perverts the idea of pay-for-performance. Much as in boxing, a fighter’s earning power is tied to public appeal rather than athletic success. Emelianenko’s main rival for the title of best pound-for-pound fighter, middleweight Anderson Silva, has generally not drawn well for UFC. Frauds like middleweight Michael Bisping and has-beens like light heavyweight Chuck Liddell have greatly outdrawn far superior fighters. Emelianenko, the sport’s long-reigning exemplar, might feel like he deserves a load of guaranteed money. But that isn’t how UFC works.

Whatever the virtues of this system as an engine of profits, it concentrates enormous power in the hands of the promoter. This is a problem for White, who tends to come off as a capricious megalomaniac. He’s spewed vicious attacks at reporters, publicly feuded with top stars like Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, and essentially blackballed certain fighters from the company for no evident reason. He makes up for it by putting on great shows and doing right by brawlers like Liddell, whom the UFC president forced into retirement after it was clear he would endure further brain damage if he got back into the cage. White is a decent man and a hell of a promoter in a grand American line of carny barkers, more Bill Veeck than Vince McMahon. Still, the UFC system, and White’s excesses, don’t sit well with Emelianenko. “The UFC attitude towards fighters is not a good one,” he says. “They don’t treat them like human beings.”

But Emelianenko is no Curt Flood. White likes to tell a story about negotiating with Emelianenko’s manager, Vadim Finkelchtein. Rather than discuss his fighter, Finkelchtein wanted to talk instead about UFC building a stadium in Moscow to host rock concerts—concerts that would be put on by Finkelchtein’s brother, the purported biggest rock promoter in Russia. During negotiations over the years, Emelianenko’s men have allegedly asked UFC to hire the Russian’s flunkies from the Red Devil Sport Club and allow him to continue fighting in sambo tournaments. White says he gave in on both conditions during recent contract talks. He would not, though, agree to a co-promoting deal that could have given Emelianenko’s team half of UFC’s profits.

This simply isn’t going to happen and not just because of the money. UFC has learned the main lesson of boxing’s decline: You need to give people the fights they want to see. That can’t be done when every fighter is a promotion unto himself, able to avoid taking on an opponent if he doesn’t like the terms or his chances. To allow Emelianenko to co-promote with UFC would just be to encourage Lesnar, St-Pierre, Silva, and anyone else who wants more money and more control to hold out for the same rights. And that would be crippling to a nascent sporting cartel.

Another lesson learned from boxing’s fall is to maintain a small fleet of champions. Boxing has about 70 major championships in 14 weight classes; UFC has five champions in five weight classes, and in four of them, the champ is unquestionably the best in the world at his weight. This monopoly on legitimacy, earned as UFC rose from being one of many promotions to become something more like the NBA of MMA, is arguably UFC’s most important asset.

Emelianenko’s absence won’t harm UFC at the box office—aside from perhaps 100,000 hard-core fans who use his name as a sort of Masonic handshake, not many people know who he is, and several companies have gone out of business while trying to promote him in America. Refusing to play ball with the Russian will also preserve Dana White’s company-man system. But in a broader sense—the one in which the company is perceived as the only major league in MMA—it hurts not to have the world’s best. The legend of the real world champion, and the idea that UFC’s top heavyweight’s claim to the title is hardly undisputed, smells a bit of boxing’s alphabet soup.

More importantly, UFC’s failure to sign Emelianenko is a sign of what lays ahead as MMA continues to grow as a sport and as fighters become ever more famous. For right now, the sport’s champions may be happy to fight on commission, but they won’t always be—fighters who draw like Mike Tyson are going to want to be paid like Mike Tyson, and rightly so. The heavyweight champion probably won’t be the last fighter to complain about UFC’s policy, and he won’t be the last one who’s able to do something about it. As for the champ himself? His Strikeforce deal will be up in about a year, and then we’ll get to do this all over again.