Bloggers and analysts throughout the Mixed Martial Arts scene have been hinting and speculating about a potential WEC and UFC merger in recent weeks, and now their wish is Zuffa's command. The former "feeder league" is going prime time as the UFC absorbs the lighter divisions and a whole new talent pool at lightweight (155 pounds), starting officially in early 2011.
Former WEC Standout Carlos Condit (26-5-0) really put the writing on the wall when he absolutely destroyed Dan Hardy in the Brit's home stadium on the UFC 120 card on October 16, 2010. The knockout win was Condit's third consecutive victory in "the big show" after making the WEC/UFC transition with a disappointing debut loss to Martin Kampmann on April Fools Day, 2009 at UFC Fight Night 18.
"This is a big day for the sport and the athletes who will have the opportunity to fight on the biggest stage in the world," UFC president Dana White said in announcing this major shift in Zuffa's game plan that will no doubt lead to many more success stories like Condit's.
The move is basically a result of the WEC outgrowing the expectations of its owners over the years and a general result of a failed attempt to market huge WEC PPV cards. Add to the mix the phenomenal lighter weight talent the WEC created and groomed over the years since the Zuffa purchase, and you have all the ingredients of this merger happening at the right time for all the right reasons.
Wrestling Observer reported two of the motivations behind the pick up when the UFC's parent company first acquired the WEC back in late 2006:
"...one of which is to serve as a venue in which to groom up-and-coming talent, and another is so that they can attempt to secure a high-profile national television deal for the WEC in a strategic maneuver to impede the chances of other MMA promotions (specifically the IFL or Pride) to secure a national TV deal in the United States."
Both the IFL and PRIDE are now long gone, Zuffa having since acquired the assets and leftovers of both organizations. These somewhat hostile takeovers changed the landscape of MMA and revealed just how ruthless and business-minded the UFC's brass and ownership could be. When the aim is global domination of the sport, there's no time for a moment's rest or hesitation in making huge decisions like this one.
There was a lawsuit related to the PRIDE dismantling since the Fertittas (Lorenzo and Frank III, then 90% owners of Zuffa) and UFC President Dana White (then a 10% owner of Zuffa) allegedly promised the former owners they would keep PRIDE relevant and continue it as a separate but equal outfit. Instead, Zuffa's principals ruffled a lot of feathers by taking PRIDE apart, maintaining ongoing relationships with only a few big ticket PRIDE fighters, and closing all the offices in Japan. The moves by Zuffa's ownership in the aftermath of the PRIDE purchase came across as purely a kill the competition operation. It really could have and should have been a strong consolidation of powerhouse MMA leagues. Though the lawsuit was ultimately settled, there is still some lingering animosity felt by PRIDE fans regarding how that less successful "merger" played out.
This time, though, there aren't as many toes being stepped on. Everybody's happy except maybe some of the UFC's top-rated lightweights who will now have a huge influx of new talent to face in order to climb the ladder in their division. Even Versus is probably going to maintain a strong partnership with Zuffa as this move plays out. All the WEC fighters on the current roster will be retained according to early reports, so it's more like a UFC expansion than it is a traditional business merger.
The only tricky aspect of all this is how to crown the unified lightweight champion. Illustrating the depth of the thought that went into this merger, even that wrinkle is already figured out. The victor of the UFC 125 (Jan 1, 2011) main event bout between Frankie Edgar and undefeated Gray Maynard will earn a unification battle with the WEC's lightweight champ. Jose Aldo will also make his UFC Debut on the same New Year's Day UFC 125 card.
The challenger of the Maynard/Edgar winner will be decided first, though. WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson will face Anthony Pettis on Dec. 16, 2010 on VERSUS to determine who gets to fight for a shot at upgrading their WEC belt for UFC gold.
So the UFC will add the bantamweight (135-pound) and featherweight (145-pound) divisions to UFC, as well as all a new wave of raw talent for the existing lightweight (155-pound) division. It will all make things a little more interesting and might even help make MMA's top dog more competitive in some other countries across the globe. The fact is, there are many foreign countries where people are much lighter on average than the fighters the UFC has showcased in the past.
Getting a slot in the WEC was obviously a big deal while it was its own entity, but it was still seen as one step short of "the big show." Now, everyone gets a share of the glory, and some of the lighter weight match-ups will make great UFC main events. The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike will surely end up having both bantamweight and featherweight seasons as well, introducing fans to the best prospects at those weights and expanding the spotlight on MMA as a whole in a positive manner. All around this is solid business, even better for marketing, and a marvelous development for the sport of mixed martial arts itself.
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