Business is picking up for World Series of Fighting, and the promotion's third event, Friday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, provided a glimpse at the future of the company.
Jon Fitch, the highest-profile WSOF signee since it began promoting late last year, proved to his dismay that time and space can matter when matched against Josh Burkman. Seven years ago, the pair met in the Octagonal confines of the UFC and Fitch won by rear-naked choke. Friday, it was WSOF's decagon, and in just 41 seconds Burkman did to Fitch what B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and a host of other dangerous submission artists could not.
After scoring a pair of hooks that wobbled the longtime UFC welterweight contender, Burkman pounced on Fitch's neck. Despite a reputation for stellar defense, Fitch disregarded the threat and went for a lift. He said afterward that he was "a little overconfident with my choke defense and was going to try and slam [Burkman]. But he locked it in too tight. Mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away."
Burkman went to half-guard after feeling the strangle tighten.
"I didn't want to go for the choke, but I felt it was tight," he said. "So I stood up with him to get him to stand, and I felt it get really tight. I locked it when he grabbed that leg."
Referee Steve Mazzagatti didn't seem to notice that Fitch went limp, so Burkman released the hold and politely scooted away.
This marked Burkman's third appearance for the promotion, and to this point, the 10-year veteran said, WSOF had "done everything they said they were going to do."
For an upstart fight promotion company, that's about as good as it gets.
Credibility comes with delivery. "Showing more than talking," Burkman put it as he drove to Las Vegas on Tuesday from Salt Lake City, where he trains at The Pit Elevated.
With WSOF signing a three-year TV deal with the NBC Sports Network, building relationships with major venues across the U.S. and signing known commodities such as Fitch to go with talented kids such as Justin Gaethje -- an unbeaten lightweight who won by technical knockout Friday -- Burkman's optimism is genuine.
"They've done everything they said they were going to do and some," Burkman said. "They treated me really well anytime I had an issue or wanted to negotiate anything, they were more than happy and open to talking about it. As long as they treat their fighters like that, they'll continue to grow and do well."
The 32-year-old welterweight washed out of the UFC in 2008 after losing four of his last five fights in the Octagon. He said WSOF has given him a chance to fight quality opponents on a visible stage, and for that he is grateful.
"The difference is the UFC has so many guys coming in and out, wanting to be in their show, fighting for less money, that the UFC can get away with treating their undercard fighters however they want," said Burkman, who praised Zuffa as the "major league of this sport."
"I think with the WSOF, I'm in a different position," he said. "It's a small organization with less fighters. It's kind of being a bigger fish in a small pond. I can get to the top of that heap and help the organization and help myself. I think that's a unique opportunity with the WSOF that I wouldn't have necessarily had with the UFC."
Berkman, a participant of the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," isn't alone in that regard. The current WSOF fighter roster sits at 80, according to Ali Abdel-Aziz, WSOF executive vice president and matchmaker, and will remain in that area through the end of year. The company wants to give fighters an opportunity to compete, allowing prospects such as 24-year-old Gaethje a chance to shine and grow, and veterans such as Burkman a chance at a new lease on a fighting life.
Abdel-Aziz said winning is important, but "not putting pressure on fighters benefits them and benefits us." This is all designed with fun MMA in mind, yet that's hardly a guarantee, just ask Jacob Volkmann who wrestled his way to a win over Lyle Beerbohm on the undercard.
Burkman appeared on the first three WSOF cards, winning each bout, and recently re-signed for four more contests. He said he offered suggestions from the start, and, to his delight, WSOF executives have been receptive. Championship bouts weren't a consideration in WSOF until Burkman chimed up about it earlier this year. After dropping the rematch, Fitch said he's open to a rubber match, preferably five rounds for the inaugural WSOF title. If it happens, he owes Burkman a beer.
"I think I asked the right questions in that first show and they had to give me answers," Burkman said after winning his fifth straight contest. "I was just asking them so they had an easier road with other fighters. It helped them treat fighters like they needed to be treated."
Abdel-Aziz and Burkman both suggested WSOF president Ray Sefo, a fighter turned promoter who announced he's fighting Dave Huckaba in California at WSOF 4 in August, has been instrumental in relationship building with the athletes. Sefo “gets people to listen,” Abdel-Aziz said.
The company’s vision is always focused down the road, according to Abdel-Aziz, who managed Frankie Edgar and others before joining WSOF.
Currently, their intention is to flesh out weight divisions, which at 170 pounds requires bringing in names like Fitch when they’re available -- despite knowing they could lose badly in 41 seconds -- and convincing prospects like Gaethje sign with them as opposed to UFC or Bellator.
"It's kind of cool to be part of an organization from the beginning," Burkman said. "I'll definitely take some pride in that. I'll also take a little pride in the fact that the better the fighters do, the better the organization does.”