There is no emulating the success of the UFC. The 17-year-old brand is insurmountable, and no financier has the patience or capital to develop a roster of 200-plus fighters or pay headliners double the seven-figure paydays they're already getting. There will never be a promotion with the substance or success of Rorion Gracie and Art Davie's creation, just as there will never be any competition for the NFL beyond other sports.
Promotions that reject this wind up losing money, usually bleeding out slowly. In other cases, possessing at least a fraction of self-awareness, they take a different route. They go for the gimmick.
The gimmick is nothing new in pro wrestling, a distant and unfortunate cousin of MMA, where crowds are turned on by the promise of cage matches, dwarf world titles and staple guns. Any break from the norm is going to be acknowledged -- even if it's to shake your head.
MMA was once a gimmick itself: The premise of throwing brave (and possibly stupid) fighters in a cage is a sports anomaly if ever there was one. Now that it's somehow evolved into a legitimate event -- and the UFC has a monopoly on that structure -- the only answer is to devolve.
Two cases of note: Shine Fights, the promotion which branded itself as MMA's least competent office with the Ricardo Mayorga fiasco in May, now has plans to resurrect itself with a single-night elimination tournament, a format so archaic that most athletic commissions refuse to recognize it; according to the Syracuse Examiner, former cruiserweight champion Bobby Gunn has offered to fight Kimbo Slice in a London-rules bare-knuckle prizefight, the kind popularized by fighters with nicknames like "Battlin'"and "Gentleman."
Both of these ideas are horrible, of course. While it may be true that a bare-fisted boxing match is less traumatic to the head than a padded one, it's a superficially disgusting activity that frequently results in long, bloody, hematoma-filled fights. Seeing it passed around on YouTube is one thing; having it legitimized in front of pay-per-view cameras is off-putting.
The single-night tournament worked in the 1990s because of the disparate fighting elements each fighter brought to the table. You didn't necessarily need to be familiar with the athletes. It was enough to understand that a Sumo taking on a Kenpo striker would be a spectacular mess.
The lines are not that broadly drawn anymore. The attractions created through tournaments were often inadvertent sandbaggers. Because everyone can do a little bit of everything, there is no longer novelty in matches without some kind of preamble. It's a dead format.
(The UFC itself is not exempt from stunts, though it keeps them to a merciful minimum: James Toney, who has as much business in a mixed-fight ring as in a Weight Watchers ad, is a gimmick no different from Shine's attempt to have Mayorga face Din Thomas.)
These promotions do one thing right: They don't appear to be nickel-and-diming themselves into delayed Chapter 13. Spend some money, hire some names and make it or break it on the strength of a single event. If it does well, think about a second. The idea that you can develop any kind of "league" or long-term profitability is depressing. And expensive.
I am not a fight snob by any stretch: As ludicrous as it appears, I'll happily watch Toney fight. I'd watch Kimbo slug it out in a boatyard. But these are still just sideshows. They can't sustain themselves. MMA is a sport, perhaps in spite of itself. You can't go home again.