Nearly eight years ago, mixed martial arts scribes prepared eulogies for the UFC after its disastrous 33rd show, which was supposed to mark a triumphant return to pay-per-view.
Instead, the event was cursed from the word "go," as a super fight between incumbent light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz and top contender Vitor Belfort was scrapped after the Brazilian suffered an injury during training camp. With millions already invested in the UFC since its purchase of the brand earlier the same year, Zuffa had no choice but to move forward.
A less-than-inspiring replacement was found in Vladimir Matyushenko, but with two other title bouts already on the card, many held out hope that some semblance of success could be salvaged from the wreckage of Belfort's injury. Those hopes got shot through a particle collider as the show deteriorated into a mess of dull decisions that left fans wondering if the hyped return of the UFC was destined to end like a small-town fireworks show -- a bit of flash that leaves nothing but smoke. We all know Zuffa continued to dump millions into the UFC despite years spent operating in the red before finally emerging as the juggernaut we know today, but it's worth remembering that bit of history after watching the less-than-shocking demise of Affliction Entertainment as a fight promotion.
It took one scrapped main event to flatline Affliction, and while Josh Barnett may be justifiably guillotined in the court of public opinion, his third positive test for steroids only accelerated what, in hindsight, was inevitable. Make no mistake, Affliction hit the scrapheap because its financiers were not willing to operate in the red while bankrolling multi-million-dollar payrolls and UFC-level operating costs. Why anyone would pour millions into a market already dominated by the UFC brand without being ready to absorb some major losses is beyond me, but it shows the reckless nature with which these fly-by-night operations run.
Reckless because Affliction lured top talent with non-exclusive, multifight deals that paid them well above market value and now has them twisting in the wind while they try to find their next paycheck amidst a pile of bills. That is the collateral damage of Affliction's demise -- athletes living paycheck to paycheck left jobless while a bunch of millionaires write off their exercise in arrogance as a failed business venture.
This exact same scenario has played out with every promotion that has tried to challenge the UFC's stranglehold on the North American market. A quick look into the past provides a laundry list of such promotions, and the one trait they all shared was a willingness to throw around paper like party favors until the money pit ran dry.
Playing Robin Hood to the UFC's Sheriff of Nottingham by radically altering the pay scale for mixed martial artists has proven a shortsighted and self-damning business plan. Fans might bemoan the UFC's practice of actively keeping its pay scale in check, but it has kept the promotion in the black and was likely its saving grace during the years it spent operating in the hole. This may seem like an economics lesson, but the real point here is that while trying to compete with the UFC is not necessarily a bad idea, the way everyone goes about it is just plain bad for MMA.
Call me selfish, but I want all the world's top fighters in one promotion constantly fighting one another -- especially when you consider the cost of my monthly cable bill -- and that's something every MMA fan desires, no matter how much they loathe the UFC's supposed monopoly. The benefits of stability and centralized control extend beyond the fans, though; someone like Eli Manning never has to worry about the New York Giants or the NFL going under, and the same luxury extends to virtually everyone in major sports.
Meanwhile, an entire roster of Affliction fighters have to wait for their contract situations to be sorted out and pray the UFC decides to bring them on board, as it represents one of their only shots at earning the same kind of living that Affliction so briefly gave them. That goes beyond unfair and shows just how concerned a company like Affliction is with the bottom line.
Back when MMA was a financial black hole, no one wanted any part of it. Now that the UFC has established a successful business model, however, everyone wants to make a quick buck off the sport. Affliction was no different from the World Fighting Alliance, International Fight League or any other promotion looking to carve out a piece of the pie Zuffa baked. That's to be expected, but we're reaching the point where it's getting in the way of everyone's MMA utopia.
Attempting a jump into the mainstream with the world's best heavyweight and a large contingent of elite fighters outside the UFC umbrella seems incongruous at best, and the blame lies entirely with companies like Affliction, which actively court talent they cannot afford to keep.
Short of having a team of international assassins snuff out anyone who keeps the MMA paradise from being realized, the best move fans can make is to vote with their dollars. If it becomes clear the buying public will not support promotions that are doomed to failure, premier fighters will be unwilling to lunge headfirst into a temple of financial doom and we will reach the end game that much quicker. We'll see the world's best fighters negotiating with the UFC and securing their financial futures while delivering the promise that the UFC made from its very inception -- the world's best fighters fighting one another.
At this point, I'd settle for Fedor Emelianenko in the UFC and regulated MMA in New York. Yes, I'm that selfish.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.