Ultimate deal: UFC buys rival Pride

Ultimate deal: UFC buys rival Pride

UFC owners buy rival Pride
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - The majority owners of Ultimate Fighting Championship have agreed to buy their biggest mixed martial arts rival, Pride Fighting Championships, in a deal that will establish megafights among the outfits' titleholders and possibly attract huge pay-per-view audiences.

Others have finally decided to jump on the bandwagon. But FOX has been covering MMA since long before the herd decided it was "safe" to follow. Check out the IFL and PRIDE on Fox Sports Net and the UFC on FOX Sports en Espanol:

Company executives declined to comment on the sales price, but a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta will purchase the Japan-based Pride for less than $70 million. The person was not authorized to speak to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The deal was completed Tuesday and was announced during a news conference in Tokyo, where Lorenzo Fertitta has been negotiating with Nobuyuki Sakakibara, the majority owner and chief executive of Dream Stage Entertainment Inc., Pride's owner.

"We have been talking to Pride for probably about 11 months," Lorenzo Fertitta said. "It's been a long, drawn out process but we finally we were able to put the two brands together."

To buy the company, the brothers created a new entity called Pride FC Worldwide Holdings LLC. The newly formed company will take over Pride assets, including its trademarks, video library and valuable roster of fighters, from Dream Stage. The Fertitta brothers, who own Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC, intend to keep the well-known Pride name and promote fights under that brand.

The acquisition marks a new phase in the brothers' quest to dominate the burgeoning world of mixed martial arts since they bought the struggling UFC in 2001.

"This is really going to change the face of MMA," Lorenzo Fertitta said. "Literally creating a sport that could be as big around the world as soccer. I liken it somewhat to when the NFC and AFC came together to create the NFL."

The deal allows the Fertitta brothers to broker the biggest MMA fights possible in the near future, increasing their influence in this sports entertainment business.

"We will be able to literally put on the fights that everyone wants to see," Lorenzo Fertitta said. "It will allow us to put on some of the biggest fights ever."

In the past, there has been at least one case in which Pride and UFC couldn't hammer out a deal to put their top fighters in the ring together. With Pride in their pocket, the Fertitta brothers intend to ensure that never happens again.

The sale gives Pride more financial backing to expand the business internationally after suffering a recent financial blow.

Major sponsor Fuji Television Network Inc. dropped Pride in June after a tabloid linked Pride to the Japanese mob - something Sakakibara has denied vigorously. To help bolster Pride, the company staged two PPV fights in Las Vegas. Neither was a financial success. The fights gained exposure for Pride but lost money, making the sale of Pride more likely.

"I think it certainly weakened their position," Lorenzo Fertitta said. "One of our goals is to get back on a major platform back here in Japan."

Lorenzo Fertitta said he'll be looking to expand Pride internationally.

Buying Pride is the latest in a series of acquisitions that the brothers have made in the last six months. Zuffa snapped up World Extreme Cagefighting and World Fighting Alliance last year.

Similar to Pride, buying WFA gave UFC the rights to a popular fighter named Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Jackson will face UFC's most popular fighter, Chuck Liddell, the current light heavyweight champ in Las Vegas, on May 26 on PPV.

In the combat world, the Pride deal leaves a fragmented group of upstarts and K-1, another Japanese company that promotes fighters skilled in various forms of kick boxing.

Thanks to a surge in popularity, the brothers' investment in UFC and MMA in general has begun to pay off.

Last year, UFC cracked $200 million in PPV revenue, putting it on par with World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.

UFC stages fights in arenas across the country and airs a clutch of successful television shows on Spike TV. It has also opened an office in London, looking toward establishing itself internationally.

The brothers also run Station Casinos Inc. in Las Vegas. Lorenzo Fertitta is president and Frank Fertitta is chairman and chief executive of Station Casinos, a public company that was recently purchased by a private equity investor group that includes key members of the Fertitta family.

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Re: Ultimate deal: UFC buys rival Pride

UFC scores TKO on its business rival
Dave Doyle / FOXSports.com

Fans of the world's two biggest mixed martial arts promotions, the Nevada-based Ultimate Fighting Championship and Japan's Pride Fighting Championship, have argued long and loud over which group boasts the best fighters.

That question remains unresolved.

But on a business level, there's no doubt about the result: UFC owner Zuffa LLC just scored a TKO with the purchase its business rival's assets.

The UFC now oversees a staggering collection of talent, including nine fighters in FOXSports.com's world pound-for-pound Top 10 ratings. And their vision for the rules of the sport on a worldwide basis — or at least the Unified rules accepted by American state athletic commissions, with five-minute rounds and uniform weight classes — will be implemented in both groups effective immediately.

What the transaction does not do, despite what you may read elsewhere, is give the UFC anything close to a monopoly over the business.

This deal went down in large part because several other well-heeled players have gotten into the American mixed martial arts game, from Gareb Shamus' International Fight League (which airs on FOX Sports Net) to the Showtime-backed Elite Xtreme Combat to offshore gambling magnate Calvin Ayre's Bodog Fight promotion. It was likely no coincidence the announcement of the purchase was held just hours before a press conference in Los Angeles announcing an ambitious Showtime-backed show in June at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum featuring MMA legend Royce Gracie.

Ayre's group has thrown around big money signing the likes of Pride star Fedor Emelianenko (to a one-fight deal) and American middleweight standout Matt Lindland. EXC reportedly offered UFC heavyweight Brandon Vera, who has one fight left on his deal, a $1.5 million signing bonus. Shoring up Pride's stable of fighters will slow down the contractual bedlam.

When the MMA business in the United States went into the tank in the late 1990s and early part of this decade due to a lack of television presence and legal hurdles, Pride took the lead and kept the sport alive on a major-league basis.

PRIDE's major shows featured lineups with an unparalleled roster depth and a rock-concert-type light-and-stage-show atmosphere rivaled by few sports or entertainment companies. Top fighters from around the world, like Brazil's Wanderlei Silva, Croatia's Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, and Americans Dan Henderson and Josh Barnett filled stadiums befitting NFL games for Pride's biggest events.

But former Pride parent company Dream Stage Entertainment lost its primary revenue source, a television contract with the Fuji network, last summer, amid rumors of a company underworld connection. The trouble couldn't come at a worse time for the group, as their misfortune came just as Zuffa's stateside business was catching fire.

Pride's first course of action was to attempt to shift business to the American market, and did so by trying to publicly bait UFC's top draw, Chuck Liddell, into a match with Silva. While it was the talk of the MMA world last fall, that action looks like desperation in hindsight.

In the process, however, they demonstrated the Pride name has a legitimate following in the U.S., as two shows in Las Vegas drew gates of more than $2 million, and are the only non-Zuffa shows to land in the state of Nevada's all-time MMA Top 10 money list.

But when fighters from headliners like Filipovic to undercard competitors like Dokjonsuke Mishima began jumping en masse to the UFC in recent months, it became a clear sign that Pride was having serious financial woes.

UFC has acted as aggressively as a business as the fighters themselves compete in the octagon. Zuffa (Italian for "fight") purchased the remnants of the all-but-dead World Fighting Alliance, the key asset being the contract of headliner Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, last November. They also purchased a smaller group, the California-based World Extreme Cagefighting,

Zuffa's handling of the WEC brand name should provide clues about how Pride will function from here. Zuffa has run the WEC as its own entity, emphasizing bantamweight and featherweight fighters, and has its own television contract on the Versus network. WEC fighters have not appeared on UFC programming and vice versa.

In the short term, not much will change for the average viewer aside from rules changes, which means the foot stomps and kicks to the heads of downed opponents that distinguished Pride from the UFC are no more. Zuffa will continue to run the Japanese company as a separate entity, with its separate roster of fighters separate champions, and separate office staff. Pride will continue to air in America on FOX Sports Net, and Zuffa officials indicated they are working on getting the brand back on Japanese TV.

UFC president Dana White is promising "Super Bowl of MMA"-style shows eventually, featuring matchups between the top stars of the two promotions. But the company's patience in growing their business — they endured several years and seven figures worth of losses building the brand before hitting paydirt last year — indicates they're not going to burn through the potential biggest-money matches in their history anytime soon.

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