It feels like we are in a non-reality, The Upside Down. Over the past 18 months, UKMMA has been turned on its head and even though a lot of good has come during that time, dubious backroom decisions have left the scene in questionable health.
When Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) entered the UKMMA marketplace in October 2016, they exhibited their intentions by luring in the region’s most talented fighters with big money contracts, signing the likes of Saul Rogers, Robert Whiteford; and later, Luke Barnatt and Scott Askham.
With their tenacious pursuit of virtually anyone not under contract to their competitors, the Chechen-owned promotion made it evidently clear that they were prepared to spend over the odds to build the most talent-rich roster the British Isles had ever seen.
This was great news for the UK’s athletes. For the most part, UKMMA had always sauntered on in the financial department, void of major investment, sponsorships and pay-per-view revenue, unlike its American counterpart.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault either. Many promotions worked incredibly hard to build foundations, and some; like Cage Rage during its brief partnership with EliteXC, had come teasingly close to securing substantial investment before being hit with a cruel twist of fate.
For the most part, UKMMA has always been about operating within your means. Promotions like BAMMA and Cage Warriors have done this for well over a decade, developing hundreds of fighters who have since gone on to compete for premier fight promotions like the UFC and Bellator MMA.
It’s not been smooth sailing for the originals, either, with Cage Warriors pausing operations in 2015. After a year-long break, they returned as a force to be reckoned with and are on track to promote 11 events this year, including their Cage Warriors 100 Anniversary.
They’ve also done a solid job at preserving their longevity through grassroots development. With the addition of four Academy affiliates, the yellow brand is well on their way to increase the gap between themselves and other UK centric fight promotions.
BAMMA as well, for all their sins, have been an honourable staple of the UK and Irish scene. With their television-centric acumen, a by-product of Company Director and production specialist, David Green, the promotion was able to acquire broadcast deals on free-to-air channels like 5Spike and ITV4, giving fighters an unmatched level of mainstream exposure.
Meanwhile, ACB applied more of an imprudent stance, with their (purportedly) endless flow of green from Chechen-businessman, and owner, Mairbek Khasiev. Promoting events as far out as America and Australia, the ACB expansion was swift, collecting more and more fighters on the way.
And they weren’t just splashing doh on their active roster. They diversified their portfolio with kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu events, even signing former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir to provide commentary, alongside commentator-matchmaker, Bryan Lacey.
In fact, the plan was for Mir to fight under ACB as well, but this failed to materialise following the promotion’s business alterations and their cancelation of several non-Russian shows, including a London event which promised the return of retired UFC fighter, Brad Pickett.
I honestly believe (for the most part), the intentions of Lacey, Carl Prince, and before them, Paul King, were in the right place. They gave fighters; some of whom were only just beginning their careers as professionals, an offer they could not refuse, an offer which ultimately, was too good to be true.
Now, fighters like Robert Whiteford are struggling to trigger their release clause and are unable to fight elsewhere, despite ACB’s limited schedule for 2018.
There is the possibility they could return to the UK next year, making sense of their decision to keep Whiteford under contract. But with rumours conspiring against that, and the likelihood being that they remain in Russia for the foreseeable future, the captivity of the Scotsman is perplexing, to say the least, especially when other Brits have been given contract releases.
Regardless, the aftershocks of ACB’s explosive entry into the UK business has created a supply and demand trend which cannot be met. Fighter purses will continue to increase, and as that happens, economical promotions will struggle to match the curve.
For any other mainstream sport in the world, wages (purses) increase with popularity. With MMA, however, that discussion starts and ends with the UFC. For everyone else, the broadcast deals (and subsequently revenue) still aren’t quite there yet and good fighter sponsorships; ones where money is awarded as opposed to goods, are few and far between.
With their entry into the UK and Ireland imminent, Bellator MMA will continue this high-spending trend, with 34 fighters already signed to exclusive deals.
Former BAMMA matchmaker, Jude Samuel, is the man advising the Viacom owned brand who to bring in, and he hasn’t shied away from raiding the UK’s top promotions with champions from BAMMA and Cage Warriors now on Bellator’s books.
It’s slightly more plausible for them to be offering fighters the five-figure money that is being rumoured, with Bellator MMA President, Scott Coker conforming at Bellator 200 that the product will be commissioned by Channel 5 as an actual television production.
But what sets the merit of a fighter’s value? That argument is a little bit easier to answer in the UFC, almost weekly television events, pay-per-views, ticket revenue and social media figures can help gage an athlete’s worth.
With those statistics too infrequent in UKMMA, the measuring stick for many years has simply been how many tickets a fighter shifts. I don’t expect that to change under Bellator, but it’s a friends and family popularity contest which realistically, fails to answer that question.
Moreover, what happens if Channel 5 decide to terminate Bellator’s UK and Ireland-centric venture (which still isn’t confirmed), after the mentioned six-episodes? With the contracts slated to be exclusive to this region, and no indication given that these will be honoured on the main Bellator events, it’s a frightening exploit which will be overlooked due to the interim financial relief bestowed upon the fighters.
We are truly in The Upside Down, as promotions like BAMMA, Cage Warriors and tens of others who have shown savvy to survive UKMMA’s cyclical hurricane, will soon face an incremental financial burden to compete on a level playing field. For those with money, ala ACB and Bellator, this downside is clearly understated.
Maybe it is overkill, and hopefully, unlike ACB’s struggles, Bellator and other major promotions (specifically Cage Warriors and BAMMA) can capitalize on a growing spotlight to provide hundreds of fighters with the respite to quit their jobs and compete full-time; like any other professional sport.
Nevertheless, should market leaders not learn from the mistakes of those who have laid the path of failure, it could be the tipping point for UKMMA’s self-implosion, a debt not even the ballsiest can free us from.