Bantam- and Featherweights: Breaking Through a Glass Ceiling

September 16, 2009

In recent weeks and months, MMAPayout and others have discussed the feasibility of bringing the WEC and UFC together in some way.  Most of these discussions have centered on the business practicality, from an organizational perspective, of a merger or re-branding.  I thought it would be interesting now to examine the issue — one I frame as a lack of ppv, and thus economic, opportunities for lighter-weight fighters — from the perspective of the fighters themselves.

At some point it might be worth studying how we got here, but for current purposes it’s important only that this is the state of things:  Zuffa owns two MMA organizations, the UFC and the WEC.  UFC has five weight classes, starting at 155 lbs.; WEC has three weight classes, 135, 145, and ending at 155 lbs.  WEC’s shows appear exclusively on Versus basic cable, whereas UFC’s biggest shows air on pay-per-view television.  Consequently, it’s more lucrative to fight in the UFC than it is to fight in the WEC, though a beating remains a beating, and medical bills don’t discriminate based on a fighter’s purse.

Team Lloyd Irvin’s Muhsin Corbbrey (lightweight), who fights Anthony Njokuani at WEC 43 on October 10, noted that WEC’s smaller purses only become significant at the highest levels.  In other words, the lower-level fighters in UFC aren’t making a ton of money, either (although they’re making more than their WEC counterparts), but when you get to the highest levels — the ppv draws like Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, and GSP — the money to be made fighting in UFC is enormous, and to date no bantam- or featherweight has even been given the opportunity to pass or fail the ppv test.

According to Muhsin, fighters shouldn’t expect to become wealthy off of their fight purses, but rather should use whatever visibility they gain through fighting to market themselves in other ways (e.g., sponsorships), and indeed this is an intelligent path for the vast majority of fighters.

But then there are the exceptions, the ones at the top end, the draws, or in the case of the smaller fighters, the potential draws, which brings me to the tragic case of Urijah Faber.

Surely it’s beyond debate that Zuffa and WEC missed the boat with Urijah Faber, WEC’s former 145-lb. champion.  “The California Kid” had (and has) a look that screamed money, and, just as important, he can fight, but Faber was relegated throughout his multi-year title reign to fighting on the relatively limited universe of Versus, and not on ppv. 

I emphasize that we’re not talking about a situation in which the public was offered, and rejected, the opportunity to pay to see an exciting smaller fighter, but instead the case had been conclusively settled in advance: Urijah Faber would never get to see how far he could go in the sport; it might be a loaded term, but so long as that ppv door remains closed, there’s an MMA glass ceiling for smaller fighters.

True, we’d hear rumblings of plans to put WEC led by Urijah on ppv, specifically with respect to Faber/Brown II, but the plans never came to fruition, and now that Brown seems to have Urijah’s number, the window of opportunity to capitalize on Faber’s potential superstardom has probably permanently closed. 

Mike Brown, beast that he is, simply lacks that it factor, the ineffable charisma that’s so important in making the public want to pay to see you fight.  (Muhsin noted that Brown, perfectly suited for fighting at 145, even tried his hand at 155, likely due to the greater economic potential fighting for UFC than for WEC.)

Mike Brown is limited by being Mike Brown, perhaps a great mixed martial artist, but oh so plain. 

One fighter without such limitations is Team Lloyd Irvin’s Mike “The Hulk” Easton, Ultimate Warrior Challenge’s (UWC) 135 lbs. champion, who faces former WEC champion Chase Beebe at UWC 7 on October 3, in a fight that Luke Thomas, on MMA Nation radio referred to as the biggest ever in the DC area.  It’s a fight that was supposed to take place way back in February, but for whatever reason, Beebe at that time decided to skip the weigh-ins and the scheduled UWC title confrontation.  For Mike Easton, who has waited over half a year for the fight, the chase finally ends on October 3.

“I don’t know how I’m going to win, but I will win,” a smiling Mike told me last week as we talked, his two-year-old son, Champ Mike Easton, playing nearby.  With Mike’s last two fights ending in victories via the guillotine choke, that might (or might not) prove instructive on October 3.

Easton — genuinely a nice guy — has such a laid back, warm personality that, and it’s almost a cliche at this point when it comes to martial artists, unless you knew beforehand, you’d never guess what he does for a living.  Beyond that, this guy’s superstar potential is off the charts.  Mike Easton has the rare combination that allows someone to break out from the pack: both the it factor (i.e., charisma) and the ability to fight at the highest levels.

Easton is someone to keep an eye on.  I’ve heard him referred to as the hottest prospect in the Mid-Atlantic area, but I’d go further and say he’s the brightest superstar prospect at the bantam- or featherweight level since Urijah Faber.  (You can watch three of his fights at Sherdog.)  Easton oozes charisma from the time he steps through the curtain for his ring entrance, which he admits is influenced by his years watching professional wrestling, but this would mean nothing if Mike couldn’t follow it up in the cage.  Follow it, though, he does, typically in devastating fashion, and it’s a pity that Mike Easton is not yet a better known name. 

I have a theory, probably unprovable, that if ppv opportunities were available to someone like Mike, either through UFC or WEC, he probably would not still be fighting in the regional UWC, but as Easton said, he makes more money fighting for the UWC than he could for WEC.  Easton also noted, though he couldn’t go into particulars, that the UWC has plans for greater MMA growth on the East Coast. 

Irrespective of how big UWC gets, it obviously will never prove as financially rewarding to a superstar (or potential superstar) as fighting for UFC could be.  My argument is that Mike Easton is that lighter-weight superstar, the next Urijah Faber, waiting in the wings.  Zuffa blew it with Urijah;  let’s hope that lessons have been learned, and wheels are in motion to prevent it from happening again.

Mike Easton has a very loyal, very devoted, regional following, which will be on display when he fights Chase Beebe at UWC 7 for the promotion’s bantamweight title on October 3.  UWCMMA.com will offer the event live via Internet ppv.

6 Responses to “Bantam- and Featherweights: Breaking Through a Glass Ceiling”

  1. Derek Stewart on September 17th, 2009 9:58 PM

    Zuffa blew it with Urijah? I love the passion you put into your articles David, but I respectfully disagree. The only problem with Urijah is that his prime came about 3-5 years too early. Let’s just stick to the facts. Zuffa saved the WEC and gave more exposure to the lighter weights by dumping their welter to heavys into the UFC. If it wasn’t for Zuffa, only the hardest of hardcore fans would know who fights at Bantam and Feather weight divisions. The UFC wasn’t built in a day and neither will the WEC. But they’ll get there…and then the fighters will get theirs.

    In the meantime, from a “fighter’s perspective”, they signed the contract, so shut up and fight. You don’t like the contract? Don’t sign it and go fight somewhere else….just like Easton is doing.

    The real question will be, what is Zuffa waiting for to create their flyweight division and kick it off with an exciting reality show tournament? This will generate all kinds of exposure for the WEC. The sooner they do that, the sooner they can ditch their lightweight division. I find it hard to get excited about the Canadian Football League when I know all the best guys are in the NFL…and the same goes for the WEC’s 155ers The WEC’s Feather and Bantam weights, on the other hand, truly are the best in the world.

  2. David Wolf on September 18th, 2009 5:23 AM

    Thanks, Derek. I concede that the “blew it” with Faber language might be hyperbole, but would you agree that Zuffa failed to maximize his potential value? As I see it, if a guy can move pay-per-view buys, and the organization doesn’t give him the chance to do so, they’re failing to maximize the fighter’s potential.

  3. Derek Stewart on September 18th, 2009 5:53 AM

    From Faber’s point of view, I would absolutely agree that he personally could have had more expsoure (and thus make more money) if Zuffa would have placed him on to a UFC PPV. They’re getting very close, but up until today, I don’t think the WEC could put on its own stand-alone PPV event.

    But now let’s look at it from the Zuffa perspective. Does adding Faber on to a UFC card drive more revenue? Maybe the answer is “yes” today, but even 6 months ago, I think the answer was “no”. So they could do it as an investment and build up the WEC brand, but mostly Faber himself. But now what? Even if Faber wins, what does that really do for the WEC? The reason Fedor isn’t sustainable in the long term is because eventually he’ll retire or he’ll lose and then the fans stop watching Strikeforce in a huge way and run to wherever the best talent is. I think the same would apply to this Faber discussion. Slow and controlled growth by the WEC is the way to go, so that there are always 4-5 fighters, at the very least, in each weight class that are interesting. It sucks for Faber, but it’s better for all fighters in the WEC in the long term.

    This is the best mma site online. It forces me to think everytime I visit here and the business side of mma is fascinating. Keep up the great work!

  4. MIke on September 18th, 2009 2:18 PM

    Supply and demand. If it wasn’t for the WEC, these guys would still be making about 500 bucks a fight at the Palace Casino. Or at best, they’d be fighting in Japan making similar money to what they’re making now, but they’d have to fly halfway around the world to do it.

  5. Regina on September 22nd, 2009 12:24 PM

    I’ve been following the UWC for quite some time and find it to be a very solid promotion with their mantra to build the next great champions. I agree that Mike fits the bill with his charisma and skill but do you think that maybe part of the reason Mike is even noticed as a great prospect is, in part, the promotion itself? Seeing other ‘regional’ shows, you can clearly see that the UWC stands out by offering a very high production value. Their partnership with Sherdog allows Mike to be noticed by yourself and others. Not taking anything away from Mike (i love the “Hulk”), but I just think the UWC deserves a little credit by providing a platform for him and other fighters to excel. The sport of MMA needs a show like that to showcase the upcoming talent. I personally love the smaller fighters since they never seem to run out of gas.
    I already have my tickets for Oct 3rd and can’t wait to see Mike defend his belt! Beating Beebe will definitely solidify his potential.

  6. Samsonian on September 26th, 2009 11:46 PM

    Re Faber:

    Zuffa did blow it with Faber, but you seem too quick to write off Faber.

    Brown doesn’t have Faber’s “number.” Faber was got caught the first time because he fighting style is aggressive (and risky). I believe he was throwing a spinning backfist when he got caught. The second time Faber didn’t make that mistake, his game was very tight. Unfortunately, he broke his right hand on Brown’s forehead and dislocated his left in some other strike, both early in the fight.

    In spite of this Faber persevered, continued to fight, throwing jabs, elbows, knees, kicks, even slaps. Faber showed incredible heart in that fight, and I have so much more respect for him as a result. It’s rare to see a top fighter tested like that.

    Faber still needs to recover/rehab his hands, which are tough injuries. When he does, he’ll return and put on good fights in 2010. I can’t wait for Faber/Brown 3, assuming Aldo doesn’t beat Brown.

    Re lighter weights:

    You’re right, it’s common knowledge among hardcore MMA fans, that feather, batam, and soon flyweights have gotten short shrift in the sport. And it’s a damn shame, because these guys put on some of the most exciting fights in the sport. Despite this, they get little exposure and far less pay than comparable fighters in sister promotion UFC.

    This is of course where the push for WEC PPVs, or even outright merger with UFC, comes from. My hope is, once the WEC adds their flyweight division, and bulks it up, they’ll be ready to move them all over to the UFC.

    The UFC doesn’t need to segregate and discriminate against smaller fighters, when those fighters can be big draws if they give them a chance (Mayweather didn’t have any problems drawing PPV buys despite his small stature).

    Nor does the UFC need a minor league, when it can always pluck talent from regional and upstart promotions. After all, it is “The Big Show,” where fighters want to be to earn money and fame.

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