2016 had a lot of MMA news from milestones to footnotes. Here is a look at the rundown of how the sport changed this year from the independent or scouting scene perspective.
Of course the biggest news was the sale of the UFC itself in July for $4 billion to WME-IMG. The affects are just starting to be felt with matchmaker Joe Silva leaving, Sean Shelby taking over Silva’s weight classes, and LFC promoter Mick Maynard coming on board to take over Shelby’s. The other notable change so far is Mike Goldberg has now called his last UFC event, more of a footnote than affect on the sport as a whole. Behind the scenes layoffs have started with reports ranging from 80% of the UFC Canada office to 15-20% of the UFC’s global workforce. What this means to the independent scene is first off thanks to Mick LFC fighters and possibly AXS TV fighters may have a bit more of an edge in getting into the UFC in the years to come, more on that later under the LFA merger. What made LFC under Mick stand out was bringing fighters in from both kickboxing and grappling. LFC was the event that gave a shot to wrestling Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo, ADCC Worlds -60kg champion Mackenzie Dern, and grappling standout Rafael Lovato, Jr. with Cejudo already in the UFC.
Rumors are also circulating the Ultimate Fighter will be cancelled however at this time those are rumors even if they are from reputable sources. It is the rumors of TUF being cancelled that will affect the “indies” the most as that “back door” into the main show will be closed leaving the up-and-comers to prove themselves in smaller shows to earn a chance in the Octagon.
New York legalizing MMA in March was touted as a turning point but so far one UFC show, a Combate Americas event, and a WSOF which takes place this weekend are all that has come of the now 50-state sanctioning. Local promoters who were running underground amateur events are likely to be squeezed out due to the financial cost of sanctioning as opposed to making the leap to pro cards. Most established independent shows are unlikely to hold an event in the state due to the larger insurance premiums that neighboring states do not have, increased insurance for traumatic brain injury estimated to cost an extra $10,000 per event.
The merger of Legacy FC and Resurrection Fighting Alliance into supergroup LFA being completed sets the stage for 2017. Mick Maynard may be gone to the UFC but notable manager Ed Soares who was the guiding force behind RFA now heads the new combined LFA promotion, his managing days behind him. Over 30 shows are set to be broadcast on AXS TV in 2017 with the first two coming just a week apart in January. Soares was manager to Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva, and Jose Aldo to name but a few while RFA noted in the three most recent UFC events thirteen RFA alum competed with nine winning their bouts making it seem he is the most powerful player outside the UFC at this time. CES MMA will continue to be broadcast on AXS TV but it doesn’t look like that New England promotion will be part of the LFA venture.
LFA’s entry into the top tier goes some way to pushing Bellator and WSOF aside. Bellator expanded internationally in 2016 starting with Italy in April, England in July, and even Israel in November. The downside is Bellator have not really built their next generation instead relying on pre-Scott Coker standouts like Michael Chandler and Alexander Shlemenko to go with the various UFC castoffs. That is not to say there has been no recent breakouts at Bellator as Darrion Caldwell and Joe Taimanglo clashed twice this year, it is just the focus has been shifting more towards spectacle or “compelling” fights like the upcoming Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen gimmick.
WSOF on the other hand seem on the verge of collapse with this weekend’s New Year’s Eve show either a chance to shut the critics up or a damn good tombstone. In October it was announced the November 12th and December 3rd events were cancelled to pull all the resources to the New Years Eve show, not surprising considering the cost of putting on a show not only in New York but at Madison Square Garden. On the other hand this show marks the first broadcast on NBC itself as opposed to NBCSN, a major difference in broadcasting if one excuses the pun. The question now is since four champions defend titles on this show what will be the main event of the next show assuming there is a next show.
What readers in the future may look back on as the biggest news for the independent scene in 2016 is the expansion of UFC Fight Pass. Prior to this year Fight Pass webstreamed Invicta FC which is still by far Fight Pass’ biggest ratings generator outside the UFC itself. Pancrase, Titan FC, Victory FC, Brace for War, and even Shooto Japan were all picked up by Fight Pass this year. The upside is there is plenty of content so TUF shouldn’t be missed if the reality show does go away, the downside is the shows vary greatly in quality. Invicta is still king (or queen as the case may be) of the hill with Titan FC doing a very good job of creating quality content. Brace…well, that promotion is an idea of what is going on in Australia. Invicta is poised to take another hit to their roster as the UFC are now starting a bantamweight division, a division that Bellator have dabbled in but nobody else has really touched. Just like the strawweights previously Invicta’s bantamweights are likely to get signed very quickly to fill out the UFC’s roster. The fighters on UFC Fight Pass shows are not obligated to move on to the UFC, they can choose other promotions such as Andre Harrison now fighting in WSOF but the Fight Pass platform is definitely viewed as the back door TUF used to be.
UFC Fight Pass aren’t the only web “channel” broadcasting events. FloSports started webcasting MMA in July with their “channel” FloCombat while Alliance MMA have been quickly catching up. What they have in common is webcasting regional promotions with CFFC about the only show of note Alliance MMA currently owns while FloCombat has Valor Fights as its most enticing to date. Where they differ though is FloCombat is linked to all the other channels including FloGrappling and FloCombat has actual news and interviews. Alliance MMA on the other hand seem more interested in being traded on NASDAQ and webstreamed at GoFightLive. That is not to say there isn’t talent and opportunity, it is just in the context of news of 2016 both companies have been taking baby steps while the promotions do the best with what they can afford.
Overall it has been a year of expansion for MMA both with the UFC and independent shows. Hopefully in 2017 the theme will be financial stability and the focus will move from quantity to quality.