Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WSOF gears up for next test

WSOF president Ray Sefo
By John McMullen

ATLANTIC CITY - The sport of Mixed Martial Arts has exploded over the last decade, so much so that the industry's leader, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, doesn't have enough work for its growing stable of fighters.

The pay-per-view juggernaut opened some eyes last month by releasing former world champion Jon Fitch, a top star for years in both the middleweight and welterweight divisions. Fitch, though,  had gone 1-2-1 in his last four bouts and his grinding style didn't always translate to the box office in an entertainment-based business.

Fitch and 15 others fighters were cut loose by the UFC and a new doctrine was established -- win (or at least sell tickets), otherwise, you're gone.

Enter the World Series of Fighting, which has joined Bellator as an alternative for top-level fighters like Fitch, who quickly signed a deal with the fledgling promotion after UFC jettisoned him.

Although WSOF has only promoted one card thus far, it's already on the map thanks in large part to Jeff Cokin, a veteran television rights negotiator and former NBC executive who brought the promotion together with the new NBC Sports Network.

The first event, a Nov. 3, 2012 card from the Planet Hollywood Resort in Las Vegas, headlined by former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski and Devin Cole, was both an artistic success as well as a solid ratings producer for the re-branded network.

So much so that Cokin was able to get the second card, which takes place on Saturday at Atlantic City's Revel Resort, on NBCSN as well as well as Univision Deportes.

"The first one was a time buy," Cokin said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "NBC was so impressed with everything, from the card to the production, they signed on for three more years."

Saturday's broadcast will also mark the first time a live MMA event will air on Univision Deportes, an offspring of the powerful Univision Network.

"Networks are looking for more of the product (MMA)," Cokin said. "The day I closed the NBC deal, another network was calling me and asking about getting involved."

In today's world of on-demand viewing, Cokin believes professional sports is the one commodity that has proven its immunity from falling ratings and the fast-forward mentality of DVD viewers, something very important to potential advertisers.

Ray Sefo, the New Zealand born kickboxer, boxer and mixed martial artist, is the WSOF president. A former six time Muay Thai World champion and eight time K-1 World Grand Prix Finals tournament participant, Sefo is thrilled to be involved on the ground floor of something that can only help the sport he
has dedicated his life to.

"It was very important to our league and the sport as a whole to be able to come out on national television on NBC and do so well, " Sefo said.

To do well again the main event must deliver in Atlantic City.  Arlovski, who has gone unbeaten in his last five fights including a first round smashing of Cole in the main event of the inaugural WSOF show, is back to headline Saturday's event against another former UFC fighter, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson.

"I just know he's tough and he'll give me a test for three rounds," Arlovski said when discussing Johnson. "He doesn't need to cut any weight and he just focused on hard work at the gym. We'll see. He wants to beat me and I want to beat him even more. We all have one goal. We're gonna see who's gonna be the better man this fight."

The undersized Johnson was once a standout in the UFC's welterweight division but was plagued by weight issues and was released after a shaky move up to middleweight. In his 205-pound debut in WSOF, he upended D.J. Linderman and quickly called out Arlovski, something right out of the Chael Sonnen book of fight-building and a shrewd mood by Johnson.

"Everything is still there," Johnson said when asked about the move up to heavyweight. "The speed and power is still there. I'm still an athlete. I don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything. Andrei is a bit bigger than me and heavier than me. That's it."

Perhaps understanding the UFC would be able to cherry-pick any fighter who stands out, building the brand is Sefo's top priority.

"Our goal is to put on exciting fights, make sure we challenge ourselves," Sefo said. "We're not here to challenge UFC. We're here to challenge ourselves and make sure the next show is as good as the last one if not better. Our goal is to keep putting on exciting fights for the fans and fights that make sense for our guys as well.

"We want to crown a champion by the fourth event. Everyone should look at being a champion as the ultimate in any sport at any level."

In the world of television, a network deal is like the championship belt. UFC has FOX and STRIKEFORCE used to be on CBS.

"There are a lot of avenues to build upon," Cokin said. "Pay-per-view is one but getting on NBC is another and who knows,  maybe (the WSOF) will do so well, they will want it."

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