WEC-UFC merger welcomed by fighters, managers
World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion Ben Henderson has no regrets saying goodbye to his current title for a crack at the UFC 155-pound belt.
With UFC President Dana White's announcement Thursday that Zuffa LLC's WEC promotion would fold into its UFC brand beginning in 2011, Henderson's title defense against Anthony Pettis on Dec. 16 in Glendale, Ariz., also becomes a battle for No. 1 contendership in the world's leading promotion.
White said the winner of Henderson-Pettis would automatically challenge the winner from UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar's second title defense against Gray Maynard at UFC 125 on Jan. 1 in Las Vegas.
"It brought a pretty big smile to my face," said Henderson, who had no forewarning of Thursday's announcement. "Every fighter when they start out, they want to be a UFC champion. I have those same dreams and aspirations. To me, it was only a matter of time. Now we know what that time is."
Zuffa purchased the California-bred WEC in late 2006 and will have promoted 29 events under the name when it hosts two final WEC shows in November and December. The WEC garnered critical acclaim for unearthing top-notch talent in the 135- and 145-pound divisions –- weight classes not promoted in the UFC. However, live WEC events on the Versus network regularly drew less than a third of the viewership of UFC shows airing on the rival Spike TV.
The WEC's bantamweight and featherweight divisions will now fold into the UFC and join the five divisions (lightweight to heavyweight) that the Las Vegas fight outlet has promoted since 2001. Jose Aldo will defend his re-branded 145-pound title against a yet-to-be-named opponent at UFC 125 in January. UFC pay-per-views anchored by title bouts consistently fare better than non-title headliners.
White said a new agreement is in place for Versus to air four UFC events in 2011; the cable network broadcast nine WEC events in 2010.
Besides getting the opportunity to step onto the sport's biggest stage, Arizona native Henderson may have even more to smile about shortly. First Round Management's Malki Kawa, who oversees Henderson's career, said his client stands to gain immediately from the move in sponsorship pay, where fighters can make double or even triple their fight purses.
"It wasn't necessarily that it was hard to get sponsors; it was that the amount of money that the sponsors were willing to spend on the WEC [fighters] wasn't the same as the UFC," Kawa said. "A lot of the time the sponsors in the WEC [paid] about a quarter of what they [paid for UFC fighters]."
Mike Roberts, whose MMA Inc. firm represents eight WEC fighters, including former featherweight champion Urijah Faber, estimated as high as a 30% increase in sponsorship revenue for his stable, though he doesn't expect that across the board.
"Depending on the fighter, it will be some more than others," Roberts said. "It's a tough economy right now. Even UFC fighters, even if you're a superstar, it could still be tough, too. It just depends on the fighter."
Both Kawa and Roberts said they'd already eyed the UFC for their top fighters as talk of the merger lingered over the last couple of years.
"After [Faber's] last contract was up [in 2009], we talked about moving over. This has been talked about for a couple of years," Roberts said. "We knew it was a possibility, because the realistic part was that it made sense. They tried to make it work and the WEC did a phenomenal job, but at the end of the day the UFC is the UFC."
White said on Thursday that the UFC planned to keep all 70 WEC fighters under contract, adding to an already robust UFC roster of 200 to 250 fighters. As it stands, the merger will mean five less Zuffa-produced events in 2011 from the previous year, but White said international expansion and demand for the shows should lead to additional free TV events.
Roberts believed the only fighters the merger could have an adverse effect on would be the overlapping third- and fourth-tier lightweight fighters, who will now be vying for already-filled slots in one of the UFC's most competitive divisions.
The WEC's top fighters averaged low- to mid-five-figure paydays without performance bonuses while their UFC counterparts have made six-figure purses and higher. But talk of WEC fighters getting salary bumps from the promotion as they migrate into the UFC is premature, Roberts said.
"Honestly, nothing's been said about it yet," he said. "What happens with the contracts remains to be seen and there might be transference language in some of the contracts that already addresses this."
Kawa sounded more hopeful, lauding the promotion's generous track record with his fighters.
"I would expect for sure that if Ben Henderson beats Pettis and we're looking to sign a bout agreement for that title fight with either Gray or Frankie, that Dana White's going to take care of Ben in a tremendous way," he said. "That's why every WEC fighter wanted to come to the UFC."
WEC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who faces challenger Scott Jorgenson on Dec. 16, said the merger would go a long way in terms of fan perception.
"We were the UFC of our weight classes even though we weren't under the UFC name," said Cruz, 25. "The 135- and 145-pounders of the WEC are the best in the world, but people didn't get that because it didn't have the UFC name on it. Now that won't be a problem."
Cruz said the WEC advanced the sport greatly by exposing audiences to the lighter weight divisions.
"I started my career at 155 pounds because they didn't even have a 135-pound division available for me to fight in and as the divisions grew, I moved down," said Cruz, whose WEC strap will be changed out for the UFC's if he gets past Jorgenson. "Thanks to all the groundwork the WEC has done, I now have the opportunity to realize my dream to become a UFC champion."
Henderson, 26, was equally grateful that the question he's asked the most will now be put to rest.
"How do WEC fighters stack up against UFC fighters? There's only one way to find out and now we're about to," he said.
-- Loretta Hunt