With many questioning the future of MMA outside the UFC, take a look back at the first business that tried to cash in on the MMA craze. For a single year Affliction was a bright light for some and a wasted opportunity in the eyes of many. A history of a company still very much shrouded in mystery.
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With the slow dissolution of Strikeforce into nothingness, Dream's financials woes and the loss of the WEC which merged into the UFC at the start of the year, many MMA fans are dismayed at the direction the sport is headed. News that major sponsors including MusclePharm are in a bad financial state and several gyms have gone bust in the second quarter of this year, there has been further strain put on the idea that MMA is an up and coming sport that will feature alongside boxing in the near future. In fact, for the first time since the first Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz fight, it would appear by examining year on year growth that the sport is plateauing in popularity.
However this is not the first time that the sport has been shown to be less than bulletproof as a money making venture, as Affliction Entertainment discovered when they decided to take on the mantel of promoter in the Summer of 2008.
To understand the rise and fall of the Affliction brand, a historical context needs to be put in place. Affliction Clothing had been part of the backdrop of the explosion of the UFC's popularity through 2007 although it can be argued that was down to some incredible luck of Afflictions side. As a new company they had integrated themselves into the fight scene, notably sponsoring "Rampage" Jackson in Pride, but hearing off the return of "The Natural" Randy Couture they secured a big money deal to have the Hall Of Famer to wear their clothing to cage side. Not only was the clothing commented on by the commentators drawing attention to the brand initially but Couture pulled off the shock victory over Tim Sylvia to regain the heavyweight championship at the age of 43 which had his image thrust into the media spotlight. Affliction, by inference, gained more free advertising than they could have ever imagined.
To Affliction's credit they quickly jumped on the opportunity and throughout 2007 they were by far the most prominent clothing company displayed at Octagon side, ousting long term UFC clothing partners Tapout for that position. The end of that year saw buy rates for the UFC exceed 750,000 and MMA was the hottest thing on the planet, then the disagreement happened and confusion sets in that saw the launch of the new company.
What we do know for certain is the the UFC banned Affliction clothing appearing on their pay per views in January 2008 and looked to phase out sponsorship for their under contract fighters by the end of the year. Why this happened depends on who is telling the tale. Both sides stories changed or were edited by the media so it is difficult to distil a true account. The basis of the Affliction claim was that the UFC were moving towards official sponsors doing a deal with other clothing companies so eliminated them as competition. The UFC's counter claim was that Affliction decided to form their own organisation before any action was taken against them and the banning was a counter measure to stop a rival company advertising on their programming.
Both sides stories hold some validation. Affliction were not the only company who were mysteriously banned at that point and UFC commentators Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan stopped referencing MMA outside the UFC on air. However the speed that celebrity business magnate Donald Trump was involved with the offshoot organisation Affliction Entertainment has always elicited ideas that Affliction were going to try their hand at booking in such a boom market. It should be remembered that this is not the first time that something with Donald Trumps backing has tried to take on a sporting franchise (and fail). Trump was very much involved in the failure of the USFL in the 1980s.
Afflictions debut event was scheduled for July 19th 2008 and in that press conference confirmed a deal to co-promote with M1 Global, which would see former Pride star and number one ranked heavyweight, Fedor Emelianenko fight in America for only the second time in his career. A big scalp internationally for the company, it would guarantee PPV sales in both the Russian and the Japanese markets to supplement the American sales. Opposing him would be the former UFC heavyweight title holder, and the man who's defeat launched the Affliction brand, Tim Sylvia. The rest of the card was filled with ex UFC and Pride stars including two more ex-heavyweight champions in Josh Barnett and Andre Arlovski as well as on the undercard, the former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort. This was definitely the most packed card of the year and had the potential to rival any event the UFC had put on during its rise to prominence.
To counter this the UFC put on a free card on Spike TV, debuting their dominant middleweight champion Anderson Silva at light heavyweight against brawler James Irvin. This strategic move was a deliberate ploy to take away PPV numbers from the competition as the draw of Silva in the general US market was individually higher than any of the stars on the Affliction card. Affliction stepped up its campaign in response, first plastering New York cabs with Affliction advertising and then announcing a deal to have their undercard put on Fox and Fight Network television as an appetizer to their event. The two companies went head to head.
Ultimately, the UFC's ploy worked as ten times as many people tuned in to watch Anderson Silva as those who brought the Affliction: Banned PPV. Both events were successful fight wise with the UFC getting two world class knock outs including the iconic Silva counter punch that floored Irvin in the blink of an eye. Afflictions main event was equally as spectacular as Fedor swarmed over Sylvia, gaining the submission win, after a knock down in less than 40 seconds.Both the other two big heavyweight match ups also ended in spectacular knock outs that left many fans claiming it to be the better event even though it only sold to 100,000 homes.
This lack of sales meant the event was a financial failure, only truly understood sometime after the situation had dissipated. Sharing sales with the PPV provider and M1 Global , Affliction made a loss of nearly 2 million dollars on the event taking the company onto the verge of bankruptcy almost before it had started. Only certain deference payment to some top talent on the promise of another big show allowed them to continue to function as an organisation. What looked like a guaranteed money making industry had just had its bubble burst.
Afflictions's second event was scheduled for the October 11th but was postponed. The reason for this is another mystery that has gone into MMA legend. Originally the second card was going to happen in Las Vegas with a main event of Andrei Arlovski verses Josh Barnett however this never happened with Affliction evidentially failing to gain their promoters license in the state of Nevada. Why they failed to gain a license is something that may never truly be revealed however the rumour mill went into over drive over the subject. Affliction pointed the finger directly at the UFC, claiming the company were pressurising the local officials not to allow them to host events in their home territory. This was denied by Dana White in many interviews but the fact that almost no MMA events outside the UFC are held in the Mecca of fighting suggests there may be something to it.
Another factor seems to have been drug testing policy held by the Nevada State Athletic Commission which drug tests all talent that fights. Brining in talent from overseas where regulations are not adhered to so strictly was going to be an issue and Affliction did seem to want some sort of random testing to limit the damage potentially caused by a failed drugs test. Something that would come back to bite them later. Another query has been whether they could prove liquidity, something that we now know to be highly unlikely. So the event was rescheduled for January 24th and co-promoted with M1 Global once again which had two large benefits. One was being able to schedule Fedor back into the main event picture and the other was the backing provided them with the liquidity to move forward, this time in California.
It was clear that Affliction were not seen as such a dangerous rival to the UFC at this point so no card was scheduled to compete with the card. Affliction brought in Fedor to main event the contest against Arlovski who was known at the time as having some of the best hands in the business, although his chin could be a little vulnerable. The undercard was populated with the same high profile non UFC fighters as before, although in different match ups, but the buzz after the cancelled show had dissipated. The event drew only 90,000 buys even though the main event had yet another highlight reel knock-out as a flying knee attempt from Arlovski was met with the right hand of Fedor. In the clash Arlovski was knocked out in mid air and his body fell, prone to the floor. A knock out that became more famous in subsequent highlight shows than when the event happened.
It can be argued that the UFC was a factor in the poor buy rates but in a far more indircct way.The next week was the much anticipated second show down between lightweight king pin BJ Penn and welterweight supremo Georges St Pierre. An event that drew 920,000 buys, ten times the amount of the Affliction event. One of the biggest selling events ever, there is a good chance this took many buys away from Affliction and worse still for the company, they reputable spent three times as much on talent as the UFC did for their event. This looked like the ultimate failure, massive losses incurred across the board, including an ill-judged sponsorship of a NASCAR team meant that they made a loss on the gross of the event. Net loss was in the multi-millions and it was assumed this would be the end of Affliction. Especially after the high profile denouncement by Donald Trump in the media over the poor running of the organisation. Trump was said to have given his shares away in the business for a dollar.
The third great mystery is why Aflliction: Trilogy existed at all. The company were clearly and openly in financial turmoil and more than one rumour had come out, that we now know to be true, that they had discussions with the UFC to close and rejoin them as a sponsor. Affliction clothing was seen again from February 2009 in the UFC although nothing was officially mentioned. Most believe that the main reason is an agreement between Affliction and M1 Global to cut some of their losses in turn for showcasing more of M1's fighters in the US was a key factor. Another may well be pride as criticism against the company was growing and t-shirt sales were being effected by this. The actual reason may well be another mystery that is never truly understood.
The card was due to be headlined by Fedor Emelianenko once again. This time against Josh Barnett who also had two wins at Affliction events. The co-main event was another M1 Global fighter Gegard Mousasi who was at the time a relative unknown in the US although went on to be a Strikeforce and Dream light heavyweight champion against Renato "Babalu" Sobral. This unknown in such a high ranking fight further strengthened the suggestions that M1 was now pulling the strings. Of course we will never know how the fights would have turned out, the final destruction of the company was nigh.
The situation started to go wrong when scheduled interviews were cancelled between Barnett and the media. Rumours started that there may be a problem and just 10 days before the event the announcement was made that Josh Barnett was unable to compete due to failing a drugs test. A policy change in California to fall in line with Nevada in March 2009 was obviously missed by the promoters and talent involved. Under the new testing procedure, it was inevitable such obvious doping was going to be caught. The event was thrown into disarray. After three days of denials, Affliction held a final press confirming that not only had the event been cancelled due to not bring able to promote a new fight sufficiently but also that the company was to be dissolved. Affliction shortly announced a deal with the UFC to become an official clothing sponsor and their clothing officially reinstated into the company.
So an experiment in taking advantage of the MMA craze was a failure, basically from start to finish. It showed for the first time that MMA was not a golden goose and that competing was going to take more than throwing money at talent that were no longer attached to the UFC. For a business to compete would need to build from a solid foundation, producing its own talent and own market making fiscally sensible decisions on when to bring in high profile fighters. Afflictions mistakes would be repeated in many people's opinion by Strikeforce, just a year later further strengthening the case of careful promotion. Whether such an experience has put people of entering the world of MMA promoting, nobody can truly know however t does show us that with a lack of competition in the MMA world right now, a quick fix is not a viable option.