Tomorrow’s UFC 94 ticket offers the most anticipated MMA fight since Randy Couture returned to the UFC to fight Brock Lesnar, as lightweight champ B.J. Penn will attempt to become the first fighter to hold belts in two weight classes when he takes on welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
Eagerly anticipating the event, I conversed with Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim, author of Blood in the Cage, a book that details the parallel stories of the UFC — which went from freakshow curiosity to worldwide phenomenon — and Pat Miletich, the legendary MMA fighter who started out as a hard-luck drunken brawler in Iowa.
The following Q&A happened over email, and has been edited for clarity.
With Leather: Regarding the early days of the UFC, you wrote, “With a minimum spent on promotion, 80,000 households — culled from a 12-million household universe — paid $14.95 apiece to watch this strange curiosity. Given that the first-place prize was only $50,000, the total purse barely $100,00, the production budget roughly $500,000… well, you do the math.” Actually, how about this: YOU do the math. I’m here to read about fighting, not do story problems. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Jon Wertheim: I was going for that interactive thing. The kids love it. And cut me some slack, I’m a writer, not a math guy… okay you made me feel like I shirked my responsibility here. So let’s see, 80,000 buys at $15 bucks is $1.2 million, right? The point—and it remains the case today—is that these fighters make an awfully small slice of gross revenues.
Sorry to press on that, but I spent five minutes on the subway doing math in my head after that paragraph.
BJ Penn moved up a weight class to fight Georges St-Pierre in Saturday’s UFC 94 so that fans could watch two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world go at it. What do you think? Is it worth the hype? Who’s your pick to win? I like GSP all the way, but I’m biased because he’s my favorite fighter (so dreamy!).
I like GSP too. He does everything well. He’ll have an easier time making weight. And he can neutralize B.J.’s jiu-jitsu and hand speed. But here’s what gets me: the two lines I keep hearing are 1) “B.J. Penn early and GSP late” and 2) “It all depends on whether B.J. comes in shape.” To me, this is really significant. Barely a decade ago, UFC was this freak show pitting 500-lb. sumo wrestlers against kickboxers. Today we’re talking a mega fight—one million PPV buys, easy—and we all assume the outcome hinges on physical fitness. That’s progress.
Speaking of progress, have you been able to shift over to plain old fandom yet? Or is everything still through the lens of your book and how far UFC has come from its early days?
No, I’ve made the move to fandom. The sport is really seductive that way. It’s either not on your radar at all, or you get sucked in. Not a lot of casual UFC fans. In the course of the book, I became friendly with a number of fighters and that always helps interest.
Any other fights on the ticket you’re looking forward to? I like the speed of lightweight fights, so I’m eager for Nate Diaz-Clay Guida. And I thought it was strange that Jon Fitch didn’t even make the main card, just one fight removed from a title bout with GSP. Was that [UFC President/noted asshole] Dana White paying him back for the video game licensing feud? [Ed. note: full story behind that: parts 1, 2, and 3]
Honestly, beyond the headline fight on Saturday, that card doesn’t do a whole lot for me. [Ed. note: Considering light heavyweights Lyoto Machida and Thiago Silva are both entering their match with 13-0 records, that says a lot about how dull that fight is expected to be.] Guida is a fun fighter to watch but I don’t think he beats Diaz.
And you’re right about Fitch. (Damn, you really follow this thing.) Six months ago, Fitch was one of the hotter fighters going. He loses to GSP – no shame there – gets in a pissing contest with Dana about licensing his image and suddenly he’s barely on the TV portion of the card? For better or worse, the UFC has this kind of leverage/power. If he left the UFC, where else is Fitch going to fight?
White recently stated that UFC will become bigger than soccer or the NFL, yet his unwillingness to relinquish control over any aspect of the organization has prevented UFC from gaining a bigger audience on network TV. Will his iron fist eventually hurt the organization financially? Has it already?
I wrote in the book that if an organism doesn’t expose itself to light, how can it grow? You’ve hit on the big question about the UFC. It’s obviously a massive success—and love him or hate him the success occurred during the Dana White regime—but I think you limit your growth potential when you’re unwilling to give up any control. This is like Jerry Yang and Yahoo. Only with stitches, tattoos and cauliflower ear.
Did you watch the Affliction card last weekend? I feel like the only asshole who wasn’t impressed with Fedor Emelianenko.
Am I an asshole if I saw the fight but didn’t buy it? Fedor looks like he should be working the door at some B-level pool hall. Then he goes in to fight, looks shaky, and still wins. If he’s a heavyweight in the UFC, I think he beats a Heath Herring type. But I wouldn’t pick him to beat Frank Mir or Lesnar. Sorry, like you I’m just not completely sold yet.
In your acknowledgments, you thanked several fighters who don’t get much “face time” in the book, including Rampage Jackson and Fedor. Any good stories from them you can share that didn’t make it into the footnotes?
I think Rampage’s background is significant—an African-American from inner-city Memphis—insofar as he doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a cage fighter. But then he had his summer “episode” right around the time my final draft was due. His legal disposition/fighting future was unclear and I thought it would be safer to minimize Rampage’s presence in the book.
As for Fedor, I interviewed him in a Manhattan hotel suite and… Let’s just say before this, a 16-year-old Anna Kournikova was the most awkward interview I’d ever conducted. When I left the hotel suite we had a new winner. (But I appreciated his time, so I noted him in the acknowledgments.)
No way can you leave it at that. If you don’t provide some details, I’m going to assume his suite was stocked with Russian teenagers in lingerie, and he did the interview in a pair of briefs while drinking a 24 oz can of beer. And he offered to sell you one of the girls.
No, nothing so sexy. He was surrounded by henchmen, had no interest in being interviewed, and the translator had only a vague grasp of English.
All right then. You heard it here first: Fedor Emelianenko traffics teenage sex slaves!
UFC 94: ST-PIERRE VS PENN 2 will be broadcast on Pay-Per-View at 10:00 p.m. Eastern/7:00 Pacific on Saturday night. Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC is available now. You can read excerpts from it here and here, and a fair review of it here.