Other MMA Organizations (Besides UFC)
These days, the UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championships, is synonymous with mixed martial arts. Newly acquired or casual fans may not even realize that the UFC is just one of many promotions dealing in the sport of mixed martial arts.
In many ways, they’ve earned this misnomer; by outlasting and/or purchasing the majority of their competition and building the most influential MMA promotion in the world, the UFC has become similar to Kleenex or Coke in that way.
In the United States, the Ultimate Fighting Championships was the first MMA organization to capture the collective attention of fight-sport fans when they held their first tournament in 1993 in Denver, Colorado.
At the time, it was meant to be a contest pitting opponents of various martial arts against each other to determine which technique was the most effective. The sport went underground in the States for a time, being compared to “human cockfighting” by prominent politicians, and when it returned, they had a minuscule following and overseas competition.
While the UFC has continually been one of the premier mixed martial arts promotions, they haven’t always held the distinction on their own.
In the early-2000s, a Japanese organization called Pride Fighting Championships enjoyed a sizable piece of the market share, and had arguably just as much, if not more, talent on their roster.
Over the years, many promotions have come and gone, some of which emerged as legitimate challengers to the UFC’s dominance. In fact, some still exist to this day, the greatest of which is Bellator MMA, an organization owned by the deep-pocketed Viacom.
Other promotions act as minor league feeder systems, choosing to cooperate with Dana White’s brain-child rather than compete. This guide is meant to highlight some of the other significant MMA promotions, both past and present.
The following mixed martial arts promotions are currently in operation around the world. While only Bellator MMA competes with the Ultimate Fighting Championship domestically and directly, each of these organizations plays an essential role in the overall landscape.
Domestically, there have been only two organizations with the talent and stability to challenge the UFC, and they both have one thing in common—Scott Coker.
Coker founded Strikeforce in 1985, initially to present kickboxing matches, but in 2006, the organization began promoting mixed martial arts as well. Between 2006 and 2011, the taekwondo black belt amassed a significantly talented roster, many of whom went on to successful championship runs in the UFC.
In 2011, the giant media conglomerate Viacom purchased a controlling stake of Bellator, looking to fill the hole the UFC left in SpikeTV’s programming when it signed a TV deal with Fox. In 2014, the new owners decided to oust then-President Bjorn Rebney, handing the reins to the proven talents of Scott Coker.
Recently, Coker’s company has been signing meaningful talent away from the industry giant, appealing to fighters disgruntled by the UFC’s controlling nature and unpopular sponsorship deals.
In December 2014, the UFC announced a partnership deal with Reebok for $70 million over five years. This agreement eliminated a significant chunk of the fighters’ income by taking away their right to find sponsors for their fight kit, making them wear Reebok exclusively instead.
In return, they receive much lower sponsorship checks, all determined by seniority in the company.
Many fighters lost significant streams of revenue due to the changes. To make matters worse, competitors have often been punished for speaking out, either by being given unfavorable fights or by being disqualified from winning Performance of the Night bonuses.
This has created an opportunity for Bellator to steal away talent, and Coker has capitalized.
Thus far, the Viacom-backed promotion has lured Rory MacDonald, Gegard Mousasi, Benson Henderson, Rampage Jackson, and Roy Nelson away from the flagship organization. These are all either talented or famous fighters, which lend credibility to fight cards.
The promotion still has work to do if they are honestly going to compete with the UFC as equals, but the current climate and their deep pockets make them as credible a threat as ever.
ONE Championship is a Singapore-based mixed martial arts organization that was established in 2011. While awareness for the promotion in the United States is low, ONE is the largest MMA organization in Asia, with a broadcasting reach of over one billion homes across 128 countries.
The Asian powerhouse promotion signed the largest MMA television deal in the continent’s history when they penned a ten-year contract with ESPN Star Sports, which is now Fox Sports Asia. The deal will run through the year 2022.
Perhaps the most impressive contribution that ONE has brought to the world of MMA is their improved weigh-in procedures. Following the weight-cutting-related death of one of their prospects, the promotion wanted to ensure its competitors remain at a healthy level of hydration and compete near their walking-around-weight.
Between bouts, fighter weights are collected at random, with the results determining the combatant’s weight class. During fight week, the athletes’ weights are checked daily, along with their urine, to determine proper hydration levels.
While their standards have not been adopted by other promotions, they can be expected to once a significant enough tragedy forces their hand.
In 2012, ONE Championship made one of their most significant talent acquisitions to date, as it pertains to the United States, when US Olympic wrestler Ben Askren spurned the UFC and Dana White, choosing to sign with the Asian promotion instead.
Askren cited the poor pay and unfair negotiation tactics employed by White as reasons for his decision, making him one of the few top talents to go un-acquired by the stateside juggernaut. Furthermore, UFC legend Rich Franklin was brought on as the vice president, garnering more US-fan attention for ONE.
The six-year-old mixed martial arts promotion began their expansion into mainland China in 2014, scheduling ten events a year in the territory.
While the organization is focused on the incredibly lucrative Asian market, they do not present an immediate danger to the UFC’s market share, but they may offer considerable challenges in the future.
Invicta Fighting Championships
Their origin story traces back to Strikeforce, and their acquisition by the UFC.
Before Ronda Rousey, the Ultimate Fighting Championships did not have female competitors or women’s divisions.
Strikeforce, however, did have female competitors, including the likes of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, future stars of the UFC. When the acquisition was announced, many of the female combatants were anxious, believing Dana White’s public statement that the UFC would never promote women’s fights.
That’s where Shannon Knapp came in. Calls began pouring into the former IFL fighter liaison and UFC executive asking for representation and assistance in finding future fights.
Knapp, recognizing a vacuum in the marketplace began securing funding for a new MMA promotion and hired talented match-maker Janet Martin. Thus, Invicta was born, and female fighters had an organization with which to demonstrate their skills.
Soon after the Strikeforce purchase, Dana White changed his mind regarding women’s mixed martial arts. Ronda Rousey’s immense potential and star power was too much to ignore, and on her hype, the UFC women’s divisions were built.
Despite the newfound competition in the WMMA sector, Invicta continued to promote. In 2014, Knapp’s company reached an agreement with the UFC to air all Invicta events on UFC Fight Pass.
Currently, Invicta operates as a sort of feeder system for the women’s divisions in Dana’s promotion, with numerous big-name fighters starting there first, including Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
Jungle Fight was founded in 2003 by Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and famous MMA personality Wallid Ismail. The promotion hosts both mixed martial arts and kickboxing bouts.
While not a threat to the UFC’s popularity or market share in the United States, Jungle Fight is the most essential organization in South America, most notably in Brazil.
In fact, their inaugural event in 2003 saw Lyoto Machida, Gabriel Gonzaga, Fabricio Werdum, Stephan Bonnar, and Jacare Souza all competing on the card.
To this day, many Brazilian fighters spend their early years fighting for Jungle Fight, building up their experience and record before getting noticed and signed by the UFC.
Jungle Fight is available for viewing in the United States on ESPN 3 and ESPN Deportes. The South American promotion has previously worked in cooperation with the Japanese organization Rizin, providing some of their talents for Rizin’s New Year’s Eve show.
Professional Fighters League
The Professional Fighters League was founded in 2012 and was previously named the World Series of Fighting. The organization is notable for its television broadcast deal with NBC Sports and the use of their ten-sided decagon cage.
The president of the PFL is Ray Sefo, a well-respected former kickboxer most known for his time in K-1.
Like Bellator, the Professional Fighters League has acquired some name talent by appealing to disgruntled UFC fighters. One of their more noteworthy signings was Jon Fitch, who is currently their Welterweight champion.
To this date, he owns the organization’s records for most knockouts (nine), most finishes (nine), and youngest champion (25 yrs., 65 days).
In 2017, the company was purchased by MMAX Investment Partners, which led to the rebranding of the promotion. The current plan is for the PFL to organize their events into “seasons,” culminating in an annual end-of-the-year tournament for the best fighters.
While the promotion currently acts as a proving ground for future UFC talent, it is yet to be seen if they may ever grow to become a direct competitor, or if they aspire to do so.
Rizin Fighting Federation
From the ashes of the now-defunct Pride FC rose Rizin Fighting Federation. In 2015, Rizin was founded by Nobuyuki Sakakibara, the former president of Pride. Like its predecessor, the promotion is based in Tokyo, Japan, and looks to cater to the Japanese audience.
Rizin has a long way to go if it is ever to impact the mixed martial arts landscape as significantly as Pride once did, but they certainly started with a bang.
They also signed a cooperative agreement with Bellator to share talent.
Unencumbered by the laws and regulations governing the sport in the United States, Rizin’s first event was the Rizin World Grand-Prix, an eight-man tournament with each entrant competing on day one, and the winners having to fight their second round match-up just two days later.
To make things more interesting, the two finalists competed for the Grand-Prix Championship mere hours after the semi-finals bout. The tournament was won by successful Bellator combatant Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.
Recently, Rizin has attracted many former Pride FC stars to return to Japan. Wanderlei Silva, who spent the best years of his career in Pride as a dominant middleweight champion, returned in 2016, as did Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, a former top-three heavyweight and one of the most feared strikers in history.
It is yet to be seen if Rizin will ever grow to become what Pride FC once was. In order to do so, the organization will need to do more than sign familiar faces well past their prime.
They will need to find and develop new stars that can catch the attention of MMA fans all around the globe. Sakakibara appears to be trying, signing Kron Gracie, a jiu-jitsu prodigy with name recognition and super-star looks.
If they can continue to cultivate their roster with top talent, the more aggressive, rule-set, lenient PED policies and quirky match-ups are sure to attract many Pride fans back to Japanese mixed martial arts.
Before Dana White’s UFC had such a stranglehold on the mixed martial arts scene, several competitors took their shot at dethroning the top-flight organization.
None were successful, and the following companies either folded or were acquired by the UFC’s previous parent company, Zuffa.
Despite not surviving, each of these organizations played their part in the evolution of the sport, and were responsible for much of the top talent that UFC has at their disposal to this day.
Pride Fighting Championships
Founded in 1997, in the early 2000s it could be argued that Pride was the better promotion of the two. While the UFC was still struggling to find acceptance in the sports world in the United States, Pride FC set a live attendance record in 2002 when 91,107 fans poured into the Tokyo National Stadium to watch Pride and K-1’s co-promoted Pride Shockwave Dynamite!
For a ten-year stretch, Pride was every bit the UFC’s equal, if not better. Unfortunately, their leadership was tied into business dealings with the organized crime syndicate known as the Yakuza, which eventually cost the promotion their television broadcast deal.
Suddenly hemorrhaging money, Dream Stage Entertainment, the organization’s parent company, sold Pride FC to the Fertitta brothers’ Zuffa Corporation.
Initially, the plan was to run Pride and UFC events separately, but the plans changed shortly after the acquisition.
Due to the complicated business dealings overseas, the decision was made to absorb the more marketable members of the roster into the UFC, as well as utilize the video library, but nothing else of Pride was to remain.
Some of the most impactful Pride FC fighters that made their way to the octagon were Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Mark Hunt, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson, both of the Nogueira brothers, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
These combatants went on to great success, holding numerous championship titles during their time in the cage.
World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC)
The WEC was a mixed martial arts promotion that is responsible for most of the great lower-weight-class fighters in UFC history. Before merging with the UFC, athletes such as Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, and Joseph Benavidez earned notoriety in World Extreme Cagefighting’s pentagonal cage.
Zuffa purchased the WEC in 2006, after only five years of running, but ran the promotion as a separate entity from the UFC. At the time, the UFC did not have weight classes lower than the 155-pound lightweight division, so the WEC was retained to service those lighter fighters.
In 2010, it was finally decided that the WEC would be merged with the UFC. The champions of the lower weight classes retained their titles, making Jose Aldo the first-ever UFC Featherweight Champion and Dominick Cruz the first Bantamweight Champion.
Household names such as Carlos Condit, Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson, Mike Brown, Urijah Faber, and Donald Cerrone joined the UFC roster as well.
Strikeforce was Scott Coker’s brainchild; originally a kickboxing organization founded in 1985, the promotion joined the MMA landscape in 2006. Under the leadership of Coker, Strikeforce built an immensely talented roster, creating several stars that are still championship contenders to this day, including light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
Future UFC regulars Gilbert Melendez, Cung Le, Clay Guida, Josh Thomson, and Nate Diaz also fought on that card.
Two years later, Strikeforce partnered with NBC to broadcast a weekly program highlighting their fighters. Additionally, the promotion secured a deal with Showtime to broadcast up to sixteen events per year on their platform. Coker’s roster swelled with valuable talent, including a women’s division that included Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey.
Next, Scott Coker signed deals with the Japanese MMA promotion Dream and the Russian M-1 Global. Beyond Strikeforce’s own roster, they would now have access to big names like Shinya Aoki, Jason Miller, Jacare Souza, and Gegard Mousasi.
Most of all, their partnership with M-1 gave the promotion access to Fedor Emelianenko, the undisputed greatest heavyweight fighter in the world at the time, who promptly became the Strikeforce heavyweight champion.
In the late-2000s, Strikeforce had the best heavyweight division in the world. Besides having Fedor as champion, the promotion also employed Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett, Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva, and Alistair Overeem.
Their lighter weight classes were not lacking either, with Dan Henderson, Luke Rockhold, Cung Le, Nick Diaz, Jason Miller, Robbie Lawler, and Ronda Rousey, all of whom made their mark on the UFC, including multiple title reigns.
In March 2011, Zuffa was once again able to buy away the competition. For a time, the promotion continued to run separately, with Coker remaining in control as CEO. Strikeforce ran their last event in January of 2013, after which all of their contracts were either absorbed or cut by the UFC.
EliteXC is another promotion that had hopeful beginnings, only to crash and burn spectacularly. This time, Zuffa wouldn’t need to step in and absorb the competition; shady management and Kimbo Slice would be more than enough to bring the promotion to its demise.
EliteXC was a publicly traded company founded in 2006 as a partnership between Showtime and ProElite. This promotion is particularly noteworthy because it was the first MMA organization to strike a deal with one of the major networks in the US.
CBS agreed to air EliteXC specials on Saturday nights, every other month; they would end up airing only three.
The network deal would prove to be the beginning of the end. Desperate to draw high ratings and prove to CBS that they were a worthwhile investment, EliteXC hitched their wagon to the star power of famed backyard brawler of internet fame, Kimbo Slice.
The first card featured Gina Carano, Brett Rogers, Phil Baroni, and Robbie Lawler on the undercard, with Kimbo and James Thompson closing the show.
The event was a home-run success for the promotion, pulling in an average of 4.85 million viewers and peaking at 6.51 million viewers. But its future problems were apparent.
The star they were depending on most heavily was raw and unskilled, and looked vulnerable and gassed in his three-round defeat of James Thompson.
The second CBS-televised event did not include Kimbo Slice, but still featured an entertaining card headlined by Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith, with Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, and Cris Cyborg all fighting on the undercard.
Without everyone’s favorite backyard brawler, the event still did well, averaging 2.63 million viewers, but this was a steep decline from their debut.
EliteXC decided to return to competing for the casual fan’s attention for their third CBS event, a move that would lead to their destruction. The initial plans for the main event would feature Ken Shamrock versus Kimbo Slice.
However, Shamrock was injured on the day of the show, forcing the promoters to scramble for a new opponent.
In stepped Seth Petruzelli, a light-heavyweight fighter with a much more extensive skill set than the aging Shamrock. Not only was he quicker and more technically sound than Kimbo, but he was much smaller as well, making the fight look that much worse.
Petruzelli immediately rushed the overmatched brawler, knocking him out with ease in only fourteen seconds.
After the fight, the late replacement let it be known that the organization’s brass had approached him, offering more money to keep the fight standing. The Florida State Athletic Commission opened an investigation into the Seth Petruzelli’s claims.
Worse still, ProElite was weighed down by immense, mounting debt. Just sixteen days after Kimbo’s embarrassing defeat, EliteXC shut down operations for good.
These days, at least domestically, it can seem like the Ultimate Fighting Championships are the only place to get your mixed martial arts fix.
The biggest events, the mainstream advertising, and the majority of the top athletes all fight there, so it’s an understandable mistake to make. But for the MMA fan that would like to broaden their awareness of the sport, there are additional options out here.
The UFC’s greatest rival in the United States is Bellator FC. Due to fighter dissatisfaction and an unpopular endorsement deal with Reebok, more fighters are looking for new promotions, making the Viacom-backed promotion worth paying attention to going forward.
Furthermore, overseas Rizin and One FC are making waves and putting together entertaining cards.
Mixed martial arts has only existed in its current form since 1993, so it is still growing and taking shape. Many promotions have come and gone, each playing their part in the overall story of the sport.