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Pittsburgh MMA Promoters Team Up to Survive

by FIGHT! contributor Marshal Carper

On July 24 of this year Affliction Entertainment added its name to the growing list of recently defunct MMA promotions: Pride FC, International Fight League, bodogFight, EliteXC, Cage Rage, Icon Sport, and countless one-and-done regional promotions.

When Affliction collapsed its partner M-1 Global began shopping the services of it’s biggest talent, Fedor Emelianenko. The Ultimate Fighting Championship courted the heavyweight king but negotiations broke down over the issue of co-promotion. Strikeforce agreed to co-promote three shows with M-1 Global shortly thereafter, acquiring the services of Emelianenko and the ire of the UFC in the process.

Co-promotion is anathema to Dana White and the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, LLC. It’s also been a consistent theme in the rhetoric of competing promoters who have come and gone. Strikeforce’s partnership with M-1 Global, along with it’s co-promotional agreement with Dream, is the latest attempt to prove that the UFC’s closed shop model is not the only way for MMA promoters to succeed.

“[Running an MMA promotion] is a house of cards,” Gregg Holtzman said. “There’s 12 different things that have to get done, and they have to get done right, cause if one of them doesn’t work… if my lighting doesn’t work, then all of this marketing and all this advertising and my fighters is all for naught. If my marketing is no good, it doesn’t matter how good my show is because nobody is going to see it.”

According to Holtzman, one of the ways to ensure that all those moving parts are in synch is to divide the tasks among equally able promoters.

Holtzman learned the fight business through Fight Promoter University. He shadowed Roy Engelbrecht of Golden Boy Promotions, the promoter of record for both Affliction shows, and learned the business from the inside. On June 27, 2009 he held his first MMA event in Pittsburgh, Pa. at the Mellon Arena under the banner of the Ultimate Cage Fighting Championship. A few days after the show, the UFC sent him a cease-and-desist letter citing trademark infringement and the promoter changed the name of his show to Xtreme Cage Fighting Challenge.

His next show was to be held on Sept. 19, a co-promotion with the Pittsburgh-area Cage of Chaos series. COC owner Dave Klick founded his promotion not long after graduating college. With minimal capital to work with, Klick began by promoting amateur events, unlike Holtzman, who dove straight into promoting pro bouts and sunk $50,000 into marketing alone for his first show. The “Backyard Battle” was booked at the Washington County Fairgrounds south of Pittsburgh. As the promoter of the record, Cage of Chaos’ owner Dave Klick scheduled the date with the athletic commission, handled the fighter contracts, and made matches. Holtzman secured sponsors for the card and oversaw the marketing and promotional campaign.

Fliers were printed bearing both the XCFC and Cage of Chaos name, the ring girls were booked, and the match-ups were set, but when multiple fighters were forced to withdraw from the card for varying reasons, the show had to be cancelled. Even with two capable promoters working on the show, Holtzman and Klick’s house of cards collapsed.

“I think a lot of people look at someone doing a [MMA] show anywhere, whether it’s the Mellon Arena or the fairgrounds, and they think it’s big money. It’s not,” Klick said. “It can be. It has the potential to be big money if you have show after show. Whether it’s all amateur fighters or not, these things cost a lot of money to put on. It’s a lot of hard work. I think that’s one of the major reasons why you see these one-hit wonders.”

The key to running a successful promotion, Holtzman and Klick say, is understanding that fights are entertainment and that lights, music, and ring girls won’t save cards that lack real tension.

“I could go get two fighters that fought in the UFC, one from Vegas, another from [American Top Team], but you know what, no one here in Washington, Pennsylvania will know who the heck they are,” Holtzman said. “The UFC lost money until they had the show on Spike. Until they put the Ultimate Fighter on TV, they never made a dime. Hence, that made compelling stories about the fighters. People got involved in the fighter’s lives. They knew who they were.”

By co-promoting, organizations have the potential to pool their fighters and develop the stories behind their fights: an old grudge, a long awaited rematch, this champion versus that champion, this country versus that country.

“With M-1 – and they’ve also made an arrangement with Dream – Strikeforce has positioned themselves to be an international player,” said Holtzman. “The fight game over in Japan, with Dream, is a lot different than here. By them being able to co-mingle their fighters, cross promoting, have Dream fighters fight Strikeforce [fighters], same with M-1. M-1 brings Russian TV to the table that the UFC doesn’t have.”

As experienced promoters, Klick and Holtzman believe that the UFC is in a unique position to operate independently of other organizations, a luxury not available to their organizations or to organizations like Strikeforce, Dream, and M-1 Global. According to these Pittsburgh promoters, co-promotion isn’t an option for small promotions, it’s a neccessity.

“Strength in numbers. It’s as simple as that,” Holtzman said. “You either work together or you’re not going to be here.”

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