Both symbolically and practically, WSOF faces tough questions


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world-series-of-fighting-cage.jpgIf it happened in a movie or a novel, it would be annoying. It’d be way too neatly symbolic, too obvious in the point it was jumping up and down to make.

But then you look closely between rounds of the main event at Saturday’s World Series of Fighting 2 event, and you see Andrei Arlovski with the letters “UFC” clearly printed on at least one of his gloves. Just in case you were in danger of forgetting where these fighters came from or why you knew them in the first place. Just in case anyone was watching the World Series of Fighting and not already thinking about the UFC, for one reason or another.

The gloves themselves are not a big deal. They’re a gaffe, a distraction, exactly the type of screw-up the Internet loves to grab onto and pick apart. The WSOF officials should have known better than to put a fighter in pair of UFC-branded gloves and think they could cover it up the way a seventh-grader tries to pass off his imitation Nikes as the real thing to avoid the derision of his more materialistic peers. Inevitably, the kid gets found out and mocked even more for the attempted deception. It’s a story as old as middle school itself.

And, practically speaking, the brand of gloves you wear in an MMA fight should mean as little as the brand of shoes you wear to first period Spanish. It doesn’t matter – not really – but it is just a little to perfect to ignore in this case.

You look at the main card of the WSOF 2 event, and you see that a full 50 percent of the fighters featured on the live NBC Sports Network-broadcast portion of the card were former UFC employees. If you add those who worked under the Zuffa umbrella as a whole, whether in the Zuffa-owned WEC or the last days of Strikeforce, the figure goes up to 70 percent.

Both fighters in the main event – Arlovski and victor Anthony Johnson – made their names in the UFC. So did both fighters in the welterweight showdown between Josh Burkman and Aaron Simpson. After Burkman put a stamp on his performance with a first-round TKO win, he was informed that he’d get a fight with Jon Fitch next (a reward Burkman wasn’t exactly thrilled about, by the way). As in, the same Jon Fitch who was very recently released from his UFC contract. Also the same Jon Fitch who already owns one win over Burkman. That fight? Yeah, it happened in the UFC.

This is a problem not just for the World Series of Fighting, but for any organization that tries to cobble together its own product using UFC castoffs. The perception, whether right or wrong, is that these are fighters who are past their expiration date. They come with some baggage, even though that baggage is the same reason why they’re main card draws to begin with: We saw them in the UFC. In most cases, we also saw why they aren’t in the UFC anymore. Making them the stars of the show in a new fight promotion only furthers the perception that we’re watching imitation UFC, a cheap knockoff brand for the kids whose parents won’t buy them the real thing.

The thing is, I don’t know what the WSOF – or, really, any upstart MMA promotion – can do to fix this problem. If you don’t use spare parts that the UFC didn’t want anymore, it probably means you’re using mostly unknown fighters. If they’re young guys on the way up – think Marlon Moraes and Justin Gaethje, both of whom looked impressive in victory on Saturday – all it does is get us thinking about how they’d do in the UFC, and wondering how soon we’ll get the chance to find out.

To the extent that Bellator has avoided this particular MMA pitfall, it has the tournament structure to thank. It can sell fans on the allure of the tournament itself, and through that new names and fresh faces arise. What happens once they’ve risen all the way through the length of their current contracts and start eyeing a jump to the UFC, well, that’s for the Bellator lawyers to sort out.

But the WSOF faces a different problem. How do you draw a crowd without the UFC’s leftovers? And, if you can’t do that, how do you put those leftovers to work without drawing unflattering comparisons to the world’s No. 1 MMA organization (especially if the product you put on TV is littered with flubs and missteps)? If you can’t do either one, then how do you carve out a lasting niche that will keep you from falling into an early grave beside the likes of Affliction and the IFL?

I doubt there are any easy or obvious answers. Maybe that’s why organizations such as the Resurrection Fighting Alliance set out with the goal of becoming a “development league” for UFC talent, since at least that avoids some of the questions by limiting the scope of its own ambitions.

But with its primetime spot on NBC Sports Network and its use of former UFC champs and standouts, the WSOF seems to be telling us that it wants to be something more, something bigger. What that something is, and whether there’s a place for it, still seems unclear.

For complete coverage of WSOF 2, stay tuned to the MMA Events section of MMAjunkie.com.

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