The end of October has traditionally been a rather dry time period for the sport of MMA, as the world leader in MMA has avoided competing with the Halloween parties and traditions (i.e. trick or treating) that accompany the end of the month. Take this week for example… no major MMA. Can’t blame promoters in that area, making this week’s historical article a bit more difficult to pull off.
So rather than highlight an event that may not register on too many radars as a significant event, I figured it would be best to highlight an announcement that had a massive impact on the MMA landscape: The merger of the WEC into the UFC.
Founded by former UFC fighter Scott Adams (also a former training partner of Chuck Liddell’s) and Reed Harris (current UFC VP of athlete development) in 2001, the WEC developed into one of the more prominent MMA organizations in the southwest region of the United States. Several of the larger names in the sport would headline events in the formative years, such as Dan Severn, Frank Shamrock, and Jeremy Horn. It would also feature younger fighters looking to establish themselves such as Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez, both of whom would become Strikeforce champions and UFC stars.
As the UFC found its footing in North America thanks to the boon that The Ultimate Fighter provided it, the WEC continued to funnel more and more of its own stars into what was now the world’s largest MMA promotion. Wanting more control over the pipeline, Zuffa (the parent company of the UFC) bought the WEC in December of 2006, allowing the promotion to operate as a separate entity. Dissolving the heavyweight and superheavyweight divisions upon purchase, the light heavyweight, middleweight, and welterweight divisions would fold less than two years later, leaving only lighter weight classes in the WEC.
That was when the WEC really found its niche. While the UFC had a lightweight division, it was bereft of featherweight and bantamweight divisions. With a smaller cage and a signature blue canvas, the WEC became known for high action affairs, as the smaller fighters fought at a speed that couldn’t be matched by their larger counterparts in the UFC. Considering the UFC didn’t have the smaller weight classes, it was largely a consensus that the WEC was home to the best in the world at 145 lbs and 135 lbs.
While they weren’t rivaling the popularity of the UFC’s stars, the WEC developed some stars of their own in Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo, and Dominick Cruz, who all served as champions at one point or another while the WEC was forced to concentrate solely on the smaller classes. WEC fans recognized that the biggest thing that was keeping these guys from getting more attention was the fact they weren’t fighting under the UFC banner. The UFC brass recognized that themselves, and as they began to ramp up the amount of shows they were doing, they decided to dissolve the WEC and integrate the remaining WEC roster into the UFC, making the announcement on October 28, 2010.
Though the transition went well for the most part, it hasn’t been without debate. Fans responded very well to Urijah Faber in particular, and he became a standard bearer for the lighter classes despite not being one of the champions, but they didn’t find the same connection with those carrying the belts. Dominick Cruz battled a litany of injuries to keep him from reaching elevated heights as Bantamweight Champion, while Jose Aldo has bristled at doing the necessary promotion to become the star that his talents warrant as Featherweight Champion. Demetrious Johnson was another WEC crossover, and became the inaugural UFC Flyweight Champion upon its introduction in 2012. He has also struggled to capture the fan’s attention despite some impressive finishes.
Regardless of those issues, some of the most memorable moments and stars in the UFC’s recent history have come from these weight classes. Conor McGregor has been the biggest male star to develop recently, and may be changing the perception of the smaller fighter in the eyes of fans as he forces people to pay attention to him (whether they love him or hate him) with his loud mouth. Additionally, Dustin Poirier and Chan Sung Jung put on a battle that most considered to be the fight of the year in 2012; Aldo and Chad Mendes put on a similarly entertaining fight in 2014.
Going forward, the lighter weight classes continue to receive a lot of attention while making it difficult to picture the UFC without them. McGregor has proven to have the talent to back up his talk, making any of his fights (or promotional events) a must-see event. Faber’s Team Alpha Male camp has produced some of the best talent at the smaller weights, and is now receiving more attention than ever as the camp’s lone champion, T.J. Dillashaw, has now divorced himself from them to train elsewhere. Will Faber end up fighting his former protégé? That is one of the most intriguing storylines in the near future
One question that is fair to ask is whether or not the UFC would have opened the door to women had they not found the success they did with the lighter classes. While a definitive answer can’t be given, it is safe to debate that the UFC might not have been willing to open the doors to their biggest star in Ronda Rousey had the WEC merger not taken place.
While it wasn’t the elimination of competition like the purchase of Pride or Strikeforce, the announcement of the WEC merger was one of the biggest events in the history of the UFC, not just their recent history. Don’t think so? Who else has a hard time picturing McGregor rising to his current heights in the WEC? Yeah… that’s what I thought.
This Week in MMA History
- Oct 25, 2008: Anderson Silva defended his title against Patrick Cote at UFC 90, beginning a period where he was largely criticized for his in-ring performances and had him on Dana White’s shit-list.
- Oct 25, 2014: Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes squared off for the second time at UFC 179, resulting in a candidate for FOTY. Mendes was only able to take a single round on the judge’s scorecards, but made every round competitive while pushing Aldo more than anyone else had to that point or since (obviously since Aldo hasn’t fought since then).
- Oct 29, 2011: With Georges St-Pierre suffering a knee injury, Nick Diaz was back in the main event after falling out thanks to a number of missed promotional appearances, and he put on what many believe was the best performance of his career as he pieced up B.J. Penn at UFC 137 like no one had ever done before. Diaz immortalized the post-fight speech by calling out GSP with his highly replayed “Where you at Georges!?”
- Oct 31, 2004: The second and best remembered fight between Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson took place on Halloween at Pride 28. Rampage nearly scored a finish near the end of the first round only for Wanderlei to do just enough to save himself before the sound of the bell. Rampage was tired for the second round, eventually succumbing to a series of knees in the clinch from Silva that put Rampage out cold in an immortalized scene as he fell between the ropes.