There can be only one.

In the world of major professional sports, like the world of Highlander, various leagues and promotions vie for superiority until, inevitably, only one major group remains.

Today, the vast majority of American sports fans turn only to the NFL for their professional football needs. It is, unquestionably, the top league in the sport. The same could be said about the NBA with basketball or even the WWE with pro wrestling (sports-entertainment, true, but the business model is the same).

It was not so long ago, however, that other organizations also satiated the country’s desire for top-quality competition in those sports. Remember that the first four Super Bowls were not contested by teams in the NFL, but rather by the respective champions of that league and the AFL, which operated as a direct competitor to the NFL from 1960 until 1969, when the two leagues merged. In basketball, the ABA operated with relative success from 1967 until 1976 when, like its counterpart on the gridiron, it merged with the NBA. It wasn’t until 2001 that the WWE emerged as the top destination after first establishing a national stage for pro wrestling and then eventually besting, acquiring and then closing its main competitor (WCW).

In each case, multiple elite organizations coalesced into single, dominant entities, and this is the exact situation in which the MMA community now finds itself. Last week, Zuffa officials announced that Strikeforce would be folding after a Jan. 12 event, thereby cementing the UFC as the MMA’s sole major promotion. This move should not come as a surprise to anyone, regardless of how familiar they are with the sport, and is a sign of the times as mixed martial arts moves ever deeper into mainstream consciousness.

The UFC’s establishment as MMA’s dominant player has been years in the making, but has felt like a foregone conclusion since about 2007. The UFC, after all, was the company that introduced mixed martial arts to American audiences even before the sport had a real name. (The promotion’s branding success is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that many still refer to MMA as “ultimate fighting.”) Sure, the UFC had its down years starting out. First, the company faced seemingly never-ending challenges securing broadcast deals and battling politicians. After the UFC was purchased by Zuffa in 2001, Dana White and the other UFC officials became champions for the sanctioning and regulation of the sport by state athletic commissions, which helped bring MMA out of the gutter in the minds of mainstream sports fans.

After the UFC had finally established itself as a legitimate sporting enterprise, it had to recapture and then surpass the level of attention the company was first able to generate among fight fans. By 2001, Pride Fighting Championships in Japan was unquestionably the most successful MMA promotion in the world. While the UFC was desperately trying to sell tickets to its live events, Pride FC was putting on cards in front of 40,000-person crowds of fanatical (if very, very polite) fight fans. As a result, they were able to acquire many of the world’s best fighters, which left UFC with some comparatively less prominent events.

Eventually, though, the UFC was able to once again become a major player in MMA through its well-executed promotion of fighters like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. After the first season of The Ultimate Fighter introduced the sport to an entirely new audience, the momentum that has led to the UFC’s current spot atop the MMA mountain got started and hasn’t stopped.

Zuffa took advantage of Pride FC’s internal turmoil and purchased the company, soon after dissolving the promotion and moving its best fighters over to the UFC. Since that time, the UFC has faced only minor competition in the form of the International Fight League, Affliction MMA, EliteXC, Bellator and Strikeforce. The first three promotions folded after a handful of events. The fourth has a deal with MTV2, but still hasn’t come close to taking a bite out the UFC’s market share. In fact, if one were to create a Venn diagram illustrating the respective fan bases of the UFC and Bellator, it would likely show a large circle labeled UFC almost completely surrounding a much smaller circle labeled Bellator.

This leaves Strikeforce as the sole remaining competitor capable of putting on star-studded events for MMA fans. The promotion had achieved a position as the UFC’s chief competitor by 2009, when it purchased the contracts from the folding EliteXC. At that point, it was able to put together some pretty high-quality events, albeit on a less frequent basis than the UFC.

Strikeforce featured such fighters as Nick Diaz, Jake Shields and Alistair Overeem, as well as former Pride champion Dan Henderson, who migrated to Strikeforce after the expiration of his UFC contract, presumably for a more attractive offer. The promotion had a partnership with Showtime, and while that network does not attract as many viewers as Fox, it was still a great opportunity to showcase MMA on television. For a little while, it looked like the UFC actually might have a legitimate competitor.

The folks at Zuffa probably sensed this as well, so what did they do? The same thing they did with Pride—they bought it.

Unlike the aftermath of its Pride acquisition, Zuffa largely maintained Strikeforce’s independence from the UFC. Some Strikeforce fighters, including the four mentioned above, were migrated over to the UFC, but many of the promotion’s mainstays continued to fight under their original banner. In fact, it wasn’t until recent months, when Strikeforce began canceling events after fighter injuries and subsequent challenges with Showtime, that many fans even called for the promotion’s closure.

Which brings us to the present day. Strikeforce’s Jan. 12 event—provided it does, in fact, take place—will feature three title fights, as well as Strikeforce heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier taking on Dion Staring, albeit in a non-title affair. The promotion is certainly going out with a bang, after which the likes of Cormier, lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and the other bigger names in Strikeforce will move to the UFC. These additions will enable the UFC to further pack its cards with star-studded, competitive fights and, if they’re successful, these fighters probably stand to earn a decent living in the process.

This inevitable solidification of the UFC as the world’s sole major promotion is not without its negative consequences, however. While Strikeforce’s most successful and/or popular fighters will be able to continue riding the wave of their fame into the UFC, the promotion’s lesser-known fighters will likely see their contracts terminated, leaving them to toil once more in one of the many regional promotions that almost certainly cannot match the potential paydays or audience sizes offered by the UFC. These sorts of promotions will continue to serve as the UFC’s de facto minor leagues, preparing up-and-coming fighters in their earliest contests before they move to the big show.

After a mixed martial artist has worked his way up to Strikeforce, though, he’ll likely be none too happy to be bumped back down to the minors just because of a business decision. Still, professional fighting is a job that comes with few guarantees. An injury in training can ruin a fighter’s shot at stardom. An opponent can suddenly back out at the last minute. And, yes, a promotion can up and close, changing the employment conditions of so many fighters, just like that. Ultimately, the world’s best fighters will string together enough wins in these lesser-known promotions to earn a shot in the UFC, in a comparable way to how the best basketball players make their way through college or overseas competition before being picked up by an NBA team. With one less MMA promotion on television, though, fighters will have one less potential source of a bigger payday.

The other issue the UFC’s consolidation of power raises is the potential for conflict between owners and fighters that could come from the UFC being perceived as a monopoly. With one promotion now taking in the lion’s share of the world’s MMA-related expenditures, it’s likely only a matter of time before a few enterprising and brave fighters (who are not afraid to end their own UFC careers) begin whispering about organization. After all, the four major American sports—each of which has one organization at the top of the food chain—all have players’ associations. Yes, there are technically other places UFC fighters could fight if they were unhappy with their compensation, but they’re extremely unlikely to find equal pay elsewhere. The closure of Strikeforce exacerbates these circumstances, and the UFC’s legal team should already be preparing its counter-arguments.

As a private company, the UFC is not required to disclose its revenues, and we have all seen the sorts of things that success in the world’s best promotion can yield for its fighters. Because of the UFC, professional MMA fighting is actually a viable career and could even make a person rich. This certainly wasn’t the case even 20 years ago. Still, America has a long history of conflict between athletes and the people who pay them, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the UFC—now unquestionably entrenched as the top MMA promotion—faces similar battles.

Despite the potential for conflict, the powers that be at Zuffa are merely adopting the strategies of the NFL and NBA (and, yes, the WWE) in acquiring or merging with its rivals en route to becoming the sole destination for elite-level competition. It was really only a matter of time before this happened, especially as we begin to see the sport exposed to larger audiences through the UFC’s partnership with Fox.

Yes, some fighters will get the short end of the stick as a result of this development and yes, MMA fans are probably just as likely to see fighters in the courtroom sometime in the next few years as they are in the Octagon.

But if MMA is truly going to emerge as a mainstream sport in America, the UFC’s emergence as the sport’s sole major organization was inevitable.

The next few years should be interesting.

Photo: The UFC Octagon (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.