UFC / WEC Merger Key For Continued International Expansion

The big story of the week centres around the little guys. As much as Cain Velasquez' win over Brock Lesnar last Saturday had everyone talking for the first few days afterwards, the long awaited news of WEC and UFC officially merging and bringing the Featherweight and Bantamweight classes to the big stage will generate weeks of discussion.

Most media, fans and especially fighters directly effected by the news are in agreement: this is really good news. The negatives of the decision are so few and far between and the positives completely outweigh and eclipse them. The fighters will get more exposure and better pay days, and with the UFC branding better sponsorship opportunities. The fans will get to see some of the best fights in MMA if the WEC's reputation for great match making and consistency continues into the UFC sub-155lb divisions. And the media hopes this means they can award more superlatives then criticism for strength of cards, the injection of new characters and personalities and a representation of MMA at its highest level achieved typically by the more technical, lighter weight combatants.

What hasn't been discussed is the possible international implications of including these two new classes. While UFC has trumped Boxing with easily recognisable talent and has managed to cultivate an interesting and entertaining Heavyweight division, Boxing still retains interest with its smaller fighters and especially so with Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao, and formerly Oscar De La Hoya who despite their physical stature are Pay Per View behemoths. Even Ricky Hatton who wasn't as 'big' internationally was easily Boxing's biggest draw on UK soil and helped bring in respectable domestic PPV numbers via Sky Box Office.

Not only are these Boxers lighter weight fighters, but they are sub-155lbs fighters. They also hold appeal among different demographics - some race based, some culturally and nationally based, but not exclusively so. Pacquiao is popular worldwide and almost deified in his native Philippines, De la Hoya among the Hispanic and non-Hispanic US market and even Hatton had some Mexican based fans for the style he brought to the table in addition to the obvious UK base. It shouldn't surprise anyone if UFC wants a slice of that action and may be looking for their new Featherweight and Bantamweight classes to get it.

The UFC merger doesn't just mean more money for the current crop of WEC talent either, but more money and exposure for those who have thus far chosen to fight outside of it. The 'Kid' Yamamoto / Urijah Faber superfight never happened a couple of years ago because quite frankly WEC couldn't offer a big enough stage or pay day to make it worth Yamamoto's while. Just recently Dream Featherweight Champion Bibiano Fernandes said he'd continue fighting in Japan because 'America' couldn't offer him similar pay days. 

However with news of Dream not paying some of its fighters, including Fernandes, and even Japanese fighters such as Michihiro Omigawa becoming dissatisfied with the way they're being promoted the possibility of finally having a place in the UFC that doesn't require blowing up to Lightweight should make jumping ship incredibly tempting.

UFC clearly wants to break into Asia, most notably China, and a quick look at the SB Nation Concensus MMA Rankings for Featherweight and Bantamweight shows an Asian centric list of fighters outside of WEC in promotions like Dream, World Victory Road Sengoku, Shooto and Deep.

Perhaps an even bigger factor of this merger is the appeal Featherweight and Bantamweight classes in the UFC will have for the next generation of athletes thinking of getting into MMA. As much as Cain Velasquez could undoubtedly help the UFC break into the Hispanic fight fan demographic, Velasquez being the 'first' Mexican-American Heavyweight champion in combat sports is still somewhat of an anomaly. At 240lbs he's a big guy, but for a typically Mexican fighter he's gigantic. Then there's his wrestling accomplishments which is statistically atypical to a lot of Latino athlete's sports backgrounds.

Velasquez is UFC's foot in the door, but to really blast that door open may come in the form of Featherweight and Bantamweight (and even 125lbs Flyweight) fighters from Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Latino communities in America who may have been considering Boxing as their combat sport of choice. We shouldn't forget that 155lbs is just too big a class for a lot of the smaller boxers to compete in, and that the WEC ceiling of accomplishment no matter how hard Zuffa tried was always going to be in the shadow of the UFC and seen as a big step below in both pay and accolades. 

Similarly I've already mentioned the market in Asia, and similarly Asia is more likely to produce competitive, potentially world class fighters at sub-155lbs. It's already started with the signing and debut of  "The Mongolian Wolf" Tie Quan Zhang and I fully expect UFC to scout Japanese, Chinese and South Korean promotions for future prospects. Ideally UFC can also find some prospects in the Philippines or who are of Filipino descent especially considering their plans for Brandon Vera and Phillipe Nover didn't pan out. The Philippines went ga-ga for George St. Pierre on his PR visit and he's French-Canadian, so you can bet UFC want their own Manny Pacquiao to solidify them in that market. 

The thought of even a UFC driven sport becoming the biggest in the world was always going to be debatable when you have a truly global and more importantly socially acceptable sport in Soccer that's easy and inexpensive to start playing at the grass roots level. But you have to admire Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta's drive to take the UFC as far as it can possibly go, and this merger along with their continual international expansion efforts are certainly steps in the right direction.

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