Pride’s Dark Legacy
Opponents of MMA legalization have several arguments in their favor. The sport is undeniably violent and the risk of injury is high. Even though MMA has a far lower knockout rate than boxing, as many as 40% of the fighters end up injured after a match (although the severity of those injuries vary). Two fighters are known to have died in MMA matches while another fighter (the WEC’s Marcus Galvao) suffered an in-ring seizure after getting knocked out in March 2009.
And they also have Pride Fighting Championships.
During its heyday, Pride sold out arenas across Japan and pulled in millions from its lucrative TV deal while the UFC struggled to fill high-school gyms and get on PPV. Pride also paid its fighters more, and as a result, many top stars flocked to Japan. Pride’s champions were, generally, held in higher esteem by MMA fans and analysts due to the higher level of competition. Wanderlei Silva was the top 205-pound fighter in the world during his run with Pride, while Fedor Emilianenko established himself as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time with his dominance in the organization. Many others, like Cro Cop, Shogun, Rampage, and Minotauro became so famous that people could recognize them from their nicknames alone.
However, there was a dark underbelly to Pride, one that ultimately led to its undoing and purchase by the UFC. For all the talk about how the UFC has moved closer to the mainstream by breaking from its early days, when it was no-holds-barred fighting (drawing the famous comment from John McCain about how it was like “human cockfighting.”), it will never get the acceptance it craves as long as people associate them with the seediness of Pride. In many ways, Pride was what you’d get if you had almost no oversight or regulation. There were weight classes, but they weren’t strictly enforced. The rules made UFC matches look like a thumb-wrestling. Here are the Pride rules and how they differed from the Unified Rules that most state athletic commissions use. If your initial reaction to the fact that you could stomp, kick, or knee the heads of downed opponents wasn’t some variation of the phrase: “Damn, Pride was messed up,” then I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know if there’s a state in this country that would legalize MMA if they were using Pride rules. Maybe Texas.
And then there were the drugs. Or rather, the lack of any real drug testing. Sure, some fighters claimed they took drug tests in Pride. If that’s the case, then there’s something seriously wrong with the labs in Japan. Then again, these scientists also developed the Prius’ breaks, so I guess it’s not too surprising.
Pride held a total of 68 events, of which 66 were in Japan and two were in the United States. During those 66 Japanese events, not a single fighter was ever reported to have tested positive for any kind of banned substance. However, in the two U.S. events, three fighters came up dirty (Nick Diaz at Pride 34, and Vitor Belfort and Pawel Nastula at Pride 32) and a fourth (Kevin Randleman) provided a urine sample that was either from a dead man or a non-human. Also on the Pride 32 card was Josh Barnett, who flunked two drug tests with the UFC, but never failed a single test in Japan. He flunked a test last summer in California that helped lead to the end of the Affliction promotion. It looked like his American career was in doubt, so he recently turned up with DREAM, the successor organization to Pride in Japan.
Anyway, things only go from bad to worse when it comes to Pride. There were allegations of match-fixing, as well as the suspicious suicide of Pride president Naoto Morishita in 2003. And, of course, there was the Yakuza scandal which cost Pride its lucrative television deal. Getting in bed with the mob is never a good long-term business plan.
The rampant corruption in Pride is one of the reasons why opponents like Bob Reilly warn against getting involved with people like the Fertittas and Dana White. He might not be entirely off-base. The Fertitta brothers were in bankruptcy court to the tune of almost $7 billion and recently reached a settlement for their casinos, while Dana White certainly likes to come off like a foul-mouthed shylock. If the UFC want to be accepted by the mainstream, then they need to embrace the need for rules, regulations, and transparency. Their lobbying effort in New York has stressed the need for sanctioning and oversight by the NY State Athletic Commission. “We want rules,” said Marc Ratner, UFC vice president of regulatory affairs. “We welcome them.”
Hopefully, the UFC will learn from the mistakes of Pride. Otherwise, they can be sure that history will repeat itself and the current #2 company, Strikeforce, will buy them up in a few years. Maybe then we’ll finally get that Fedor vs. Brock match that we’ve all been waiting for.