— UFC President Dana White has always made it clear that upstart organizations are not competing with his company any more than a new hamburger joint would suddenly compete with McDonald's, but with a CBS contract in hand, EliteXC had a chance to be a major player on the mixed martial arts scene.
From the beginning, however, they made huge mistakes. In a misguided hope of jumpstarting action, the company instituted a 15-second rule, which stated that a referee would stand up grounded fighters if neither could improve his position within 15 seconds, all but nullifying any advantage held by grapplers and compromising the integrity of the sport (cue the foreshadowing music). Longtime MMA fans angrily lampooned EliteXC’s version of the sport as “Ultimate boxing.” And though that rule soon went by the wayside, the list of problems went on and on.
They created weight classes to suit individual fighters instead of sticking to the universally accepted divisions. They spent a small fortune acquiring regional promotions with no real plan of how to utilize them, gave outrageous salaries to both fighters and executives, and despite being a start-up rented a pricey space on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. By the end, EliteXC's parent company ProElite Inc. was in the hole for at least $55 million for less than two years of operation. Most famously -- and perhaps most disastrously -- they built the entire promotion around a 34-year-old former streetfighter named with little legitimate MMA experience.
In the end, controversy over Kimbo Slice's last fight caused the House that Kimbo built to collapse like a house of cards. In the end, it was an episode now known as "Standgate" that put the final nail in the coffin. Remember the “15-second-rule”? “Standgate” is a distant relative.
Kimbo Slice was scheduled to fight Ken Shamrock in the main event of an Oct. 4 CBS card. By this time, ProElite was essentially bankrupt, and unable to pay for the show, forcing CBS to pay all of the event's expenses. A savior, however, seemed ready and willing; Showtime Networks had already filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission announcing its intent to begin negotiations to buy ProElite.
The company’s future hinged on a matchup between an inexperienced 34-year-old ex-streetfighter, and a 44-year-old ex-legend who’d suffered first-round knockouts in five straight matches. Shamrock, however, injured himself just hours before the fight while warming up, and a cut over his left eye required stitches. He was deemed unable to fight by the Florida state commission overseeing the event. EliteXC was faced with a dilemma: either they could pull their drawing card from the event, or replace Shamrock with another fighter already scheduled for that night.
Realizing an event without Slice would be a disaster, EliteXC looked over its options. Broadcaster Frank Shamrock offered to replace his stepbrother, but since he hadn’t fought or trained since suffering a broken arm in a March loss to Cung Le, and he also fought two weight classes below Slice, that didn’t seem a viable choice. The only two other options were Seth Petruzelli and his scheduled opponent Aaron Rosa, who had both anticipated a light-heavyweight match.
EliteXC chose to match the heavyweight Slice against Petruzelli, who proceeded to score a knockout in just 14 seconds. If that was the extent of the damage, it would have been bad enough for EliteXC, but things got worse. The next day, Petruzelli told an Orlando radio show that EliteXC's promoters made it "worth my while" to keep the fight standing, in essence asking him to employ a style in which Slice was more capable of winning. Critics starting crying “fix,” or at the very least, that the fight’s integrity had been compromised.
The media backlash came swiftly, including from major outlets like ESPN. Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the state’s athletic commission, announced an investigation of the circumstances. Incredibly, after all that, EliteXC consultant Gary Shaw – the innovator of the original 15-second rule – told the Los Angeles Times that he wouldn’t hesitate to tell a fighter he was looking for a standup fight.
CBS and Showtime, surprised at the rapid turn of events and looming black cloud, decided that EliteXC was a tarnished brand that could not be salvaged. Once acquisition talks broke off, EliteXC’s fate was essentially sealed.
At 1:59 pm PT on Tuesday, EliteXC head of fight operations JT Steele emailed Nevada state athletic commission executive director Keith Kizer with official news of the Nov. 8 event cancellation. Steele wrote, “…the November 8, 2008 EliteXC event will be cancelled. It is with great regret that I must also inform you that ProElite, Inc. will be closing our operation today.”
But for all their failures, the company also did some positive things as well. For better or worse, they gave MMA a live network audience for a first time, they gave female fighters a chance to shine in front of sellout arenas, and they provided a place for fighters who'd either worn out their welcome or couldn't break into the UFC a place to ply their trade.
But now, a good number of those fighters are left in legal limbo. Many had complex contracts that will be seen as assets in any bankruptcy proceedings, meaning they may be on the shelf indefinitely while the company's assets are divided.
Eddie Alvarez was scheduled to make his EliteXC debut on the upcoming Nov. 8 card, where he was set to fight Nick Diaz for the 160-pound title (he previously fought on a ShoXC card).
Alvarez, who has a 15-1 career record, is considered by most MMA news sites to be one of the top five lightweights in the world, but is not well known in the U.S. because he's spent most of his career competing abroad, including in the Japan-based DREAM organization.
He signed with EliteXC in hopes of showcasing himself to American fans, and now won't have that chance. His contract is semi-exclusive in the U.S., with only one other promotion able to feature him: Adrenaline. That promotion, suffering from a weak economy like many others, has no plans of running a show anytime soon, meaning Alvarez will most likely have to return overseas for his next match.
"I'm pretty spread out in terms of my contract, and that leaves me flexibility if things like this happen," said Alvarez. "It's unfortunate for all the fighters who put all their eggs in one basket. You can't do that in this business."
Alvarez said he learned his lesson during a previous stop in BodogFight, another company that spent huge amounts of cash but did not capture the market share necessary to continue promoting.
"There are other fighters who need to fight [Nov. 8] to pay their bills," said Alvarez, whose won five straight fights, including four in 2008 alone. "I was fortunate to get a lot of fights early in the year, save some money to be comfortable and not worry about needing fights to pay my bills. For me, it's not as big as a blow as for some other guys."
MMA Agents is one of the larger agencies in the game, and had several EliteXC fighters affected by the company shuttering its doors.
Up until yesterday's bombshell, the agency was still dealing with EliteXC in trying to put together a Nov. 8 fight for its heavyweight Brett Rogers, in which he would fight Affliction’s Paul Buentello.
"It was a surprise, but the writing was on the wall," said agent Julian Gregorio. "It was like a sinking ship, but they thought they'd get bailed out and bought out by Showtime, and that everything that was wrong would be re-evaluated. It just never got to that point, I guess."
Alvarez says that EliteXC head of fight operations Jeremy Lappen called him to tell him the event outlook looked bleak, but that ProElite was willing to do anything to stage the Nov. 8 show, including having staff members working for free. He said he’d get back to him later in the afternoon. When a follow-up call never came, Alvarez realized the company was dead.
Many fighters have hopes that the remaining brands like UFC, Strikeforce and Affliction will choose to add them and boost their ranks, but the financial realities of our current time make it unlikely that every one of them will find a new home soon.
"A lot of fighters have been through things like this before," Alvarez said. "Some things people consider setbacks aren't necessarily setbacks. Sometimes they are blessings in disguise. You can't get down, you can't focus on it too much. The sad truth is that that's the fight business."