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UFC owners buy rival Pride in mixed martial arts merger

The Ultimate Fighting Championship moved a giant step closer to applying a chokehold on the booming world of mixed martial arts Tuesday by buying out Japanese rival Pride Fighting Championships.

The two circuits will continue to operate "as competitors and two separate entities," UFC president Dana White told reporters in a conference call from Japan. But the rivals will send forth their best fighters against each other, perhaps once a year, to decide who rules in what White calls "the Super Bowl" of mixed martial arts.

"Pride is going to stay Pride. UFC will stay UFC," White said. "The only difference is now everybody's going to get to see the fights they've wanted to see for years now, the big mega-fights."

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White calls it "a dream come true for fans."

It could also make for a pay-per-view bonanza for Zuffa LLC, UFC's parent company owned by brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

As a private company, Zuffa closely guards its financials. But prior to UFC 66, which pitted light-heavyweight champion Chuck (The Iceman) Liddell against Tito Ortiz on Dec. 30, White targeted pay-per-view sales of 1.2 million.

At $39.99 (Cdn) a shot, that would have produced $48 million in revenue or some 20 times what Zuffa Inc. paid for the UFC in 2001. The live gate was a record $5.4 million (U.S.).

Last year, UFC reportedly drew $200 million in pay-per-view revenue.

It's been an amazing turnaround for what was once a bloody renegade sport that took its time to ban biting, eye gouging, groin attacks or inserting fingers into any orifice or cut.

The combat sport is still unsanctioned in about half the U.S. states - and Ontario. But elsewhere, the UFC is sanctioned like boxing with both rules and drug-testing and the barriers are coming down. Zuffa has pulled the ultimate alpha male sport out of the gutter, filled it with legitimate athletes and is reaping the rewards.

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The mixture of boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu has also become popular as a form of exercise, with MMA gyms cropping up across North America.

As the UFC found acceptance, White was nevertheless frustrated in bids to make "super fights" like Liddell against Pride superstar Wanderlei (The Axe Murderer) Silva.

The Pride purchase should end such frustration. And provide Zuffa with a solid platform to sell MMA around the world.

Pride's main audience is Asia and its new owners plan to have the circuit hammer away at that chunk of the globe.

"This is a major company with a major brand here in Asia," Lorenzo Fertitta said.

Fertitta and White noted that Pride once drew 100,000 to one show in Japan and routinely attracts 30,000 to events. The UFC arena record in the U.S in 19,040, in contrast.

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The UFC, meanwhile, will continue to lock down the U.S. market while looking to spread its tentacles into Mexico and Canada. The European invasion is already underway with UFC 70 slated for next month in Manchester, England.

The purchase allows "both brands to grow in a faster and more successful way versus butting heads along the way," Fertitta said.

It also continues the Las Vegas-based UFC's move towards absorbing much of the MMA market.

Last November, the UFC purchased the assets of the World Fighting Alliance, picking its roster clean for the likes of light-heavyweight contender Quinton (Rampage) Jackson. Liddell is due to meet Jackson at UFC 72 on May 26 in Las Vegas.

At the same time, it purchased World Extreme Cagefighting, a California-based circuit. The UFC continues to operate WEC, with plans to go after the younger end of its 18-to-35 demographic with an edgier product that showcases lighter weight classes.

In recent months, the UFC has also lured marquee fighters like Croatian heavyweight sensation Mirko (Cro Cop) Filipovic from Pride and other organizations.

Plus the number of shows has grown, from five to 32 this year including the UFC and WEC.

Tuesday's purchase means that fans could see Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko, considered the best MMA heavyweight in the world, take on UFC title-holder Randy (The Natural) Couture. It could also set the stage for Liddell, the reigning rock star of the UFC, to step up in weight to challenge the Russian.

The Pride roster of fighters includes Canadian Dennis Kang, runner-up in last November's Bushido Survival Finals. Canadian stars in the UFC include welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre of Montreal and middleweight contender Jason MacDonald.

Fertitta refused to disclose the purchase price Tuesday, but a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that it was less than $70 million. The AP said the person was not authorized to speak to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pride has reportedly been in rocky financial waters recently, and was dropped in June by major sponsor Fuji Television Network. Still, Pride put on a barnburner of a show in Las Vegas in February called The Second Coming - Pride's second U.S. event.

Fertitta said talks with Pride began 10 months ago - over an Italian dinner in the brothers' Red Rock Casino - in a bid to further entrench their position in an MMA landscape that continues to draw newcomers looking to cash in on the sport's success.

"UFC and Pride are really the foundation of the sport," Fertitta said. "We believe that by entering this transaction and coming together, that there really is no No. 3, 4 or 5. This is clearly the two best organizations in the world and we're going to put on megafights that are going to take mixed martial arts to the next level."

Asked if there was anything else left to buy, Fertitta said "No, because nothing else matters."

Pride fights will continue in a ring, unlike the cage used by the UFC and WEC. And Pride will stick with its current judging system, which is not the traditional boxing "10-point must" system used by the UFC.

Pride will adopt the MMA rules sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. And Pride's weight classes will also shift to mirror those of the UFC.

There are still plenty of other questions, however.

Zuffa may plan to operate the UFC, Pride and WEC separately but it seems unlikely that Pride and UFC would engage in a bidding war for a fighter although Fertitta said there would still be "a certain level of competition between the two companies."

"I don't see that necessarily slowing down," he added.

The takeover also means there is one less place to go for fighters out of favour with the UFC.

"Guys are making more money now than they ever have," countered White. "And it's only going to get better now that Pride and the UFC are together."

And given the size of its MMA empire, Zuffa will no doubt be looking for more TV pipelines to showcase the talent. It currently has deals with Spike TV (UFC) and the U.S. channel Versus (WEC).

Can a major U.S. network be far behind, with already showing major UFC event weigh-ins on the Internet?

White, the face of UFC, will not run Pride. There will be a new Pride leader with Nobuyuki Sakakibara - majority owner and chief executive of Dream Stage Entertainment Inc., Pride's owner - stepping down.

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