The UFC-WEC merger is no longer a rumor; it’s a fact.
UFC president Dana White unleashed the news on Thursday. As of January 2011, World Extreme Cagefighting will be no more. Its non-crossover weight categories will move directly into the UFC, with the bantamweight and featherweight titleholders in the WEC becoming UFC champions.
Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis will battle for possession of Henderson’s WEC lightweight belt on Dec. 16 in Phoenix. The winner automatically receives a birth into a unification bout with whomever holds the UFC 155-pound crown after Frankie Edgar attempts to defend it from Gray Maynard at UFC 125.
It’s an easy move for many involved. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the juggernaut of mixed martial arts. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? The staff will easily fold into the larger promotion. The fighters, which will likely receive a payday boost from the larger promotion’s dwarfing revenues and gain the prestige of fighting in the Octagon, aren’t going to balk.
Reed Harris, the man that started World Extreme Cagefighting with one of his coaches at SLO Kickboxing, Scott Adams, has a much more emotional investment in the brand, however. Despite selling it off to Zuffa in late 2006, Harris has remained with the promotion every step of the way, and has mixed emotions about his baby growing into a life of its own.
“It’s kind of like when you’re kid goes off to college, at first you’re not happy, but after you think about it for a while, you’re really happy,” Harris told MMAWeekly.com in an exclusive interview immediately following the announcement.
“At the end of the day, I never imagined this thing would be where we’re at today. I’m extremely proud and happy that I was involved with something that will now be part of what may be, some day, the largest sports organization in the world.”
It’s a tremendous accomplishment, but it wasn’t always the plan. Harris, like his bosses at Zuffa – White and co-owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta – got involved with mixed martial arts because he had a passion for it, not because he saw it as a road to riches.
“I was a martial artist and a real estate developer. I wanted to be the toughest dad at Cub Scouts… and I was able to achieve that by the way,” he quipped.
Harris is a black belt in the traditional martial art of Tae Kwon Do.
“My goal wasn’t even to make money at this thing. I was a martial artist and I wanted to bring that honor that martial arts has into the sport.”
He originally discovered SLO Kickboxing, and eventual WEC co-founder Scott Adams and his business partner Chuck Liddell, in a phone book when he wanted somewhere to train in San Luis Obispo, Calif. (He maintains a close friendship with Adams and counts Liddell as one of his best friends to this day.)
While training at SLO, and having started judging mixed martial arts fights, he was approached by a relative of his wife’s, who happened to be the head of marketing at Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino, about promoting MMA events for them.
“So I went to Scott Adams and said, ‘I want to introduce you to somebody, and maybe you and I can be partners,’” he recounted.
“Originally we were going to have Chuck (Liddell) as one of our partners, but then UFC signed him to fight Kevin Randleman. We’d actually signed him to fight in our first show, but because of the fact that the UFC wanted to sign him, we knew that was so much better for Chuck.”
In the end, things turned about great for Liddell, who went on to become the UFC light heavyweight champion and a UFC Hall of Fame member, but also for Harris.
He grew his baby into one of the premier MMA organizations in the world, the hottest spot to be for bantamweights and featherweights, and made it enticing enough that the UFC wanted to fold it into their operation.
“To be honest, today, I’m really proud of what we did, man. And Dana’s proud of what we did. We were so successful that the UFC had no other option than to bring these guys in and put them in their show,” he said.
“The UFC is obviously by miles the largest MMA organization in the world. The WEC built these divisions to a point where they are now going to be featured on the largest stage in MMA. Dana and Lorenzo and Frank are obviously extremely happy about what we were doing. This was a huge success.”
Harris took on the role of general manager of the WEC after Zuffa’s purchase. That job will now cease to exist, but Harris will emerge through all of this with a new role in the UFC once they close the WEC’s doors.
“I could talk about it, I just don’t want to yet,” he said of his new position. “I want to focus on the WEC until the end of the year and keep the focus on these fights. The importance of these fights is magnified exponentially.
“These fights now take on a whole new meaning. These guys are going to be fighting to become champions in the UFC.”
In related UFC news, the UFC-WEC merger means that Jose Aldo, who holds the WEC featherweight title, will now become the UFC featherweight champion. Aldo will defend his title at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day. An opponent has yet to be named.