If there ever was a serious contender that competed with the UFC for the attention of MMA fans, it was the PRIDE Fighting Championships. Located in Japan, the organization, owned by Dream Stage Entertainment, was conceived out an idea to combine some of the aspects of martial arts and pro wrestling, not unlike shoot fighting. All of those disciplines were extremely popular in Japan, and as promoters would find out quickly, there was an audience ready, willing and able to patronize the events.
PRIDE made its debut on October 11, 1997 with a main event between Rickson Gracie, of the famous Gracie family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu fame, and pro wrestler extraordinaire Nobuhiko Takaba. The crowd in excess of 47,000 convinced everyone involved that PRIDE was a winner.
There were certain rules differences that distinguished PRIDE from that which could be found in the UFC. Plus, there was the presentation itself – PRIDE matches were held in a boxing ring. Competing in something other than an octagon was not an impediment to fighters who wanted to play their trade in the Far East, however, and many of the top names familiar to American fans have fought in PRIDE, including Ken Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, Quinton Jackson, Mark Coleman, Royce Gracie, Mark Kerr, Mirko Cro Cop, and many others.
PRIDE had tremendous success going the tournament route. The PRIDE Grand Prix, which started in 2000, was originally an “open weight” competition spread out over two events, where sixteen fighters engaged in first-round tournament matches and then came back about three months later to conclude the proceedings, with the aim of crowning “the world’s best fighter.”. The first Grand Prix tournament was won by American Mark Coleman. In time PRIDE expanded the Grand Prix over three events, and established different tourneys for different weight divisions, including heavyweights and middleweights aside from the open weight (no weight division) competitions.
PRIDE was obviously not the only successful fight promotion held in Japan. One of its competitors was the wildly popular kick boxing promotion K-1. But PRIDE saw strength in combining forces, and thus mixed martial arts history would be made. In August of 2002 a show co-produced by the two promotions, titled “Shockwave” or “Dynamite,” according to which organization was hyping it to its fan base, drew an incredible 71,000 spectators, the all-time record for an MMA event.
PRIDE’s first pay-per-view event seen in the United States took place in 2000, before the UFC had taken on new ownership. But while politicians like John McCain could put the clamps on the UFC by shutting off their pay-per-view outlets, and by virtue of that its audience and revenue sources, PRIDE had a lucrative television deal very close to home. Fuji Television got involved with PRIDE in televising monthly cards, and Sky PerfecTV distributed pay-per-view. The U.S. audience was not something PRIDE relied on, but it had a following among fans who were “in the know,” while the less sophisticated consumers were much more familiar with the UFC because of its omnipresence in the American marketplace.
Among its American devotees, PRIDE was regarded as the more “purist” entity with higher level of quality in terms of the talent. And some of that talent freely moved back and forth between Japan and the UFC, before the UFC showed a more intense interest in signing fighters to exclusive promotional deals. For a time, there was actually interest in the UFC and PRIDE teaming up with something of an “exchange” program, cooperating on promotions together, but Dana White, president of the UFC, said he thought the Japanese were too hard to deal with.
There was always a certain degree of controversy surrounding PRIDE and the people behind its organization. But this controversy perhaps reached its apex in January of 2003, when the president of the parent company Dream Stage Entertainment, Naoto Morishita, allegedly hung himself after an affair with his mistress had short-circuited. There may have been other reasons for this apparent suicide, but anything along those lines was mere speculation.
In some respects, PRIDE did not miss a beat. The “PRIDE Final Conflict” card in 2003 drew 67,450 fans. But rumors swirled about the company’s possible involvement with interests from the Japanese yakuza (the equivalent of the Cosa Nostra in Italy and the U.S.), chronicled by the tabloid Shukan Gendai, and this ultimately hurt the brand. In June of 2006 the promotion was dealt a severe setback when Fuji Television terminated its deal with PRIDE, citing breach of contract. This reduced PRIDE’s visibility in the Japanese market, and cut into its revenues as well. Though it was still a viable organization, the sensible thing was to try and open up new markets.
The next frontier was the United States. Toward that end, PRIDE USA was formed in conjunction with Ed Fishman, a successful entrepreneur who had, among other things, founded Players Club International, later selling it to the Harrah’s Corporation for an amount in excess of $400 million. Fishman’s casino connections were useful in getting PRIDE placed in Las Vegas for its first American card, which was held on October 21, 2006. PRIDE brought the same production values, pyrotechnics, and Far East flavor that had made it a hit at home, and a crowd of over 11,000 turned out at the Thomas and Mack Center, right in the UFC’s backyard, to see Fedor Emeliankenko score a sensational knockout over Mark Coleman to retain the PRIDE heavyweight title.
PRIDE, however, was nearing the end of its existence as an independent entity. Even though there was optimism in the USA office, a dispute arose with Fishman, their point man in the United States, which later led to a lawsuit and a settlement. At the same time, rumors of a sellout to the UFC got stronger and stronger. On March 27, 2007, it was announced that Zuffa LLC, the controlling company of the UFC, had purchased the assets of PRIDE for a price in the neighborhood of $65 million. The UFC gained control of PRIDE’s video library, the rights to fighters already under contract, and the brand, which had definite value, especially in Japan. The assertion on the part of Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta was that PRIDE would continue to operate as a separate entity under the same umbrella as the UFC and Zuffa’s other brand, World Extreme Cagefighting.
The deal also opened up possibilities for theoretical “Super Bowls” of mixed martial arts between the best fighters in the world, some of whom may never have fought each other before because of their respective promotional ties. If managed right, that kind of synergy becomes a tremendous boon to mixed martial arts worldwide.