Interview With L. Jon Wertheim, Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated and Author of Blood in the Cage
Recently, Gary Wimsett, Jr., Esq., an attorney with Flanagan & Marchewka, LLP and an agent with Balefire Representation, an athlete and artist representation agency, conducted a telephone interview with L. Jon Wertheim, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and author of the new book, Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC. Mr. Wimsett is a contributor to the Sports Agent Blog on MMA Industry Trends. Mr. Wertheim’s book was released on January 15, 2009 (today!) by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The following transcription has been edited for readability.
Wimsett: I would like to welcome you, on behalf of the Sports Agent Blog, and thanks for taking time from your busy publicity tour to speak with me about your new book, Blood in the Cage. Let’s start with the obvious question – how’d you transition from writing about women’s tennis, basketball, and billiards to tackling a book about the history and the possible future of MMA?
Wertheim: My day job is with Sports Illustrated. A few years back, I wrote a story about the UFC, [SI featured Roger Heurta on the cover]. I finished the story and it was just one of these things where I came away thinking there was so much more to write about. I knew I could turn it into something bigger and I became seduced by the sport. Are you a fan?
Wimsett: Absolutely. I was lured in by the Ultimate Fighter programming. It was interesting to read in your book that TUF arguably saved the UFC. But I’m a relative newcomer.
Wertheim: I’ve been pretty open about this – two years ago, before I wrote the story for SI, I knew very little about the sport. I immersed myself in it. Now, I watch MMA just as much as I watch other sports, if not more. That’s what the MMA does, it lures you in and then you’re hooked.
Wimsett: As a newcomer to the sport, was it difficult to get the fighters to open up? Did they lock down? Did you find your experience level to be an obstacle?
Wertheim: Perhaps in some ways. But more often than not, most of the guys were so cool. Many of the fighters were happy I was taking an interest in the sport. They sensed I was there to learn the sport and to really try to understand where they were coming from. One of the things so compelling about this sport is that these guys are so accessible and open. It was a pleasure dealing with them and their families. I was treated great. I’d be talking to Jens [Pulver] and he’d say “Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s continue this. I’ll make some dinner and we’ll keep talking.” That doesn’t happen when you cover LeBron James or Peyton Manning. Sure, sometimes they looked at me like I was crazy when I asked basic questions. But I can’t complain at all but how I was treated.
Wimsett: That really describes my experience. I’ve been approaching it from a lawyer’s perspective, and an agent’s perspective. And I’ve found the fighters are really interested in talking about the sport. For the most part, they’re excited to talk about the sport with anyone who will listen. The access has been pretty incredible.
Wertheim: These guys get it. If this sport were only open to the people that were into in 1999, they wouldn’t be doing half a million pay per view buys. It’s sort of like a band… It’s sort of like a band that was playing in college bars. And sure, they appreciate the original fan base but now, they’re play bigger shows, they realize that people were late to the party but they’re not going to freeze them out.
Wimsett: One of the things I hear from the guys is that they still aren’t getting the kind of coverage in the mainstream media they think they deserve. When will this change? Will SI start spilling more ink on MMA coverage?
Wertheim: I think it’s going to. Down the road. Listen, some of the writers still haven’t been able to draw the distinction in their minds between the UFC and the lower quality stuff that’s out there. It’s still very new to them. They hear “cage fighting” and they think Kimbo Slice is doing the same thing Randy Couture is. But I think it’s going to change in part because it’s just an economics thing. It will reach a critical mass where you have to acknowledge it – that’s how it works in this business. Any business, really. People are going to realize this isn’t about some tough guys fighting in a local armory – this is the real deal. I still have to explain that to people. Once it’s demystified, the floodgates will open. You know, I’m not sure the New York Times is going to have a full time MMA writer anytime soon but I think it’s getting pretty close to the point where you can’t ignore it anymore.
Wimsett: I’m paraphrasing but you suggest in your book that, in many ways, popular culture and MMA are colliding at just the right time. Explain what you mean?
Wertheim: Combat, fighting – these things are more acceptable in our culture and it’s because of a lot of things. A lot of it, I think, is a reaction to the political correctness culture we’re rebelling against. The “precautionary society”. Sure, the sport is getting safer, more regulated. It doesn’t look like it did, you know, in 1993 with UFC 1. But I think a lot if it has to do with the culture. People don’t have backyard diving boards anymore; you can’t ride a bike without a helmet. Well, guess what? MMA turns all of that on its ear. It’s raw and it’s out there and people are responding to that. You have schools where they don’t want you to play dodge ball. People are saying enough is enough and MMA is taking off.
Wimsett: What does the sport need to do to keep these new eyeballs?
Wertheim: Well, people sort of rolled their eyes when they saw Brock Lesnar, the WWE champion, suddenly fighting for an MMA title. But then they looked at his actual pedigree. You look at the fact he was an NCAA champion wrestler and, you know, almost made an NFL team. But then you also just sort of look at what he’s able to do when he got in there. MMA, the UFC, they know they need to maintain credibility. That’s critical.
Wimsett: Let’s talk about the UFC a little bit. 5 years from now, is the UFC the only game in town?
Wertheim: That’s a good question. I think a lot of the future of the sport depends on the answer to that. You know, we see these other leagues come and they sort of talk a good game. They’re all going to challenge the UFC and they’re all going to make life easier for fighters. And, you know, here we are, in 2009, and the UFC monopoly is probably as dominating as ever. You know, it’s going to take a lot of money. It’s going to take a smart business plan, not… you know, let’s put Kimbo in there and go get CBS. I think the UFC… for a number of reasons, I mean, obviously sort of the competitive advantage but just kind of the marketing and the whole pay-per-view thing, I think UFC is at the top of the mountain right now and it’ll be hard to knock them off.
Wimsett: You’ve heard the complaints and read the same message boards. The UFC has its detractors.
Wertheim: Yeah… this is the drawback to no competition. It’s great for the UFC that it’s the only game in town and they can say, “Hey, BJ…” you know, “Hey BJ, get in there with Georges St. Pierre” and there’s no haggling. But the flipside is what causes some of the backlash. There’s no other option there so the UFC can have things their way. They are calling the shots, it’s that simple. They have a stack of resumes of fighters who can step up.
Wimsett: It’s interesting down here in Florida. We’ve got the XFC. And they’re sort of running a different business model that’s been interesting to watch, and they really try to promote the sport more than the personalities per se. I like what John Prisco is doing. He’s got a smart team. They’re doing it in a different way.
Wertheim: Someone will have to come at it a different way. A twist. Some promotions have tried the league concept. You know, people are out there trying new things. That’s what it’ll take. And a television deal. That’s what it’ll come down to.
Wimsett: Get the TV deals and the landscape changes?
Wertheim: You have to have exposure. These fighters know the drill, too. They’re competitors and they want to fight in the best league with the best exposure. Right now, that’s the UFC.
Wimsett: I want to switch gears a little bit and focus on the fighters. Particularly the guys nobody knows yet. Like the college wrestlers. Did you get a sense that these athletes are taking real notice of MMA’s rise? Do you see the day when college wrestlers are going to be recruited like football players and baseball players?
Wertheim: College wrestlers are definitely in tune with MMA. Yeah, I think that’s happening. And this is great for MMA. It’s not just popular as a spectator sport but great athletes want to step into the cage and try this stuff. I was up in Minnesota recently and there are guys on the team that train MMA during downtime. Every neighborhood dojo is advertising its MMA training. But with the college wrestlers – they can make the weight…they know how to train. It helps legitimize the sport.
Wimsett: Pat Miletich is one of my heroes. Tell me about Pat.
Wertheim: You can’t say enough good things about Pat. Pat’s consolation is that he comes away as a guy who built the sport. He has an untouchable reputation. He did things honorably and honestly. Here’s a 5 time champion who just sort of came on too early. Some of these young guys will score a fight of the night bonus and eclipse Pat’s career winnings and that’s tough to stomach but it happens in sports.
Wimsett: What’s your take on Dana White?
Wertheim: My take on Dana White is that same as yours and the same as anyone who’s ever seen him on TV or on the Internet. The guy is who he is – he wears it all on his sleeve. And sure, there’s good and bad. But, you have to hand it to him. He’s a straight shooter and he’s a businessman. To his credit, the UFC would not be in the dominant position it’s in today without a “Dana White.” If you’d run this [the UFC] the way Roger Goodell runs the NFL or David Stern run the NBA, you’d be in trouble. This sport needs Dana White right now. People have their opinions about Dana. I know this – the UFC wasn’t a thriving enterprise before he got there.
Wimsett: With the PPV buys going up, do you get a sense the purses will start to keep pace?
Wertheim: Not right away. They don’t need to raise the purses. UFC fighters are making more than they could make in any other promotion. It’s supply and demand. The UFC can put cards together and they’ll continue to do that. Lots of guys want to fight. Somehow, the math has to turn around. You and I could fight on a UFC card and they’re still going to get the buys. The fighters will have to prove they’re the draw.
Wimsett: Performance enhancing drugs, you talked a little bit about this in your book. How much drug use is their in the sport at the higher levels?
Wertheim: That’s an interesting question. Some fighters are using and some aren’t. That’s about all we know. We’ve seen some test results – results that have been made public. So, it’s pretty clear that at some level, anyway, it’s going on. The UFC is in a little bit of a tight spot, to their credit, just because you need commission approval and commissions do the drug testing. So, the UFC is following the rules. Should the rules be tougher? The right people will have to talk about that – I don’t know the answer.
Wimsett: Sports agents, good for the sport, bad for the sport? I talked to Sam Sheridan a little [author of A Fighter’s Heart]… and he’s very pro agent. And obviously, Dana White is on record as being less inclined to work with agents.
Wertheim: That’s a really good question. And I think that we haven’t heard the last of it. A lot of issues are bubbling and it could be a good time for agents to get into the market in a bigger way. It’ll be tough though. The UFC set-up will make it hard for agents to make it worth their time. Maybe in a perfect world, lawyers and agents push to get these guys in a union with certain working conditions and health benefits, that kind of thing, you know, it probably would make sense. I think it’s going to be very hard. And, I think, if the UFC decides to ignore all the guys who Gary Wimsett represents, you’re out. The UFC is still going to be able to hold cards just fine.
Wimsett: As an agent, too, I’m looking at sponsors. When will a Nike or an Adidas jump into the sport.
Wertheim: It’ll be gradual. More sponsors are coming – just look at some of the old cards and you’ll now see more sponsors – Burger King’s on the mat. The problem is that you still have a blood-stained mat and a cage. It’ll be a while before you see the Nike Swoosh on the floor.
Wimsett: All the fighters I speak with want me to ask you what UFC looks for in fighters when they’re looking outside of their stable of fighters? Do you have any sense of what they do in terms of looking what’s going on and some of these other leagues? Or how they find talent across the country, in the world for that matter?
Wertheim: That’s a question for Joe Silva – if you could ever get him to answer. But basically, I think, you have to have a couple of things going on. You have to be a great fighter. But, you also have to bring something else to the card. That’s just business.
Wimsett: Have you watched any boxing since writing this book?
Wertheim: That’s funny. Yeah, I mean, I used to be a big boxing guy. And we cover it from time to time for Sports Illustrated. I go to the fights in New York. I went to a show here in New York a couple of weeks ago, it’s… I mean, it’s hard to watch now. It really is… You know, guy hits another guy and you’re ready for him to, like, take him down. To me it was like watching a black and white movie or something. MMA has really sapped my passion for boxing.
Wimsett: Jon, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you and I wish your book a lot of success. Please come back and talk to us after you finish the next one.