This is the third interview in an on-going series by Gary Wimsett, Jr., lawyer and MMA enthusiast, about the business of Mixed Martial Arts. In Part I, Gary spoke with Sports Illustrated Senior Contributor, L. Jon Wertheim, about his new book, “Blood in the Cage” about the history of MMA, the career of Pat Miletich, and the rise of the UFC. In Part II, Gary and Sam Sheridan, author of “A Fighter’s Heart” engaged in a Q & A regarding Sam’s insights into the fighting world as a writer and fighter. In this interview, Gary speaks with MMA fighting legend, Pat Miletich, about Pat’s new project, WAMMA, and other provocative issues swirling around the business of MMA in 2009. Stay tuned for additional installments.
On February 5, 2009, I had the opportunity to talk to Pat Miletich about MMA generally, WAMMA, and the business side of the sport. The following is a transcription of our telephone conversation. It has been edited for readability.
Wimsett: I would like to start by acknowledging the passing of Helio Gracie, one of the sport’s true legends. Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Helio?
Miletich: I did – and it was an honor. Here’s a guy who was a true visionary. He understood jiu jitsu on such a high level. He dissected it and constantly refined it. He showed the world how a little man could beat a big man and he changed the fight game in a very significant way.
Wimsett: We’re a month into 2009 – what’s WAMMA’s priority this year?
Miletich: Gary, the main thing is this – to make sure the highest ranked guys get to fight each other for an undisputed world title belt. It’s that simple. Of course, we want to continue to educate the fans about the importance of having an undisputed world title belt. Look, a lot of organizations have belts, and that’s fine. But MMA needs an undisputed belt. People need to understand that being an organizational champion in no way, shape or form makes you the undisputed world champion. It’s very important for fans to understand that. The athletes need to understand this, too. It’s to everyone’s benefit.
Wimsett: Maybe not everyone’s. My sense is that the fans understand what WAMMA wants to do and they get the idea of an undisputed champion. It’s the UFC that needs convincing.
Miletich: Anyone with one eye and half a brain can see why the UFC’s not interested in a unified belt. It dilutes their brand. The UFC has a lot of the best MMA fighters, but they do not have all of them. They know the WAMMA belt represents something bigger than an organizational belt. Some of the number one, two and three guys don’t fight in the UFC. Those guys deserve the right to fight for the world championship. Just as the UFC fighters deserve the right to fight for an undisputed belt. Look at Fedor [Emelianenko] for example. He’s ranked #1 in the world. The UFC has the 4th or 5th ranked guy. I’m sure Brock Lesnar or Frank Mir would like to fight Fedor for the championship but obviously the UFC’s not letting that happen right now. As a fighter, if I’m not the #1 guy in the world – I at least want a shot at it.
Wimsett: If Zuffa [UFC’s parent company] doesn’t get on board, what can WAMMA do?
Miletich: The fans are starting to embrace the idea of a WAMMA belt. The fans love the Affliction shows and some of the great shows put on by the other promotions. Scott Coker’s an incredible promoter. Monte Cox’s Adrenaline is picking up speed. The Japanese promotions have high-level fighters. It’s starting to dawn on people that the UFC does not have all the best fighters in the world. They have a lot of them. But they don’t have all of them. As we see more television exposure for these other promotions, the voice of the fans will grow stronger and the UFC will have to answer. We believe it is just a matter of time.
Wimsett: WAMMA’s now in its second year. What’s its biggest achievement to date?
Miletich: We’re working very hard on simply building relationships with all the existing promotions. We’re proud of the work we’re doing in that area. We’ve traveled the country explaining WAMMA to the media, to promoters, to fighters. It’s an ongoing education campaign but we’re proud of how far we’ve come.
Wimsett: I know that one of WAMMA’s stated goals is fortifying MMA’s legitimacy. I’m curious – does the emergence of a former WWE champion [Brock Lesnar] compromise MMA’s legitimacy at all.
Miletich: Not at all. People need to understand, and I think they do, that most WWE athletes are great athletes. Brock Lesnar was a Division I national champion wrestler. That doesn’t happen by accident. He’s a tremendous athlete.
Wimsett: Do you anticipate any major rule changes in MMA. For example, Sam Sheridan, your friend, and author of “A Fighter’s Heart” predicted the possible return to glove-less fighting?
Miletich: They are doing that in Brazil, I think. But, I don’t see it as a smart move. Guys are going to shatter their hands. Some of the early fighting contests started that way in order to prove which martial art was the best – the Gracie’s set out to do that and they did a great job. But the guys have become so well-rounded and are so good at striking and stopping take downs and inflicting heavy blows on each other that you’d have careers come to a screeching halt because guys will start shattering their hands. In a street fight where you have to defend yourself and possibly save your life you are going to go ahead and punch people. But when you make your living and feed your family with your hands, the longevity of your career is very important. I don’t see that as something that takes off and does well.
Wimsett: Do you anticipate any major rule changes?
Miletich: I really don’t. The guys that have worked on the rules in their current form, they’ve worked hard and they knew what they were doing. The guys in New Jersey who helped write the rules and put in the weight classes, they’ve done good work. John Peretti – the original matchmaker for the UFC, and Nick Lembo, they’ve been instrumental in writing these rules.
Wimsett: Let’s talk about WAMMA and fighter pensions.
Miletich: Again, the main goal right now is to make sure the athletes have the opportunity to fight for the undisputed world title. We want the athletes to make the proper amount of money because of those fights and we want cross-promotion bouts. Those are our priorities at WAMMA. Fighter pensions – that’s a goal. But, as you know, there are a lot of people talking about forming a fighter’s union and that’s something we would hand off to a fighter’s union when and if that comes to pass. Some people think a union is around the corner, some people think it’s further down the road. We’ll see. These kinds of issues will likely fall to those people forming the union. Health insurance is another thing. There are a lot of things that need to happen on behalf of the athletes. They need help. They need to not sign their rights away for a lifetime. It’s wrong. The 360 deals the UFC talk about – I think they’re illegal. They restrict people from being able to make money. I think they’re going to run into some serious legal problems.
Wimsett: I know a lot of people hope those 360 deals don’t happen.
Miletich: Let’s just say this. If fighters sign those contracts, you know the union attorneys will be filing a class action lawsuit.
Wimsett: To be clear, WAMMA wants to work with a fighter’s union? Not be a fighter’s union?
Miletich: We’d work very closely with a fighter’s union. We’re for a lot of the same things that a union would be for. And it basically boils down to fighter’s rights. We want to help the fighters and the fans. And in the end, the promoters are going to make a lot more money, too.
Wimsett: Is there a particular group that WAMMA is looking at as far as a union partner?
Miletich: I have not been contacted by anyone yet regarding a union but I expect the calls will be coming soon.
Wimsett: Let’s talk about the quality of the officiating in MMA right now.
Miletich: Some of it is very good and some of it is very bad. Obviously I’m not going to name names. I think as a rule, the guys that compete in the sport are better at officiating than guys that don’t. This sport is so much more complex than boxing, you have to know when a submission is going to be put on somebody, you have to know when it’s coming so you are prepared to stop the fight when someone’s in trouble. You have to understand when someone’s unconscious – even when the fighter’s eyes are open. I’ve seen guys who were unconscious being choked because the referee didn’t know the guy was unconscious. Little things like that. It’s the same with judging. We’ve seen some bad decisions, sure. Just like in boxing. And it comes from the fact that you’ve got guys judging who have never competed in the sport. People think, for example, when they see a bad decision in boxing that something dirty is going on but I’ve got to tell you, more often than not, it’s because the judges are just in over their heads. They’re contractors or doctors and they’re judging on the weekends. You’re going to get some bad decisions. MMA – man, then you are really scrambling their brains when they’re trying to figure out what’s going on in the cage.
Wimsett: Is this an area WAMMA would like to address organizationally?
Miletich: In the end, it’s really up to the various athletic commissions in the states and some of them are great at it. Some are not. There needs to be some sort of baseline. These refs and judges are holding kids futures and careers in their hands. It’s a big thing. For me personally and the company also, so yes, it’s something we’re looking at.
Wimsett: I know you’re not interested in naming names but is there a referee out there doing a particularly good job you’d like to mention?
Miletich: John McCarthy is probably the best out there. Yves Lavigne is very good. Herb Dean’s gotten a lot better over the years with his experience. Those are just some and there are others.
Wimsett: Tell me about the Ranking Board?
Miletich: We’ve got 30 members on the ranking board right now and they are the very best media guys in MMA in the business. Sam Kaplan chairs that committee. WAMMA is not a part of it. It’s separate. It’s the best system we could come up with and we think those guys are doing a great job. We think it’s a safe system and it’d be foolish for anyone to try to get a hold of those guys and try to sway their opinions. Who’s going to pay-off 30 ranking board members?
Wimsett: Let’s talk about your business partners.
Miletich: We do a lot of conference calls. Fred Levin’s involved with giving his input and guiding the organization. Mike Lynch is obviously another very smart guy who is very involved. With Dave [Szady] being the CEO and President, former FBI/CIA official, he’s a guy whose integrity cannot be called into question. We want to be straight up. Lynch knows about every fighter on the planet and they’re all class acts. We’ve all become very good friends and I enjoy being in business with them.
Wimsett: Fedor’s next fight?
Miletich: Josh Barnett. That’s a huge fight. Right now, they are the two best heavyweights on the planet without a doubt.
Wimsett: Who’s the best non-heavyweight fighter in the world right now?
Miletich: George St. Pierre comes to mind. Anderson Silva is another one. I’ve known those guys for a lot of years. I think that Rob Lawler is going to sneak up on a lot of people. I don’t think people realize how good Rob’s gotten. I don’t care who you are, if you get hit by Rob, you are going to sleep. He’s a guy who I really think could be the best pound for pound guy on the planet.
Wimsett: Who’s the toughest guy you’ve out at the gym in Bettendorf?
Miletich: That’s a tough question. Over the years we’ve had the best of the best come through. I think we’ve had over 85 guys on Pay Per View shows, something like 14 organizational champions. I couldn’t narrow it down.
Wimsett: Proudest moment as a fighter?
Miletich: Holding the title for 3 and a half years – probably. Coming back after having such a tough time healing up my neck after 4 or 5 years. That was pretty big accomplishment.
Wimsett: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through fighting?
Miletich: It’s a huge growth process when you climb in the ring. You are naked to the world and you have no excuses. You have to go out there and be the man or get beat up. I was a kid that came from a little bit of a rough background. My dad wasn’t always the nicest guy. There’s a lot of guys out there like that and they use that as a crutch. But, it’s no excuse to be a jerk in life. Fighting makes me a better person and helps me deal with my own issues and my demons and you realize it’s not that hard to treat people well. It’s a growth experience for sure.
Wimsett: That’s one of the things I really like about the sport is that after the bout you see that mutual respect the fighters have for each other and that’s very compelling and noble.
Miletich: Absolutely. There is no animosity among fighters. For the most part.
Wimsett: Talk about the difference between training and fighting.
Miletich: Training can be intense. But, when you step into the ring for a fight and the crowd’s there and the lights are shining down . . . there’s nothing like that adrenaline rush. Your senses are all at their peak. And when you start the fight, and for your first few fights, everything is a blur – it’s chaos. It’s an amazing sensation. But after a while, the fight starts to slow down and when you go back and watch the fight it’s like watching it in fast motion again. It’s very strange. But once you’ve been in a few fights, things slow down and you start to see things, sense and understand and anticipate things.
Wimsett: What would you tell to up and coming fighters in terms of mastering a particular fighting style to get a strong foundation.
Miletich: Wrestling. Wrestlers have heart. Strong tendons, good balance. Incredible strength. The hardest part is teaching them the rhythm of stand up. But if they can get that, I’ll take a wrestler any day. Good work ethic. Endurance. It’s tough to find that anywhere else.
Wimsett: What do you think about all the karate dojos advertising “MMA classes” now?
Miletich: It’s kind of funny. It wasn’t that long ago when those guys were telling their students, you can’t go fight MMA, these moves are designed to kill. I find that amusing. But in the long run, it’s probably good. It brings more exposure to the sport. Ultimately, WAMMA and state athletic commissions will need to look at what these dojos are doing and whether there needs to be more regulation so guys don’t get hurt.
Wimsett: WAMMA’s obviously been reaching out to a lot of promotions. What’s the best small promotion that most MMA fans haven’t heard of?
Miletich: Extreme Challenge. It’s the oldest besides the original UFC owners. Monte Cox runs that. He’s been my manager for my entire career and he and I got into the sport together. And he puts on great shows.
Wimsett: How did Jon Wertheim [author of “Blood in the Cage“] get out of Bettendorf without getting slapped around especially after Sam Sheridan took so much punishment?
Miletich: You know, some guys are writers and some guys are fighters. Sam came over to get the fight experience. Jon’s goals were different. They’re both great guys and I think Jon’s book is really good and I hear it’s been getting good reviews. Sam’s a great guy. I wish we were neighbors. He’s got a great sense of humor and he’s just a lot of fun to be around.
Wimsett: What are your thoughts on sports agents entering the MMA space?
Miletich: The innocence of the sport is gone. But, agents are the guys that have the connections to the big sponsor dollars and they’ve negotiated really large contracts so that’s a good thing to have on your side.
Wimsett: Take “fighter X”, in the middle of the pack, does he need an agent?
Miletich: Everyone needs some sort of representation so they don’t get taken advantage of. You need someone who knows what to look for in contracts. Some of these guys have the Nike, Adidas contacts. They can bring more money to the table.
Wimsett: Have you seen the new UFC-branded gyms? Your thoughts.
Miletich: Smart business idea by the UFC. The quality of instruction remains to be seen inside of them. This is a sport where bigger is probably not better. If you can find a hole in the wall gym and learn from a guy who really knows his stuff – that’s a better training environment. But I don’t think those are the guys these branded gyms are really looking for anyway. I think they’re mostly looking for the kids and housewives who just want to get in shape.
Wimsett: What’s the best place for up and coming fighters to train in the United States?
Miletich: Anywhere where they have a lot of good, experienced fighters. No specific places necessarily. Somewhere with a proven track record of putting out great fighters.
Wimsett: How’s WAMMA going to make money? What’s your revenue stream?
Miletich: It comes down to, you know when you watch all the bowl games on TV, and you see the FedEx Sugarbowl for example, the WAMMA belt will be co-branded with sponsors so it’ll be the, for example, the Gatorade/WAMMA heavyweight world title. That’s the model.
Wimsett: Pat, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you this afternoon.
Miletich: Sure thing, Gary. No problem. I enjoyed it.