After Saturday’s UFC doubleheader, which stuffed 22 fights into the confines of a single day, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched for the World Series of Fighting to have a show on July 5.
That’s the same day as UFC 175, which features title defenses by Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey. That’s also the same weekend as the TUF 20 finale in Las Vegas, featuring a featherweight trilogy bout between Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn. WSOF, which is venturing onto the NBC mothership for the first time after re-upping its contract with the network last week, runs the risk of being buried by the UFC hoopla. Or so the concerns go.
WSOF executive vice president/matchmaker Ali Abdel-Aziz says he hears those concerns, and that’s why he’s taking measures to make sure things don’t overlap.
"I think it would be not very wise to go on the same day as the UFC, but we got the date, July 5, maybe six or seven months ago," he told MMA Fighting. "We’ll go out there right before the UFC goes on Fox Sports 1 [for its UFC 175 prelims]. I wish we had a different date, but NBC, this is the first time gave us a date, and they don’t have any other dates open to give us. We made sure it’s early. We go from 4-6, and I’m not sure what time the UFC starts, but we’ll go out there and go before they start."
Even if it will act as a fight day matinee, WSOF 11 is the promotion’s biggest showcase to date. Though the card had undergone changes -- primarily in the co-main event, which was originally going to pit middleweight champion Rousimar Palhares against Jon Fitch -- the three primary fights have enough captivation. Melvin Guillard, whom the UFC released in March, will make his WSOF debut against Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante. Fitch, who has watched not only Palhares fall off the card but also Jake Shields, will now cap off the trilogy with Josh Burkman. Right now that series is 1-1.
And in the main event, it’ll be two genuine WSOF names in lightweights Justin Gaethje against Nick Newell. Gaethje, the champion whose family came from the copper mines in Morenci, Arizona, is known for his total abandon. Newell is the promotion’s wunderkind, an undefeated one-armed fighter who continues to shine.
"I think everybody should have an equal opportunity to show his case, and it doesn’t mean because he has one arm that he cannot perform," Abdel-Aziz says. "We brought [Newell] in and every time he did he delivered. He has a lot of courage and I have so much respect for him because the guy really worked hard, and to be honest, if anybody deserves the title shot in the World Series of Fighting, Nick Newell deserves it.
"I think he’ll bring a lot of attention to WSOF, and that he’s a world class athlete, and on July 5 we’re really going to know. Justin Gaethje’s fighting style is coming forward with pressure, and Nick Newell is a submission artist. I think it’s classic striker versus grappler."
Gaethje and Newell will usher in a new era for WSOF. The promotion extended its contract with NBC through 2017, a deal that Abdel-Aziz calls "life changing." The July 5 date will be the first of two in 2014. The other date will be December 27, the end-of-year weekend that the UFC regularly hosts a big Vegas show, as well. The deal also will increase the brand through NBC Sports and NBC.com.
"At the beginning, NBC Sports, [president of programming at NBC] Jon Miller, and [director of business development at NBC Sports] Gary Quinn, they gave us the opportunity to prove ourselves," Abdel-Aziz says. "Our first show we delivered, and after that we made a deal. Our deal was over, and so we made a new deal, a much better deal.
"I believe NBC Sports is the biggest media network in the world, and we are happy to be part of that family. We couldn’t ask for a better partner at this moment than them. I think the sky’s the limit."
It’s a still-being-defined enterprise right now, too. Though WSOF has scooped up viable UFC castoffs like Fitch, Palhares, Shields, Yushin Okami and Guillard, it has also ceded some of its top talent of late, as well. Anthony Johnson and Andrei Arlovski each recently left WSOF for the UFC, with little resistance from WSOF executives.
As things roll along, though, Abdel-Aziz has had some moments of frustration, stemming not from the WSOF as a springboard to the UFC, but that some fighters might be looking for shortcuts in getting there. Because of this, Abdel-Aziz lashed out recently on Twitter when multiple fighters turned down the fights he wanted to book. It culminated with altercations with Burkman and Palhares, the latter whom pulled out of his July 5 fight to help with his ailing mother in Brazil.
"The Palhares situation, you know, people understood me wrong," he says. "Nobody should have a right to tell anybody he doesn’t have to take care of his mother but has to fight. That would be like I’m an animal.
"Listen, I was frustrated. JZ was supposed Melvin Guillard, but JZ turned the fight down. Gerald Harris was supposed to fight Jake Shields, he turned the fight down. I felt that everybody was turning fights down, and that’s why I came out to the media and said I’m not releasing anybody to the UFC anymore because I felt guys wanted to get easy fights, to have an easy route to the UFC. And I felt, you know what, I make a promise, I said I would not hold back people, but WSOF has to come first."
On July 5, WSOF will come first. It will air its biggest fight card to date on NBC on one of the busiest fight days in MMA history.