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UFC-WEC Merger Gives Lighter Weight Fighters Chance on Big League Stage

Over a year ago, I sat in a Dallas hotel lobby with Ben Henderson telling me of his goal to be considered the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist on the planet. He is a polite, well-spoken young man, and he said this in the most humble way you could imagine.

I smiled at his ambition but I also quietly wondered to myself, How would this talented young athlete accomplish such a goal in the WEC when everybody knew it was, well, not the UFC. Henderson went on to capture the WEC lightweight championship but he's made barely a dent in the lightweight world top 10.

Henderson's not the only guy to have big dreams in a small company. The same can be said for Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, Dominick Cruz and more. But with the news of the the UFC-WEC merger, opportunity abounds for everyone.

A simple change of three letters and a logo will tilt the MMA landscape further in Zuffa's favor and change the fortunes of lower weight-class fighters across the world.

Everything about the WEC was smaller than the UFC. Its cage, its fighters and most importantly, its revenues.

Its featherweight champion Aldo -- who also happens to be one of the best fighters on the planet -- made a guaranteed purse of $20,000 to face Faber in the biggest matchup in company history, the promotion's first foray into pay-per-view back in April. To put that into perspective, 10 fighters during the most recent UFC pay-per-view made more than Aldo in guaranteed purse money.

With the merger -- effective in January -- everything changes. There will be more money to go around, more exposure, more recognition, more opportunity.

"What's exciting for these lighter-weight guys, they're finally on the biggest stage in the world now," UFC president Dana White said. A lot of people haven't seen how exciting these fights are. When they see Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz and some of these other guys, Urijah Faber, etc., I think the fans are going to be happy we moved them up into the UFC."

To understand why this is such a big deal, you only have to look back a few years, when lighter weight classes simply didn't matter in the U.S. They were non-factors, invisible.

That started changing in March 2006, when the UFC reactived a lightweight class that had been abandoned for years. By October, they crowned Sean Sherk as champion. Two months after that, Zuffa bought the WEC.

For years, fighters who couldn't compete at 170 pounds or above could only take fights in smaller US promotions or travel overseas to compete in promotions such as PRIDE. Then suddenly within months, lightweights, featherweights and bantamweights all had a place on the US stage. The only downside was that the big leagues for the 135- and 145-pounders wasn't as big as the UFC stage, even though they arguably provided more exciting fights on a consistent basis than their peers in the UFC.

Their smaller platform is obvious with a simple look at the metrics.

To date, the most successful UFC pay-per-view of all time is UFC 100, which 1.6 million households plunked down about $50 apiece to watch. Meanwhile, the most successful WEC show of all time was WEC 34, which 1.5 million people watched on television -- for free.

Such is the power of the UFC brand that it causes people to part with their money at the mere suggestion of its famous three initials.

All along, it seemed clear that simply changing the three letters from WEC to UFC would make assets like Aldo, Faber and Torres even more valuable.

Recently, we saw clues that Zuffa was testing that theory.

The aforementioned April WEC pay-per-view had no WEC branding. It was promoted by UFC president Dana White, announced by Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg and the fighters were introduced by Bruce Buffer. Its prelim card was aired on Spike, well known by fans as the "UFC network." In recent media appearances, White spoke about an expanded UFC schedule that seemed obvious to require a larger roster of fighters. And in just in the last week, we learned that Aldo had been offered a fight with the UFC's Kenny Florian. Never before had a WEC champion crossed promotions to face a UFC fighter.

"We've always wanted to do this, have every weight class in the UFC," White said. "We either didn't have enough pay-per-view time or TV time. Now we do more and more fights. Now it makes sense."

The benefits are many, for both the promotion and fighters. Sponsors pay more to get their logos on UFC fighters than WEC fighters. Gates are bigger, so paydays are bigger. The "UFC" label has more marketing juice behind it. The Japanese MMA scene is fading quickly, and the UFC will suddenly become a much more attractive option for the featherweights and bantamweights that still call Japan home.

For the UFC side, it adds two more belts into circulation to boost starpower. It provides much-needed roster depth. It makes the UFC an even more intriguing television partner for networks. And it also ensures that the UFC is the most attractive landing spot for nearly every weight class in MMA.

It was bound to happen, only a matter of time until the UFC and WEC merged. It's been talked about for years, batted around in the Zuffa offices, debated online, and now, it's finally a reality.

All it took was three letters and a logo, but the change will make a world of difference for fighters like Aldo, Faber, Torres and Henderson. It's a chance to perform in front of more fans and make more money. It's a chance at a larger spotlight. It's a chance to dream the biggest dream, and the opportunity to make it a reality.

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