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Compared to other startups, WSOF debut card was a winner

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Lucas Noonan/World Series of Fighting

LAS VEGAS -- When it was all over, Ray Sefo could finally exhale.

The former kickboxing superstar is the public face of the upstart World Series of Fighting promotion, holding the title of company president. But while the personable 41-year-old New Zealander usually boasts a sunny disposition, he couldn't help but fear the worst as the company's debut event at Planet Hollywood approached.

"You have to understand, I spent the whole week picturing a worst-case scenario," Sefo said backstage at PH Live on Saturday, moments after Andrei Arlovski knocked out Devin Cole in the evening's main event. "In my nightmare, there would be no one in the stands, the lighting rig wouldn't work, everything would go wrong. You've got to be prepared for anything."

But after a live event which had a few of the sort opening-night glitches expected from a debut event -- for example, opening-match fighter Dustin Jacoby actually had to unlock the cage door on his own to let himself in since he was sent out before Nevada officials were in place -- but nothing major, Sefo was able to smile.

"Once I saw that by about the third fight, the building was really starting to fill up, I knew it was on," Sefo said. "I knew it would be good. Hey, I'm not going to pretend like there aren't things we can't do better. We'll work on them. But all in all the whole night went better than I ever could have imagined."

You can't blame Sefo for expecting the worst going into Saturday night's card. The mixed martial arts landscape is littered with debut events and upstart fight promotions which have at best been mixed bags and at worst unmitigated disasters.

Take Affliction's first event in the summer of 2008. The company drew a solid crowd of 11,242 to the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. And while the fight card itself was good, there were enough distractions and gimmicks, from a performance by Megadeth to a ring which was roughly the size of a football field, to call the overall evening a mixed bag.

Either way, the company took in $2M in gate revenue, but paid $3.3M in fighter salary alone (and lord knows what Megadeth made for their gig). With a balance sheet like that, the real miracle was that Affliction lasted through a second show and was attempting a third before the bills came due.

Then there was the grandaddy of all misfires, K-1's attempt to break into the U.S. MMA market. The company booked the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in June, 2007. The main event was scheduled to feature Brock Lesnar, in his professional debut, against Hong Man Choi. Choi had to drop out when his pre-fight tests showed a tumor in his pituitary gland. The substitute main event was Lesnar vs. Min Soo Kim, who entered the bout with a 2-5 record.

It gets better. The company sold fewer than 1,000 advance tickets, so it flooded Los Angeles with comps, particularly in the Koreatown neighborhood, still advertising the Korean Choi long after he was removed from the card. Maybe 15,000 people actually showed up for the event, though that didn't stop K-1 from proclaiming that 54,000 people passed through the turnstiles.

As for the fights that night? For one, former USC football star Johnnie Morton, woefully underprepared for his MMA debut, was stretchered off his college field after suffering an all-time brutal knockout against Bernard Ackah. Then there was the sad display that was Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba. The comp fans spent most of the bout booing the legends, whereupon an annoying DJ who spun tunes all night got on the mic and told the crowd to stop booing Royce (with a hard "R") Gracie. Oh, and Lesnar needed roughly a minute to run over his human punching bag opponent.

And of course, there was the three-ring circus which was Elite XC throughout its existence. From the "Kimbo and the Exploding Ear Show" to Jason Miller's network-TV brawl with the 209 Crew to the night in Honolulu where a judge spent the bulk of the Nick Diaz-Mike Aina fight with his back turned to the cage as he chatted up a girl sitting at ringside, it was always something.

Keep all this in mind as you judge whether WSOF, as a fight card, was a success or failure. While there was plenty to nitpick on Saturday night if one so chooses, when push came the shove, the company simply delivered a solid fight card for fight fans. Nothing more, nothing less.

The company didn't distract fans with fireworks and ridiculous stage setups. There was no IFL-style "team fighting" gimmick. Mercifully, there was no platform for washed-up heavy metal acts. And you won't hear Sefo make any delusional proclamations that the WSOF is going to come in and overtake the UFC, as so many of his predecessors have done.

"That would be crazy," Sefo said. "There would be no point in trying to compete with the UFC. They're the best in the business for a reason. They're good at what they do. There's room for more than one promotion in the industry and we just want to put on events that the fans will enjoy."

Saturday night's disclosed fighter payroll was $352,000, but the most important numbers will come when paid attendance figures are released. There appeared to be roughly 5,000 people in attendance at the 7,000-seat PH Live, but the fans reacted like a heavily comped crowd: Sitting in stone silence through an outstanding fight between Tyson Steele and Gregor Gracie, booing Marlon Moraes' well-contested win over Miguel Torres, and generally only reacting to fighters with previous UFC exposure, like Arlovski and Anthony Johnson.

Where this is all leading, whether WSOF pays off in the long run as a business proposition, and what the company will have to do to get there, though, is for later. For now, Sefo and his cohorts are happy to have the first event, which wasn't a home run but certainly wasn't a strikeout, behind them.

"This week's been crazy, but never mind this week, this has been building for two years," said Sefo. "It was so much work just getting here. That's just the starting point, we still have so much work to do. But after playing it out in my head all week and worrying what could go wrong, to have this night go the way it did, I couldn't be happier."