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Why a fight card on New Year’s Eve day in New York? WSOF execs explain

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Justin Gaethje WSOF

World Series of Fighting executives can recite by heart the multiple layers of questions which have filtered in ever since they decided to book a show on New Year’s Eve day in New York City.

Why go to New York City, just blocks away from Times Square, hours before New Year’s Eve?

Why undertake the costs involved in renting out a venue like The Theater at Madison Square Garden?

Why hold a show just hours after the loaded up UFC 207 in Las Vegas, which features the return of Ronda Rousey?

Why blow through four championship fights all on the same show?

Even facing all these questions, though, company CEO Carlos Silva and president Ray Sefo are willing to double down on their gamble. If nothing else, even the fiercest critics have to give WSOF brass some credit for daring to put on their biggest and boldest promotion to date.

“That’s how we wanted it,” Silva told MMA Fighting. “We wanted an event people will talk about, something which will resonate and give them all a reason to tune in.”

WSOF 34 is no doubt the deepest event the company has ever endeavored. The NBC-telecast main card features three title fights: lightweight champion Justin Gaethje vs. Joao Zeferino; welterweight champ Jon Fitch vs. Jake Shields; and bantamweight champ Marlon Moraes vs. Josenaldo Silva. The NBCSN-broadcast undercard is headlined by middleweight champ and New York City native David Branch taking on Louis Taylor.

The way Silva sees it, the company’s debut in midtown Manhattan needed to make a splash worthy of its location.

“We wanted to put on an event so deep that fans go out of their way to watch it,” Silva said. “How many cards have four title fights? How many cards are loaded up with names you know deliver action every time out like Marlon Moraes and Justin Gaethje? People are already going to be talking about MMA anyway because of the UFC show, I think they’ll be ready for more.”

But why the Saturday afternoon time slot? Not only is WSOF the day after UFC 207, but it will also go head-to-head with the college football national semifinals.

The WSOF 34 NBC broadcast begins at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT). Silva won’t put a number on what he’d consider a successful rating, but he believes this is the right start time for a show on a day like Dec. 31.

“There’s a huge audience out there on New Year’s Eve,” Silva said. “You’ve got hardcore fight fans who are going to find us anyway. You’ve got sports fans who are going to be watching the football game who turn over to us and like what they see. And we’re on early enough that we’ll catch the people who have the holiday weekend off before they go out for the night. Plenty of people will be in front of their televisions. This is a time slot that’s proven to do ratings and we’ll prove it again.”

WSOF postponed events scheduled for Nov. 12 and Dec. 3 before finalizing the Dec. 31 lineup. In the fight game, canceled dates tend to portend bad news. But WSOF executives insist the cancellations came in order to make a big splash in the Big Apple.

“We have our dates scheduled out far in advance,” Sefo said. “So when we booked the Nov. 12 card, that was long before we knew of how big and monumental a card UFC 205 would be. Once that started to shape up, we realized there was no point going up against it. I’m still a fight fan and I wanted to see the first MMA show at Madison Square Garden. I get it.

“Then, once we canceled that, it all became about how big of a splash we could make on New Year’s Eve. [WSOF heavyweight champ] Blagoy Ivanov was supposed to headline [Dec. 3], and he got hurt, and we really didn’t have another fight lined up, so it made sense to just go all out on Dec. 31.”

At the end of the day, the WSOF types understand why criticism has come in over WSOF 34. They also know that you don’t get ahead if you don’t take a chance. Maybe WSOF 34 won’t meet their expectations. But maybe they come out of this with a new New Year’s Eve tradition in mixed martial arts.

“When I fought in Japan on New Year’s Eve, it was like no other,” said Sefo, a former kickboxing standout. “It was an event people looked forward to all year long. If this works, we can establish WSOF as the combat sports event to see on New Year’s Eve over here.”