In late 2006 and early 2007, UFC parent company Zuffa purchased three rival mixed martial arts promotions. Few at the time would have predicted how those purchases turned out.
The biggest purchase was the PRIDE Fighting Championships, UFC's rival for the top MMA promotion in the world. PRIDE had a large audience in Japan, many of the world's best fighters, and state of the art production. There was talk of running PRIDE and UFC separately, and then featuring a Super Bowl inter-promotional event once a year.
Zuffa also purchased the World Fighting Alliance. The WFA was a relatively young promotion, but had been aggressive in inking talented and marketable fighters. WFA in the summer of 2006 ran a star-studded pay-per-view event featuring a host of MMA stars including Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Matt Lindland, Bas Rutten, Lyoto Machida, Jason Miller, Rob McCullough and Martin Kampmann.
Finally, Zuffa purchased World Extreme Cagefighting. WEC was the least visible of the three. It ran smaller events for years, principally in Lemoore, Calif. WEC was a breeding ground for rising young fighters. At the time, it wasn't considered a major story.
If you asked an MMA expert at that point which of those promotions would be the most prominent a year later, few if any would have said WEC. Yet, as 2007 comes to a close, that is precisely the situation. The WFA is a distant memory, PRIDE appears unlikely to ever resurface, and the WEC is a promotion on the rise.
This developed almost by accident. Zuffa had major plans for PRIDE, but was unable to secure a Japanese television deal. Without a TV deal, running major PRIDE shows in Japan would have been a major money loser. UFC executives had an antagonistic relationship with WFA executives and bought that promotion simply to acquire contracts. WEC became UFC's sister promotion.
Zuffa began running WEC shows without much fanfare, but buzz has built over the past year. WEC promotes shows based around young and rising lighter-weight fighters, which leads to exciting fights. The promotion signed a deal with the Versus cable network, which gave it an enthusiastic TV partner. WEC draws some of the best ratings on the fledgling station, which also features the NHL and NCAA football.
With that infrastructure in place, WEC has bolstered its roster of fighters and run increasingly higher level cards. Wednesday's card on Versus is arguably the promotion's strongest yet. It is also unquestionably the most important.
The premier division of the WEC is the 145-pound division, headlined by dynamic champion Urijah Faber. Faber has dominated in WEC, but has yet to find an opponent that can elevate interest in the division among casual fans.
Enter Jens Pulver. A former UFC lightweight champion and Ultimate Fighter coach, Pulver is well known to MMA fans. His most recent fight with B.J. Penn drew 3.4 million viewers on Spike TV. While Pulver had success at 155 pounds, he was naturally undersized. With the 145 pound division gaining prominence in WEC, Pulver has the opportunity to fight in a more natural weight class. Pulver vs. Faber for the title would be the biggest fight in WEC history, a match that could get casual UFC fans to sample the promotion.
Of course, it's far from a guarantee WEC will be able to put together that match. Both men first have to win on Wednesday, and neither has an easy opponent.
Faber's opponent, Jeff Curran, is a PRIDE and UFC veteran who has won 15 of his last 16 fights. Curran is more experienced than Faber, and a highly skilled ground fighter. Faber's strength, like heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, is his ability to exploit the weaknesses of any given opponent. He can outstrike jiu jitsu practitioners, outwrestle strikers, and submit wrestlers. The most obvious strategy for this fight is to strike with Curran, but the well-rounded Curran will be ready.
The other part of the equation is Pulver's WEC debut. Pulver, coming off a series of fights with top flight competition at 155 pounds, won't get an easy introduction to the 145-pound class. His opponent is the tough and confident Cub Swanson. Swanson rides an 11-fight winning streak and most recently dealt the tricky Micah Miller his first MMA loss. Swanson has good hands, a good chin, and is not a small man. That is precisely the sort of style that has given Pulver problems in the past. Pulver likes to stand, but he can be caught. It is likely to result in an exciting fight, but the outcome is hard to predict.
Also on Wednesday's card is another fight that reflects the increasing stature of WEC. Paulo Filho fights Chael Sonnen for the WEC 185-pound crown. The undefeated Filho is one of the world's elite middleweights, with wins over many top level fighters in Pride. Zuffa decided to bring Filho to WEC, where he lends credibility to the promotion's middleweight division.
Filho faces a solid MMA veteran in Sonnen. Filho utilizes his wrestling to control opponents and goes for submissions. However, Sonnen is an excellent wrestler, which could present problems for Filho. Sonnen is vulnerable to submissions, but Filho is used to working from the top and that may not come to pass in this fight.