Since the inception of the International Fight League in 2006, UFC President Dana White went out of his way during several press conferences and interviews to blast the fledgling promotion.
White, who perceives the startup of most national competitors as nothing more than a blatant attempt to ride the UFC's coattails, seemed to have added vitriol when speaking of the IFL in comparison to other competitors.
|Chris Horodecki may be suffering through growing pains, but he has the skills to pay the bills. (Getty Images)|
Amid all the verbal salvos launched by White against the IFL were heavy rumors that he would never allow a fighter that had fought for the IFL to appear in the Octagon. The belief was that the UFC was possibly blackballing fighters that had an association with the IFL out of fear that it would validate the IFL's existence by using some of its talent.
In the end, those rumors appeared to be false. After the IFL's 2007 season had concluded, the UFC attempted to sign 5-0 undefeated light heavyweight prospect Andre Gusmao to debut at UFC 81 this past February.
Gusmao had been competing for Renzo Gracie's New York Pitbulls in the IFL and was seen as a rising star. However, the UFC's attempt to sign Gusmao away was thwarted after IFL officials notified the UFC that there was an exclusive period of re-negotiation in Gusmao's IFL contract.
Then in April, when the UFC needed a late substitute for a lightweight bout featuring Marcus Aurelio at UFC Fight Night 13, a push was made to sign blue-chip prospect Jim Miller. Once again, the UFC found itself in a position where it had attempted to sign a fighter that was still under the control of the IFL.
But the UFC's floodgates toward IFL refugees opened when it came time to cast the seventh installment of the hit Spike TV reality show The Ultimate Fighter. Three ex-IFL fighters -- Gerald Harris, Mike Dolce, and Dante Rivera -- were all a part of the final 16 fighters to make it into the house and be featured on the show on a weekly basis.
Yet, the UFC's involvement with former IFL fighters didn't stop there. When a late decision was made to hold UFC Fight Night 14 as counter-programming to Affliction's first-ever event on July 19, the UFC reached into the IFL well yet again, snatching Reese Andy, Brad Blackburn and Rory Markham, who all signed to appear on the card. In fact, Andy will be featured in the night's co-main event in a light heavyweight clash against Brandon Vera.
Meanwhile, Gusmao -- perhaps the most talented of all the ex-IFL fighters courted by the UFC -- never left UFC Vice President of Talent Relations Joe Silva's radar. He's slated to make his UFC debut on August 9 in Minneapolis at UFC 87 against Tomasz Drwal.
It should also be noted that the influence of former IFL fighters in other promotions extends beyond the UFC. EliteXC has already struck gold in one former IFL fighter in the form of Rafael Feijao. Feijao, who briefly competed in the IFL in 2007 as an undersized heavyweight, has looked like a one-man wrecking crew since entering EliteXC, where he is currently 2-0.
The irony of the situation is that many fight fans aren't learning of the extent of the IFL's deep talent roster until after the promotion went into a self-imposed hibernation as it attempts to stave off bankruptcy.
After inheriting a buisiness that had sustained over 30 million in losses when he took over in November, IFL CEO Jay Larkin announced on May 8 that the promotion was canceling its planned August 9 show in East Rutherford, N.J. Larkin also revealed that staff layoffs had been conducted and that the promotion was actively seeking a buyer. If a savior can't be found, many industry insiders believe that the promotion will have no choice but to seek protection from creditors at some point in the fall.
While the promotion has cut several fighters loose, it's retaining its top-tier talent as equity. The hope is that in addition to over 400 hours of footage in its exclusive library that potential buyers will also find the contracts it has with several top fighters to be of value as well. Fighters still under contract to the IFL will be allowed to fight outside of the organization while their fates are being decided. However, they cannot enter into a long-term agreement with another promotion.
For some fighters uncertain about their future, still being under contract to the IFL will make their life difficult as they search for clarity. The UFC simply is not going to sign a fighter that it does not have exclusive control over.
Also, a promotion such as EliteXC might be apprehensive about featuring a fighter on CBS' Saturday Night Fights out of concern they might create a new star for another promotion. As such, an IFL fighter's only real choices might be to fight for a mid-level national promotion or a smaller regional organization. Or simply wait things out.
As it stands, several of the IFL's best and brightest find themselves locked in a state of purgatory. The meter is running and they may or may not be able to pursue all avenues that would normally be available to them it they were otherwise unfettered.
One thing is for certain, if and when the IFL's top tier of talent becomes available, they won't be without suitors.
Which one of these IFL-contracted fighters will become the biggest star?
Total Votes: 131
CBSSports.com takes a look at the top fighters still contracted to the IFL and where their future may lie.
Roy Nelson: Currently, he's the promotion's heavyweight champion. A strong boxer and solid wrestler, Nelson appears to be a top-ten caliber fighter. The only thing holding him back from the top ten is a win over a top name. EliteXC attempted to give him that chance by offering him a fight against their top heavyweight, Antonio Silva, but a deal was never consummated.
One concern about Nelson is his physique, as he looks more like an obese truck driver than a professional athlete. The concern is that Nelson's appearance takes the sport back to the dark ages when critics labeled fighters as nothing more than beer-drinking brawlers.
But the reality is the guy can fight. Not to mention, Nelson's outspoken nature makes him the kind of fighter who can quickly inspire casual fans that are unfamiliar with him to generate some type of feeling toward him.
There really isn't a promotion Nelson couldn't fight for right now, including the UFC, which could use another mid-tier fighter to bolster its heavyweight division. In EliteXC or Strikeforce, he'd be a true contender for either promotion's heavyweight title.
Vladimir Matyushenko: Matyushenko quite possibly could be the IFL's greatest success story. Once an upper-tier competitor with the UFC during the pre-TUF era, Matyushenko fell off the face of the MMA map as he went into semi-retirement. But he returned to the scene with the IFL in February of 2007 after having only fought twice since 2003. Since that time, he's accumulated a 6-0 record with the promotion and is its first and only light heavyweight champion.
At 37, another run in the UFC appears to be a long shot. However, Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Bobby Southworth has put the call out for a step up in competition and EliteXC could really use someone worthy of taking on Feijo for the promotion's yet-to-be-instituted 205-pound title. In both cases, Matyushenko clearly fits the bill.
Another option to consider is Affliction. The promotion's Vice President, Tom Atencio, was recently quoted as saying that many of the winners from their debut show on July 19 will be brought back for Affliction's second planned show in the fall. Matyushenko would be a logical candidate to fight the winner of the Renato "Babalu" Sobral vs. Mike Whitehead matchup on PPV or the winner of the Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Edwin Dewees clash scheduled for the undercard. In fact, Matyushenko already holds a win over Nogueira.
There will be plenty of options for Matyushenko, but the best fit for him will be with whatever promotion can tell his remarkable comeback story the best.
Jay Hieron: Hieron, currently the IFL's welterweight champion, is not the same fighter that holds an 0-2 lifetime record in the UFC. We mean that in a figurative sense, as there is only one Jay Hieron in MMA and he is indeed 0-2 in the UFC.
Already a standout wrestler, Hieron's hands have progressed greatly since his last UFC stint in 2005. However, returning to the UFC may not make the most sense considering how stacked the promotion is at 170 pounds. But if Hieron were to become an unrestricted free agent, he'd be a great addition to the UFC's sibling promotion, the WEC.
The WEC has a welterweight champion in Carlos Condit, who is being grossly overlooked by many in the MMA media. The problem is that he's not being put in a position where he can record wins over name fighters. He needs to be tested and Hieron would do the trick. The problem is Hieron has gotten so good that it might not be a test that Condit can pass.
Hieron would also be an ideal fit for EliteXC, which will need someone at 170 pounds that can challenge the winner of the Jake Shields vs. Nick Thompson bout at CBS' Saturday Night Fights II on July 26, which will determine the promotion's first-ever welterweight champion.
Ryan Schultz: Talk about improving fighters; Schultz could very well have been the most improved fighter in MMA in 2007. Considered a journeyman by most, Schultz went 4-0 last year and capped things off by upsetting the promotion's top star, Chris Horodecki, during the IFL Lightweight Grand Prix final last December. This year, he's already made two successful defenses of his IFL lightweight title with wins over John Gunderson and Deividas Taurosevicius.
Schultz is without question UFC caliber. Which says a lot, considering the 155-pound division in the UFC is so deep right now. While he probably wouldn't be a true title threat so long as B.J. Penn is sitting atop the perch, Schultz would still cause a lot of matchup problems for some of the division's bigger names.
It's really hard to suggest where Schultz would fit best, as EliteXC, Affliction, the WEC, Strikeforce, and DREAM would all be solid spots for him.
Wagnney Fabiano: Fabiano was really starting to gain traction as a possible top-ten featherweight when he had his legs cut from under him when the IFL suspended operations. A tremendous wrestler with black belt level jiu jitsu, Fabiano surprised pundits by knocking out Shad Lierley just 37 seconds into Round 1 during an IFL event this past April.
Currently the promotion's featherweight champion with a record of 10-1 lifetime as a pro, Fabiano could give current WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber a run for his money. As a former competitor at 155 pounds, it remains to be seen whether he could cut to EliteXC's current featherweight limit of 140 pounds, but if he could, a bout between he and Wilson Reis would prove to be an instant classic.
Chris Horodecki: Horodecki just hasn't resembled the same fighter he was when he first entered the IFL as a 19-year old wunderkind. But aside from the Schultz fight, he still has only lost once in the IFL and at 21, some of his recent sluggish efforts are likely nothing more than growing pains.
In the ring, his kickboxing style is crowd pleasing and television friendly. Outside of the ring, he's clearly the IFL's most recognizable star. With the right platform and the proper motivation, he could turn into one of the sport's biggest breakout stars in 2009.
With a promotion like the UFC, he'd run the risk of getting buried. However, his standup skills would fit in perfectly with what EliteXC is trying to do with its 160-pound lightweight division. Horodecki could have potential fight of the year candidates with the likes of current champion K.J. Noons, as well as future title challenger Eddie Alvarez. He also has the charisma and look that would translate well on primetime network television.
Tim Kennedy: Kennedy has been on the brink of super-stardom for quite some time now but has yet to break the glass ceiling due to his military commitment as a U.S. Army Ranger. He has all the tools needed to be big in the sport: toughness, athleticism, the look, and the back story. All he needs is consistent exposure. That won't come until he satisfies his military commitments and he's able to compete full-time in MMA. But once he gets to that point, the sky will be the limit. I'm not going to even bother to list the promotions in which Kennedy would be a good fit, because each one is.
Jim Miller: Two years from now, Miller will be a top five lightweight. The kid has the potential to be so good that it is scary. He's already good enough to compete in the UFC, and he still has plenty of room to grow as a fighter, so that tells you all you need to know. In addition to drawing interest from the UFC, EliteXC made an attempt to sign him last January with the idea of him debuting during their January 25 ShoXC event in Atlantic City, N.J. Much like Kennedy, Miller would be a tremendous addition to any fight promotion.
In addition to being a contributing writer for CBSSports.com, Sam Caplan is also the publisher of his own MMA blog, FiveOuncesOfPain.com. You can contact him via e-mail at: SCaplan8@comcast.net.