This is it: The end of an era. The grand finale of what two friends started back on June 30, 2001 as a “dabbling” investment for fun and relatively little profit. At the time, when MMA was but a blip on the mainstream sports radar, Reed Harris never envisioned his Indian casino adventure would blossom into an MMA superpower, second in prestige only to its sister organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Yet over the past decade, some of the world’s best fighters have produced riveting theater inside a WEC cage. The distinguished list of athletes includes the following stars: Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, Miguel Torres, Carlos Condit, Chael Sonnen, Leonard Garcia, Hermes Franca, Nate Diaz, Chris Leben, Mike Swick, Brian Stann, Benson Henderson and Dominick Cruz.
Thursday night in Glendale, Ariz., the final chapter in the WEC’s illustrious history will be written. When it’s all over – as Mike Goldberg would say – the WEC will be blended into the UFC. For the first time ever, the UFC will add bantamweight (135) and featherweight (145) world champions.
Harris, the real estate guru turned MMA promoter, sat down with me and spoke about the incredible run of the enterprise he and Scott Adams founded 9 and ½ years ago. Harris discusses, for the first time, how arranging a real estate loan for Chuck Liddell set into motion the events that would usher him into the then-dead industry. In this two-part series, the Chicago native talks about the perils of hosting an outdoor fight show, the horrors of losing his checkbook at a fight and having the lights go out at another show, and how he expects to feel when the final curtain falls.
Q: You and Scott Adams co-founded the WEC as sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing, never intending it to be a huge deal. At what point did you guys realize you had staying power?
Harris: We did that show at the Mohegan Sun and we had a number of problems and we were able to survive it. Three days before our event was a WWE. So the ticketing company was telling people that our event was sold out. People would call about the WEC and they thought it was WWE; the ticketing company didn’t differentiate between the two events. Four or five days before our event we couldn’t figure out why we weren’t selling tickets. So we called and they said it’s sold out. That show we did about 3,200 (tickets) but it was a very expensive show for us. I think we would have sold about 6,000 if that (mistake) hadn’t happened.
There were probably 4,000 at the first event. The first event was really just a test for the casino to see if it was something they wanted to do. If that event wasn’t successful we would have done one show and that would have been it. It would have been like throwing a party.
Q: What made you think the market was there for MMA, because you guys entered the business at a time when it wasn’t obvious or crystal clear like it is today.
Reed: One of them was, I think it was our third show, about an hour and a half before our event Scott Adams got in a car accident. So the show is getting ready to start and he’s nowhere to be found because he was at the hospital. So there were some decisions that only Scott could make that I had to make. He wasn’t answering the phone or anything. I didn’t know what was going on. I found out right as the show started he showed up. He was hurt a little bit. He had rolled his car.
Q: What are some other things that stand out that went wrong at a live show. What are some of those “Oh wow” moments?
Harris: I had a show where we tried a new lighting contractor and during the event a whole bank of lights went out around the cage – during a fight! I got on the headset with the lighting guy and I swear I said, “If you don’t fix these lights I’m going to come up on that stage and beat your (double expletive). I was so mad at this guy because you could tell he was a flake the whole time. Then the lights came back on and we had fans running generators. It seemed like the lights were out for five minutes but it was probably about 20 seconds. But here’s the thing: If you’re doing a show outside at night, and the lights go out, you’re done. There’s no coming back from that. Your show is screwed.
From that point forward I hired the same guy that did The Rolling Stones tour. I paid him three times what I paid these other guys. He would set up the lighting, stage, the audio, and we never had a problem. There was no room for error there.
Q: We don’t see Zuffa doing outdoor events, except for the Abu Dhabi event earlier this year. What are the pros and cons of doing an outdoor event?
Reed: The cons are that you have lighting changes and you have the heat, which means you will have to cover the canvas with another canvas, otherwise it’s too hot and the logos will get really hot and the fighters’ feet would stick to the logos. You also have to worry about rain.
Q: Of all the fighters you have had fight in the WEC over the years, who were the fighters you signed and realized immediately that they had star quality?
Reed: Urijah Faber. Shane Carwin, he seemed so powerful. I knew when I met him. Nick and Nate Diaz. Gan McGee, I thought he would end up being champ but he didn’t. I mean, he destroyed Seth Petruzelli and Ron Faircloth. Listen, this is a good story: I went to Ron Faircloth the day after he fought Gan McGee. Gan McGee hit him so hard that Ron … I go up to Ron Faircloth the next day and I said, ‘What was your strategy?’ And he said, ‘I remember getting to the parking lot of the venue. That’s the last thing I remember.’” I was like damn!
There were other guys like Glover Texeira, Joe Riggs and Jorge Oliveira. These are all guys that I thought had a lot of talent.
Q: What do you believe was the biggest upset in UFC history?
Harris: The biggest upset in WEC history was when Mike Thomas Brown knocked out Urijah Faber in their first fight. That was a fight where everybody just looked around and went, “What the hell just happened?’” It happened so quickly in the first round.
Q: Tell me about your good buddy Chuck Liddell. There was some talk that he might fight for the WEC at your first show. He was slated to fight for the WEC way back. Talk about that.
Harris: I’ve never said this to anybody. Before Scott and I started the WEC I was helping Chuck get a loan. And I dragged the loan officers from the bank to the show because I had listed Chuck as a fighter. The people at the bank wanted to do the deal because I did so much business with them but the loan officers were like, “How can we give this guy a loan, he’s an MMA fighter?” No one knew what it was. So I took these four female loan officers and the office manager to the show and Chuck was fighting Steve Heath. In the second round Chuck kicked Steve Heath with one of the hardest kicks I’ve ever seen. Steve Heath fell to the mat like a ton of bricks. The people from the lender were stunned. But Chuck got the loan. And the deal was that if I helped Chuck and Scott with real estate, because I worked in real estate, that they would teach me how to really fight. So they put me in the ring with Cruz Gomez, one of the guys who fought for me at 145 pounds, and he took me down and submitted me in like 15 seconds. I thought he got lucky so the second time I threw a kick and connected a little bit. But he just took me down and submitted me with a triangle in like 45 seconds. So that was my introduction to MMA.
Yeah, we actually had posters with Chuck on them. He was going to fight for us. I think the UFC had signed him without him knowing that he had signed with us. Then the UFC sent me a cease-and-desist letter. I didn’t do anything wrong … so I’m like, ‘Send it to Chuck!’ Obviously Scott and I knew that it was much better for Chuck to fight for the UFC than in our first show. See, the plan was, if Chuck had lost (his UFC fight) then he would come back and fight for us. So I was sitting next to Scott in New Jersey (at UFC 31) when Chuck knocked out Kevin Randleman. Scott looked over at me and said, “So much for that (chuckles).” We weren’t disappointed. I just didn’t think that Chuck could beat Randleman. I had gone to a store and bought old UFC tapes with Randleman’s fights. After watching Randleman I said, ‘There’s no way Chuck is going to beat this guy, Kevin Randleman is a monster!” But Chuck knocked him out.
So after our blow-up with the UFC, Chuck arranged a dinner with me and Dana. I remember telling Dana, you didn’t need to send me a letter, you could have called. I remember looking at Chuck – he was sitting behind us – and he kept staring at his plate. He wouldn’t even look up. That’s Chuck; he hates conflict, you know? But Dana and I ended up being friends.
The first show we did with HDNet, on January 16, 2004, where Chris Leben beat Mike Swick. Dana and I got along really good. So one day Dana called me and said, “I want tape on Swick and Leben. And what I’m going to do, I’m going to play it on The Ultimate Fighter show and when we show it we’ll go really slow over the WEC logo.” That was huge. Dana got us on TV for nothing. That was huge.
Q: What is the best fight in WEC history?
Harris: Leonard Garcia versus Chan Sung Jung was probably my high point. I was standing there and thinking, “Man, everything we’ve done has culminated into this moment with these two guys giving it everything they’ve got just for the sheer sport of it. Leonard Garcia is like my Stephan Bonnar or Forrest Griffin. Leonard fought for me on our very first show.
The first show we did live on HDNet was that Olaf Alfonso/John Polakowski fight, which is probably the best fight I’ve ever seen other than the Leonard Garcia-Chan Sung Jung fight. It was the same type of fight. It went three rounds. Both guys got their noses broken in the first minute of the fight. There was just blood and guts for three rounds. Dana was at that fight standing and screaming because it was so good. What a way to debut on HDNet. It was like my Bonnar-Forrest Griffin fight.
The night Dana came to that show I went in the back and told all the fighters, “Dana (expletive) White is here!” We had some of the best fights we’ve ever had because Dana was sitting there watching.
Heck, I remember sitting at a company picnic for a company where I was vice president … one of the female employees brought her parents to the picnic. Her dad was sitting and there and he’s in his 50s. I remember him saying, “Man, I was watching that Ultimate Fighter show and those guys are pretty talented. They’re not thugs.” And I remember thinking, ‘That’s it. We’ve just turned the corner.” And then he asked me for tickets to my show, which was two hours away. I remember walking away from that thinking, “It’s starting to happen.” It still gives me chills to this day when I think about it.
Look, we always knew, if the UFC didn’t make it, none of us would. That’s why whenever the UFC called and wanted a fighter, I’d give them the fighter. Leben, Swick…we didn’t try to tie these guys up with their contracts. Some companies will never let you out of a contract to go to the UFC. This really came from Scott (Adams) because he had been a fighter, too. We had seen how hard these guys worked in the gym and we always wanted the best for them; I still do. Even with this transition to the UFC. It’s best for the fighters and that’s what really motivates me. These fighters are good guys.
Q: Now, a lot of people don’t know it, but you’ve got a black belt in taekwondo and you’ve also got a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and have trained in submissions for year. How many fighters have you rolled with?
Harris: Well, in the old days Scott used to bring guys to the gym and tell me to roll with them. That was always an experience.
Q: Biggest crowd ever?
Harris: 15,000 and something in Sacramento for Aldo-Faber, our first Pay-per-View event.
Q: Tell me about some of the habits you believe helped make you a successful promoter.
Harris: I was in sales when I was younger and people would screw me out of pay and commissions and stuff like that, and I made a promise that I would never do that to a fighter. Well, there was a time when a fighter didn’t show up – and this was back in the old days where if a fight didn’t happen, you didn’t pay ‘em – and a fighter showed up, his opponent didn’t, and we paid him. I never gipped anybody, I never didn’t pay somebody what I told them I would pay them.
I remember one time we lost a checkbook right before the end of the show and I had to go to the cage at The Palace (casino) and get $60,000 cash to pay the fighters cash.
Q: Who is the most popular fighter in WEC history?
Harris: Urijah Faber certainly became the most popular fighter, but I wouldn’t say he was the ‘poster boy’ because every event needed good fighters, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived. It was a team effort. We had so many good fighters like Carlos Condit and Brian Stann who anchored shows and made us watchable. All the fighters have a part of that. But Urijah became the most popular and personable fighter.
Q: What is it about Urijah Faber, that you saw him early, that made him so magnetic to the masses?
Harris: I think a lot of it has to do with his lifestyle. I mean, unlike the perception some people had of fighters being thugs back in 2006, he portrayed this clean-living, non-partying guy with the California lifestyle, surfing and tanned, but was totally dedicated to training. He put his money where his mouth was. He didn’t talk a game. I think people really want clean-living heroes. Urijah is a smart dude who lives MMA and understands the sport. His life isn’t based on winning and losing. He just goes out there and performs to the best of his ability. Because he told me, “If life is based on winning and losing then you’re going to be sad a lot. And I’m not going to live my life like that.” That was some of the best advice I’ve ever heard from a fighter.
Note: Part two of this series will run on Thursday.
Thank You, WEC
On the cusp of a merger, the WEC co-Founder remembers the good, the bad and the downright outrageous.