Today in MMA history: Affliction debuts an ambitious new MMA promotion, with a future U.S. president by its side

In the spring of 2008, Donald Trump descended a golden escalator in the lobby of Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan to lend his name and his support to a brand new MMA promotion – Affliction.

This was a full decade ago, practically another lifetime in terms of American political and cultural life, and back then nobody gave much thought to the possibility of a Trump presidency. Instead, he was just another famous person on TV who was willing to attach his name to things, and the thing he’d chosen in the world of professional cage fighting was a new organization helmed by Affliction Clothing Vice President Tom Atencio, which Trump assured people would do “very well.”

“I will say these are tough-looking guys,” Trump said when he stepped up to the dais at that first Affliction press conference. To his right sat former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia. On his left, the final PRIDE heavyweight champ Fedor Emelianenko. Almost all the fighters were decked out in gaudy Affliction gear, busy shirts covered in shiny wings and skulls.

“I asked one of them, ‘How long would I last?’” Trump continued. “You know, I’m tough. We’re all tough. And he looked at me like I was kidding. That wasn’t even nice.”

A couple months later, Trump was win attendance for Affliction’s first official event, a 10-fight card dubbed “Banned,” which took place at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., on July 19, 2008 (via Twitter):

The name of the event was a nod to Affliction’s recent history with the UFC. After years of shelling out big money to sponsor marquee UFC fighters such as Georges St-Pierre and Randy Couture, Affliction executives decided they wanted a more direct path into the MMA market. And when the UFC found out that Affliction was starting its own promotion, it banned the company as a UFC sponsor.

Soon the two entities were engaged in open warfare, and all before a single punch had been thrown under the Affliction banner.

In the months leading up to that first event, Affliction snatched up one big name fighter after another, especially in the heavyweight division. The UFC’s purchase of PRIDE, as well as its own struggle to re-sign some of its own fighters, suddenly left a lot of available free agents in that weight class. It didn’t hurt that Affliction was so willing to open its wallet wide in order to lure them over.

For his participation in that first event, the former UFC champ Sylvia made a disclosed $800,000. Another former UFC champ, Andrei Arlovski, made $250,000 to show and another $250,000 to win. PRIDE standout Josh Barnett pocketed a flat fee of $300,000 – a good payday for a brand new fight promotion in late-2000s MMA.

But the crown jewel for Affliction was Emelianenko, whose participation had been secured in part through a co-promotional effort with Russian outfit M-1 Global. (His brother, Alexander Emelianenko, was also slated to fight, but was not cleared by the California Athletic Commission, which declined to detail the exact reason, but said he “was not and will not be cleared to fight in California.”)

There were other signs that Affliction was willing to spend plenty of T-shirt of money to make the show feel like a major event. Heavy metal band Megadeth kicked things off with a brief live performance inside Honda Center to help introduce the fighters. Bruce Buffer’s more famous brother, Michael Buffer, handled ring-announcing duties. NFL reporter and MMA enthusiast Jay Glazer was on commentary, along with Frank Trigg and John McCarthy.

The card itself was also loaded with talent outside the big names at the top. From MMA veterans such as Matt Lindland and Mike Pyle, to free agent acquisitions like Ben Rothwell and Vitor Belfort, just about every notable fighter who wasn’t tied down elsewhere showed up on that first Affliction card.

And, in many ways, it was a success. The UFC was at least worried enough about this new competitor to counter-program the “Banned” pay-per-view with a hastily thrown together Spike TV event, featuring then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva going up a weight class in a non-title fight against James Irvin.

But still Affliction managed to capture much of the MMA world’s attention that night, in large part because it was willing to try for something so big and ambitious right away. It was also because fans were genuinely curious to see whether Emelianenko, long criticized by the likes of UFC President Dana White as a paper champion, could stand up to a recent UFC titleholder. Turns out he had little difficulty, steamrolling Sylvia in just 36 seconds.

The grandiose first attempt came at a cost, though. Affliction sold around 100,000 PPVs for that first event, and brought in a reported $2,085,510 at the gate. It also spent a tad over $3.3 million on fighter payroll once bonuses were factored in, which meant it either had to grow quickly or sell a lot of T-shirts at the merchandise booths to make the venture profitable.

And maybe, with a few breaks, it could have done just that over time. Instead, Affliction ended up canceling its third event – titled “Trilogy,” no less – just a little over a year later following a last-minute drug test failure by Barnett that scuttled plans for a main event pitting him against Emelianenko.

With that, Affliction’s days as an MMA promoter were over. But not before it burned brightly and briefly, starting with that one July night in 2008.

“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”

Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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