It has now been more than two years since Burt Watson left the UFC. At the time of his emotional departure from the promotion after 14 years, Watson had no idea what would be next.
He knew he’d be working somewhere — the event operations guru is always “rollin’” — but in what capacity and with what company, he was not sure.
Since last year, Watson has been doing some work for Cage Fury Fighting Championships in New Jersey. The promoter of that organization, Rob Haydak, has branched out and is now the president of Alliance MMA, a group of regional MMA companies across the country.
Watson came along for the ride, at first as something of a consultant. Last month, though, Alliance made it more formal. Watson is the company’s new executive vice president for operations.
“You hear people say, if it’s supposed to happen, it’ll happen,” Watson told MMA Fighting in a recent interview. “Well, I was never a believer of that. I was always a believer that sh*t happens. Because that’s the way I live my life. But, you know, I’m kind of believing it a little more, because for some reason I’m still in this space. For some reason, I’m still relevant.”
Watson’s position is not unlike the one he held with the UFC beginning in 2001. Most fans new Watson, who Joe Rogan dubbed as the “Babysitter to the Stars,” from pumping up the crowd at weigh-ins and the fighters on fight day. Watson’s “We Rollin’!” exclamation has become a part of MMA lexicon.
But the Philadelphia native was much more than that to the UFC. He was essentially responsible for every part of fight week behind the scenes, from the time fighters touched down in the host city until the Octagon was deconstructed and taken out of the arena. Without hyperbole, Watson created the operations system backstage for mixed martial arts.
With Alliance, he’s not traveling as much — the UFC was running more than 40 shows per year toward the end of his tenure — but he’s still on the road. Watson will travel to Alliance’s regional promotions, from Georgia to San Diego to Seattle to Columbus, to supervise their ops people and make sure everything is running smooth, with a focus on weigh-ins and fight day.
“It’s important for me to get to see their operational procedures,” Watson said. “It’s important for me to go to their show and see how they run their weigh-in, to see how the weigh-in is set up and how the fighters are received, which to me is key. How they understand the system that they’re presented with, the process and how they go through it.”
Watson was working in boxing when UFC president Dana White approached him on the night of a matchup between Zab Judah and Kostya Tszyu in 2001. Watson had worked with the likes of Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. White and the Fertitta brothers had just bought the UFC and were looking for someone to come up with a backstage operations plan.
“When I initially started with the UFC, they did not have a basic format as how they wanted things done, operationally,” Watson said. “When Dana White brought me on, his words to me were, ‘You do what you do best and get it done.’”
Watson, 67, was in that position until 2015 when he abruptly quit the UFC after a confrontation with an executive — not White or Lorenzo Fertitta — during UFC 184 fight week in Los Angeles. Because of how good he was, the quality of his character and his popularity with fans, many were shocked when they heard the news and that no one from the UFC ever reached out after that to mend fences.
Two years later, Watson says he holds no ill will toward the UFC and he’s not upset that one of the owners didn’t try to bring him back when it happened.
“No, I don’t,” Watson said. “And they say that time has a way of healing. Time has gone and I have still been able to be relevant in the sport and be relevant with the people that I work around. I haven’t had the time to really stick around and think about that situation. Initially, when it happened the way it did and because I made the decisions that I made, I didn’t really expect anyone to come to me to make it right if I made that decision.
“I made that decision and I stuck to that decision. I didn’t expect anything other than the way it did. Am I bitter or do I think about it? Not even a little bit.”
Watson ran into White at a CFFC show in Atlantic City earlier this year. Watson said White approached Watson’s wife and gave her a warm greeting. Watson said he and White hugged, exchanged pleasantries and wished each other well. Watson says he still has love for the UFC and tries to follow the product. Recently, when his mother died, a UFC official had fighters from an entire event sign a card and it was sent to him.
For the most part, Watson said he can’t miss the UFC, because he loves and believes in his work with Alliance. Before, Watson was working with athletes at the pinnacle of the sport. Now, he gets to help them prepare for that level and he believes he has as much influence with Alliance on MMA as he ever did.
“Quite frankly, man, I’m having a good time and I’m excited,” Watson said. “When I was with the UFC, I got guys at the highest level. Common sense told me there was a feeder system. I didn’t get a chance to work with feeder systems or regional promotions. I got everybody camera ready. I didn’t know that’s what it was, but that’s what it was. I didn’t know that the UFC or MMA was going to be as big as it is today. But I got them at the highest level. Now, I get to see the grassroots and the feeder system and work with fighters and promotions at that level and get them ready for the next level, get them ready for the UFC and the Bellators.
“I have more [impact], because I have the knowledge and the experience and I’ve spent time at the highest level. Sometimes, when the lights go on, some people’s lights go out, baby. It’s OK to get dim, but they can’t go out. At that level, that’s something that a fighter has to be prepared for.”
Watson’s mere presence — he’s a Fighters Only Lifetime Achievement winner and a veritable legend in the space — is enough to make fighters feel like they’re on the right path with their careers. After all, he invented the modern-day operations protocols that are still used in the UFC today.
A few months ago, Watson said he was watching an interview with current UFC fighter Shane Burgos, who had competed for CFFC and worked with Watson. Burgos, after making his UFC debut, said that he was UFC ready because he already went through a fight week with Watson behind the scenes. He already knew what it was all about.
As one could imagine, that only cemented Watson’s feeling that he’s in the right spot at the right time with Alliance.
“For me to be at home watching an interview and hear a guy said that, man, it just … whew,” Watson said, getting emotional. “If I had a half a tank of gas, I have a full tank of gas now. Because that’s what it did. It showed me that what I’m doing with these younger guys at the amateur level or just the regional level to prepare them to get to the next level is working. I think that that’s what Alliance MMA saw and thought would be an asset to them and the regional promotions, to have me there to do that.”