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UFC full speed ahead with Fertitta on board

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Dana White, the loquacious president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, spent much of the spring of 2008 teasing the media about an announcement he vowed would profoundly change the mixed martial arts industry for the better.

Today, 13 months after that announcement, White said even he failed to grasp the impact that co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta opting to work full-time for the UFC and give up his job running Station Casinos would have upon the sport and the company.

"You know how I like to talk and I was out there telling everybody that having Lorenzo working on this thing on a day-to-day basis was huge and that he was going to make such a dramatic impact that in five years, people would look back on his decision to come over as one of the most significant moments in our history," White said. "But I'm telling you the truth: He's done more in a year than I thought he would do in five."

Fertitta, 39, eschews the limelight and said the credit for the UFC's rapid growth shouldn't go to any single individual but rather to a team of more than 100 employees based on two continents.

Yet, since Fertitta's first full day as the UFC's chief executive officer, he has landed television deals in China, Mexico, France and Germany; is on the verge of bringing a fight card in February to Sydney, Australia; helped settle what could have turned into a nasty dispute between the company and popular heavyweight contender Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic; organized the first UFC Fan Expo and played key roles in the development of a video game and fighter action figures.

The UFC has long coveted Mexico as a market because of its vast number of fight fans. Fertitta worked out a deal with Televisa, the largest media company in the Spanish-speaking world and UFC 100 was shown live for free and drew 25 million viewers.

In addition, Fertitta believes he's made significant inroads toward a television deal in the Middle East. A live event in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates seems more and more likely.

So while many fans understandably were hopeful that White's major 2008 announcement would have been something more tangible, like a much-anticipated fight between heavyweights Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko, the addition of Fertitta on a day-to-day basis has been an enormously beneficial move for the UFC.

Fertitta is a longtime fight fan who attended his first boxing match in 1978, when he watched Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks meet for the heavyweight title in Las Vegas.

He instantly became hooked. When he first began to watch MMA, he had the same passion for it that he had when he saw his first boxing match. Yet, when he stared around the nearly empty arena at UFC 27 on the campus of the University of New Orleans in 2000, he was stunned.

"I'm looking around and talking to my brother [Frank III] and Dana and I said, 'Is there something wrong with us that we like this so much?' because nobody else seemed to care much," Fertitta said. "But what I thought was more likely that was a business had to be built around it. The fights themselves were great. We were just big, old fans and we were loving it, but there were only 750, 800 people there. The place was dead, there was no music, no entertainment, no programs, nothing."

There was nothing to indicate that this was a major league professional sport. Fertitta, though, knew how much passion he and White had for the fights and felt that would passion would resonate with others if it were packaged and presented properly.

After officially taking over the company in January 2001, Fertitta has essentially tried to build a major league sport out of what once was a dying business entity.

And while his impact had been felt greatly in each of the first 7½ years of his ownership, it wasn't until he quit his post at Station Casinos and began working full-time for the UFC in June 2008 that he really put his imprint upon the product.

UFC 100 was available in more than 300 million homes in 17 languages. While the UFC has a company policy of not disclosing exact pay-per-view figures, the sales for UFC 100 were in excess of 1.5 million, making it one of the most-watched PPV events in history.

White had jokingly promised reporters at a prefight news conference he'd base jump from the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas if UFC 100 reached 1.5 million pay-per-view sales.

Fertitta declined to give a sales figure, but he did say, "I think Dana is going to be doing a base jump at Mandalay Bay."

White said none of the progress the company has had surprised him. He's only been surprised at how quickly Fertitta has made deals.

"Internationally, things have progressed much faster than I expected and I've said for a long time that's a huge initiative for us," White said. "But I just couldn't give it the time it really needed before Lorenzo got here. We're doing 12-13 pay-per-views a year. We do two seasons of 'The Ultimate Fighter' a year and all those cards on Spike. There's no way I could do all that and handle re-signing fighters and putting out the fires that flare up every day and then figure this out internationally. Physically, it was just impossible.

"The strange thing about this all is that I don't even think to this day that a lot of people really understand how huge it's been for us having him around."

Fertitta believes that new television deals in the U.S. are possible within the next year. He believes China, where the UFC will be shown in prime time on Saturday nights on Inner Mongolian TV, will become a major market for the UFC.

Inner Mongolian TV is so excited about having the UFC that it is spending its own money to market the product.

"America is the biggest and most influential media market and they pay close attention to what goes on here," Fertitta said. "They saw the success in rebranding TNN to Spike and then the success of Spike's relationship with the UFC and that's something they want to replicate. They want to brand their channel as having the UFC. … They're looking at the success Spike had with the UFC and trying to do something similar there."

His goal is to get UFC programming on free television on a dominant network in every major country on all continents. That will allow for the continuation of growth of the sport and the development of even better fighters.

And that, more than anything else, is what excites him.

"At the end of the day, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't like the fights themselves," Fertitta said. "I love sitting there and watching these guys fight, and I know as we expand our reach and the TV deals get done, you're going to see more and more dojos opening in these countries and the level of the fighters is going to just get better and better.

"I think about what kind of fights we're going to see five, 10 years down the road after the sport matures a little and as a fan, it's something that gives you goose bumps. It's going to be great."

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