UFC launches most ambitious travel plans yet

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UFC launches most ambitious travel plans yet
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Dana White will need to clone himself to get everywhere the UFC plans on going in 2012

With stops in Brazil, Japan, Australia and possibly Sweden in the first quarter of 2012 alone, the UFC has targeted the most ambitious travel intinerary in its history next year.

And that’s just the start of what promises to be the busiest year in company history. Beginning in mid-March, with the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show on FX, the company will broadcast live fights every Friday night from its gym in Las Vegas in addition to a regular schedule of fights most weekends.

UFC president Dana White has talked for months about plans that would eventually include running multiple shows around the world on Saturday nights. At one point the company considered a doubleheader Feb. 25, first airing a show from Japan on Fox, followed immediately with a pay-per-view event from Las Vegas. That ended up not happening when the date for the second Fox show was changed to Jan. 28, which will be held at the United Center in Chicago.

The Feb. 26 show in Japan (Feb. 25 in the U.S.) will instead be a pay-per-view date from the Saitama Super Arena just outside Tokyo, MMA’s “home arena” during the heyday of the PRIDE organization, which at its peak regularly packed the building with 35,000 fans.

The UFC is taking what some feel is a risky step in Japan, a country with unique tastes. The hope is that by pushing the UFC’s brand for the first time in the modern era, augmented by top Japanese stars Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami, Hatsu Hioki and Takeya Mizugaki, the company can do what the promotions in that country can no longer do in drawing big crowds.

Akiyama (13-4, 1 no contest) will face Jake Shields (26-6-1). When Akiyama left Japan, he was the country’s most hated fighter because he'd been caught on camera rubbing skin lotion on his legs before a Dec. 31, 2006, fight against Kazushi Sakuraba. The animosity stemmed from the belief that he cheated to beat the country’s national hero in the sport.

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But that’s also been five years ago. Before the controversy, the charismatic former Asian Games gold medalist in judo was being promoted as the new leading MMA star in the country.

Okami (26-6), one of the top middleweights in the world, is neither a major star nor well known in Japan because he wasn’t part of the national TV era of companies like PRIDE, Dream and Heroes. Okami will face Tim Boetsch (14-4). Hioki (25-4-2), who will face Bart Palaszewski (36-14) is somewhat in between, in the sense he fought at a high level in Japan and was well-respected as a fighter, but was never a celebrity fighter or heavily promoted to the masses. The same is true for Mizugaki (15-6-2), who faces Chris Cariaso (12-3).

The main event for the Saitama show will be Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) vs. Benson Henderson (15-2) for the lightweight title, a match of two fighters not well known in the Japanese market. Of the Japanese names on the show, only Akiyama was a well-known star outside of the most ardent hardcore fan base. Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, who is actually the biggest star in Japan of the fighters on the current UFC roster, has a broken finger and looks to be unlikely to be ready by that time.

That Japan card will be followed six days later by what is tentatively scheduled as the second FX show, from Sydney, Australia. This would be a Saturday late morning and afternoon show on March 3 broadcast in prime time March 2 in the U.S. No matches have been hinted about for the card. If this goes as planned, it would mark the first time much of the UFC crew will be stationed overseas for an extended period of time, first going to Japan early to promote and put together that show, and head to Australia immediately after the show.

The question coming out of this ambitious schedule, when even the most ardent fans have trouble keeping the dates and matches straight, is how much UFC product is too much? And as much, what is the breaking point for White, particularly when the “TUF” season starts and he has to be in Las Vegas every Friday, which is a key promotional day, and the same day as weigh-ins for Saturday night shows. White is the key in both the local and national promotion of the pay-per-view shows, and he can't be in two places at the same time.

When it comes to running live events in various countries, there is still far more of a demand then a supply. With the exception of one event in 2010 in Germany, a market the company had lost television in, every overseas show they have run of late has done either sellout or near-sellout business. The strategy to combat this in 2102 is not to increase the number of pay-per-view shows, and actually slightly decrease them, but run more often by adding free TV and basic cable shows on Fox, FX and Fuel.

The most successful of the foreign markets has been Brazil. After selling out its first show in the market in 13 years Aug. 27 in Rio de Janeiro at the HSBC Arena, the company returns to the building Jan. 14, going with Brazilian native Jose Aldo Jr. (21-1) defending his featherweight title against wrestling standout Chad Mendes (11-0). But the big attraction on the show will be one of Brazil’s most popular fighters, former champion Vitor Belfort (20-9), facing newly turned middleweight Anthony Johnson (10-3). Belfort is the country’s best-known fighter, because he’s appeared on a popular reality show and is married to Joana Prado, a television star and model.

The company has still talked about plans of running an outdoor soccer stadium show in the country at some point next year, which could break the company’s attendance record set April 30 in Toronto of 55,724.

White said that when tickets went on sale for the Aug. 27 date, several hundred thousand fans called the first day, and that the company “blew it” by not putting the show in an outdoor soccer stadium.

Brazil, generally considered the sport’s birthplace, is the country where the UFC currently enjoys its highest level of mainstream popularity.

The Nov. 12 fight in which Junior dos Santos captured the heavyweight title from Cain Velasquez aired live on the country’s biggest network, Globo, and did a 20 rating and a 52 share, for a total of 22 million viewers. The viewership level is even more impressive when you consider the fight didn’t even begin until 12:30 a.m. in Rio de Janeiro.

A date in Stockholm hasn't been announced, but company officials have confirmed its being worked on for early in the year. If followed through, it would be the first time the UFC has hit Scandinavia, where it has been popular on television for several years.

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