BELFAST, Northern Ireland – They sang soccer chants and schoolyard songs. They roared until their lungs were hoarse. They surrounded every arena exit and hotel entrance, hoping to get a glimpse of their heroes.
Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin were the winners in the Octagon, but the biggest winner in UFC 72 at Odyssey Arena was the sport of mixed martial arts.
MMA proved on Saturday that it is not simply an American phenomenon or a casino driven sport. A sellout crowd of 7,850, which paid an arena record live gate of about $1.2 million U.S., spent about four hours singing, screaming and proving that MMA is a serious player on the world sporting scene.
UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta said officials overpriced the tickets, which had a top price of $500 U.S., but it didn’t matter. The fans were out in force – long lines snaked around the arena more than an hour before the first fight – and had by all indications the time of their lives. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” said Griffin of the fans’ singing soccer chants as he was fighting. He received the loudest ovation of all fighters when he was introduced prior to his unanimous decision win over Hector Ramirez. “Damn, that was cool,” he said.
Fertitta and UFC president Dana White felt much the same way, though for vastly different reasons. They are convinced they’ve made new fans of the sport in what is the epitome of a grassroots effort.
The sport gained traction in the U.S. about four years after the Fertitta family purchased it in 2001 at a time when it was hemorrhaging money and in danger of going under. It grew with little mainstream media coverage, largely succeeding because of the Fertittas’ money and business savvy and White’s guile and sheer persistence.
Saturday’s fight was the third in the U.K. and the second this year, with another one set for Sept. 8 in London.
But that, Fertitta said, is only part of an international expansion that he sees taking the sport to Germany next year and, soon, to Italy, Spain and Australia, as well as points in between. “The cool thing about it, and the reason I like moving things around, is every time we go to a new place, we create new fans,” Fertitta said. “There are going to be a lot of people in the arena tonight who don’t know the UFC. Maybe they heard about us from a friend, but they weren’t sure.
“But I know this: They’ll leave here a fan. Going forward, our plans are to continue to hit it hard. We’re going to do at least two more fights this year in the U.K. … and slowly grow the tentacles out.”
Clearly, the nearly 8,000 people who attended Saturday’s card, which had been criticized for not being worthy of pay-per-view, felt they got their money’s worth.
Its success was partly due to a series of enthralling fights – it would be difficult to top the acrobatic lightweight battle between Tyson Griffin and Clay Guida in any venue in any form of combat sports – but it was also because of the UFC’s investment in the sport.
Fertitta said the company is spending $4.5 million to market the UFC brand in the U.K. alone. And that doesn’t include the $1.4 million the UFC spent to market Saturday’s event.
Fertitta credits the investment for building a brand that has made the UFC the dominant force in MMA and helped push it past boxing in terms of popularity with the young audience who will be his customers for decades.
“We’re definitely looking at this long term,” Fertitta said. “One of the things Dana has talked about is that nobody has ever invested in boxing the way we have invested in this sport. The fact of the matter is, when we come to the U.K., we have a $4.5 million marketing expense. It’s just branding the UFC.
“There’s no boxing promoter who has done that, putting his own money into market boxing.”
And it’s had its impact on fans like Brendan Neill of Glasgow, Scotland, who made the trip to UFC 72 with his friend, Noel Murray of Coleraime, Northern Ireland.
Neill is a judo fan who began to follow MMA four years ago, or about the same time the UFC held its first show in the U.K.
Neill and Murray bought front-row tickets because they said they had to see the show.
“It’s a total spectacle and I didn’t want to miss it,” Neill said. “This is the top level of the sport you’re seeing here. You think of MMA and you think of the UFC.”
Because of the ravenous appetite for the sport, Fertitta wants to continue to be a globetrotting company, but the large number of shows comes at a cost. There is only a finite number of fighters and, in a combat sport, the talent occasionally gets injured and can’t compete for periods of a time.
A side benefit of the UFC’s global view, though, is that it helps develop fighters in the countries where it is held.
Light heavyweight contender Michael Bisping, who is from Manchester, England, turned to the sport after UFC 38 was held in London on July 13, 2002.
“It broadens the pool of fighters where we can pull guys from,” UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture said. “There are a lot of talented guys over here in a lot of different combative sports who are now seeing the wisdom of making the transition to mixed martial arts.
“A guy like Bisping is a perfect example of that. The progress he’s made after being on (The Ultimate Fighter) TV show to the way he’s fighting now is amazing. He’s at the point where he’s ready to carry a card fairly soon.”
The fans were so passionate on Saturday that a fighter making his pro debut could have topped the bill and no one would have seemed to notice. When middleweight Jason MacDonald was fighting Rory Singer, the fans began to sing “Old McDonald.”
MacDonald, who won by a referee’s stoppage in the second round, said he didn’t hear them when he was competing, but he was beaming when he learned of it later.
“How neat is that?” he said. “How neat is that? Isn’t that incredible?”
The whole scene was incredible, but none of it would be possible without White, a one-time hotel bellman with limitless energy whose passion for the sport knows no bounds.
After the weigh-in for UFC 71 in Las Vegas last month, White walked to a crowd of several hundred screaming fans. He easily could have avoided them by turning to his left and going to a secure area, but he turned toward them and spent more than a half-hour signing autographs and posing for pictures.
One fan handed White his mobile phone and asked him to speak to his sister.
“Why aren’t you here?” White barked at her in mock indignation.
White then offered her tickets if she would come to the show. It sounded as if she declined, but you can bet White made another customer in those 45 seconds.
“As long as they want to talk to me and take pictures with me, it’s absolutely my duty to do that for them,” said White, who was partying in the hotel bar post-fight Saturday with many of the fans who bought tickets in the arena. “I say this all the time, not just about boxing, but about baseball, basketball and football: These guys make $65 million to play basketball and they won’t spend five minutes with the fans? Come on.
“It’s the same thing with baseball. There are times I’ve been caught walking somewhere and I have an important meeting. But I’ll stay there for two-and-a-half hours. I don’t care what I have to do. If I have somewhere to go, a meeting, people waiting for me, a rehearsal for the show, I don’t care. We’re successful because we make sure every last fan gets what he wants.”