As the Ultimate Fighting Championship prepares to debut in Germany with a June 13 show in Cologne, it’s suddenly 1997 all over again.
A front-page article on Sunday in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, has led to a slew of negative publicity in the country. This resulted in the arena agreeing to ban anyone under the age of 18 from attending the show at the Laxness Arena after the head of a local child protection commission pushed for it.
In Monday's edition of BILD, the country's biggest newspaper, Marek Lieberberg, UFC's local promoter, said child protective services of Cologne asked for a ban on minors' attendance at the card, and he accepted it. However, the article itself had incorrect information, stating that everything is legal in UFC fights with the exception of biting and eye poking.
The crop of bad publicity is similar to the press that nearly killed the UFC in the United States in 1997, resulting in it being taken off by most major cable companies and surviving on life support over the next few years.
"The U.K. was the same way," said UFC president Dana White. "People are scared of this. You can tell people there’s never been a death, never been a serious injury, all day long. It’s a never-ending job."
The story noted that in March, Cologne's city council tried to ban the event, claiming it was too violent. Cologne mayor Manfred Wolf said there was no law in place that would allow them to ban the show. Several citizens started a petition to try and ban the event, claiming that by virtue of it being held in a major arena, that would give the message that MMA is socially acceptable.
"We have to ban this insanity," said Werner Schneyder," a well-known German boxing announcer. "We have to accept crippled fighters and deaths. They are trying to sell brutality as something impressive."
Generally speaking, UFC doesn’t draw many spectators at live events under the age of 18, with the majority of fans between the ages of 25-40.
More than 7,200 tickets have been sold for the event, headlined by Wanderlei Silva vs. Rich Franklin, in the 18,000-seat arena.
At this point local media have not drawn the connection between the boxing industry's negativity toward MMA because of their fear it could erode their fan base, particularly in Germany, where boxing is popular.
"No doubt about it," said White. "[Boxing promoters] make a lot of money off big fights there. It’s the same thing we’ve battled everywhere. It was even worse when we started in the U.K. Television, politicians, venues, they were all against us. They tear it down. It takes time."
"It’s a long fight. We’re not allowed in New York," White noted. "As big as we are in Canada, we’re not allowed in Toronto."
Cro Cop returns to UFC
It wasn't all bad news on the UFC 99 front Monday, as White finalized a deal to bring back Mirko Cro Cop (24-6-2, 1-no contest) to the company.
"I’ve been working on it for a couple of days," White said. "He’s back and he’s all fired up. He wants to erase his previous UFC record."
Cro Cop signed with UFC at the end of 2006, after winning the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix tournament, stopping Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett in the first round on the same night. At the time he was considered the No. 2 heavyweight in the world behind Fedor Emelianenko, and many were conceding the UFC heavyweight title to him as soon as he got a match with then-champion Tim Sylvia. When Randy Couture captured the UFC heavyweight title from Sylvia, it was thought one of the biggest matches in MMA history was inevitable.
But those plans evaporated a few months later. Cro Cop was knocked out in stunning fashion in his second UFC match, by a head kick from Gabriel Gonzaga, and he later lost a decision to Cheick Kongo. Both sides mutually agreed to part ways after the second loss. He fought in Japan three times in 2008, with two wins and a no-contest.
"I decided to fight in the UFC again, because of the stronger competition in the heavyweight division," Cro Cop said on his Web site on Monday. "I didn’t do well in my first three appearances. I wasn’t myself. By returning to the cage, I want to prove that I can still fight at the highest level, no matter when or where."