It's hard to believe the person who has stated that within a decade, the Ultimate Fighting Championship would be the biggest sporting brand in the world, was nervous when tickets first went on sale last week in the company's hottest market.
But UFC 129 in Toronto's Rogers Centre is the first major stadium-sized venue the company has ever booked.
Toronto has been one of the company's strongest pay-per-view markets for years, but for political reasons that were resolved last year, it will be April 30 before it is able to host a live event in the province of Ontario.
UFC's Montreal sellouts, including the 21,000-plus at the Bell Centre three times in four events, included a large percentage of the ticket buyers (estimated at 40 percent by UFC officials) from Ontario.
But it took only minutes Thursday to turn UFC president Dana White's nerves into outright jubilation. By the end of the day, the entire allotment of more than 42,000 tickets for Toronto was sold in a pre-sale open only to UFC Fight Club members. The club has approximately 20,000 worldwide members – more than one-third live in Canada – and gives them first shot at tickets to all the live events.
Georges St. Pierre, who hails from Saint-Isidore, Quebec, and is something of a Canadian national hero, will headline the event and defend his welterweight championship against Jake Shields. While Shields, based on his record, is a worthy challenger, this is by no means a marquee fight compared to other UFC shows. The show's other two major fights are featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr., defending against Mark Hominick of London, Ont., and Hall of Famer Randy Couture vs. former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
Because of demand, UFC reconfigured the arena the next day to add approximately 10,000 more tickets and sold those out to the public in about seven minutes Saturday. It might have been faster, but that's how long it took to process the credit card orders. More than 4,000 people called immediately when sales opened, buying all remaining tickets. UFC also made sure the approximately 150 people who had camped out overnight at the stadium in freezing temperatures got tickets, which took about 30 minutes at the building.
In all, the company announced the sellout at 55,000 – a number that includes the 3,434 seats available to luxury box owners.
Tuesday, White announced the live gate at $11 million, doubling the company's combined live and closed circuit record of $5,441,290 set for UFC 100 in Las Vegas on July 11, 2009, which was headlined by Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir for the heavyweight title.
"I'm normally pretty cocky about this stuff," said White. "I believe in it. I believe in the brand, the sport and the fighters. The question is, we sold out 23,000 tickets [for the Dec. 11 Georges St. Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck fight in Montreal], but how many more people were looking for tickets?
"It was a big move to put 42,000 tickets on sale," he said. "We got to 23,000 at the Bell Centre, but how many more people wanted to come? Was it 25,000? 29,000? When we put 42,000 on sale, I was a little nervous. I didn't know and I'm totally blown away with the response.
"Now with 55,000, how many more could we have done?"
The $11 million gate is not only a world record for the sport, but also is the largest in history for the 22-year-old stadium, which is the world's first domed stadium with a retractable roof. UFC's gate breaks the stadium record of $8 million set by a Buffalo Bills NFL game.
Toronto is a major scalpers' city, thanks to the instant sellouts of Toronto Maple Leafs games. Tickets, originally priced from $50 to $800, often sell through the secondary market at prices ranging from $130 to $49,000.
MMA's previous record of $7.4 million was set on Aug. 28, 2002, for an outdoor show by the Pride promotion at Tokyo National Stadium and was headlined by Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Mirko Cro Cop. That show will still hold the attendance record, which was publicly announced at 91,108. It is routine in Japan to greatly exaggerate attendance numbers in sports and entertainment, and promotions routinely give away many tickets for stadium shows. Pride officials at the time noted that the arena was actually set up for 80,000 max, and did not sell out. The real attendance was approximately 71,000, with just under 50,000 paid.
The boxing record live gate is $18,419,200, set on May 5, 2007, for the Oscar de la Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight in Las Vegas. But White was quick to point out a major difference between a casino-bought gate in Vegas and a general-public gate.
"We sold 55,000 tickets, those are all to fans. You know boxing doesn't sell tickets to regular fans," he said. "Boxing guys put tickets up for ridiculous prices and casinos buy the tickets. The reason we doubled the gate [company record] is because there's 55,000 tickets. Boxing does a $20 million gate, but boxing charges five grand for tickets because casinos buy the gate. We have real fans buying our tickets."
The only boxing event in North America that wasn't held in a casino location and has done numbers in this ballpark was the March 13, 1999, Madison Square Garden heavyweight title fight with Evander Holyfield vs. Lennox Lewis, which also did $11 million.
The previous attendance record for the Rogers Centre was $3,846,033 U.S., back when it was known as Sky Dome, and was set March 17, 2002, for a WrestleMania event headlined by Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock, with 68,237 fans, 61,069 of them paid.
UFC reconfigured the stadium for better site lines compared to that event, where a number of seats were blocked off. Instead of putting chairs on what would be the football field, 14-foot-tall bleachers will be imported and installed at the top. This means fewer seats on the floor, and another 6,000-7,000 seats in the "200" section that can't be sold because the bleachers will block the view from the seats. In addition, other seats will be blocked off to accommodate 14 giant screens measuring 60 feet by 30 feet, including one over the cage.
Should St. Pierre beat Shields, White has talked about a St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva fight, which could be the biggest money fight in MMA history. The success of the Toronto show almost guarantees that when big fights like that come along, they can be staged at stadium-sized venues. This opens up talks not only in the U.S. and Canada, but also in the United Kingdom and Australia, countries where the company has sold out major arenas without even having title fights or even its biggest draws as headliners.
A few weeks ago, White talked about perhaps Toronto for St. Pierre vs. Silva depending upon how tickets went, or Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. But he seemed more enthused about Toronto than Dallas on Tuesday.
"The problem with doing Dallas is the number of [hotel] rooms down there," White said. "As big as that stadium is, there aren't a lot of rooms. Our sport, like the Super Bowl, will bring in people from all over the world. Toronto is a huge, hip city of things for people to do, clubs, restaurants … "
Tom Wright, UFC's director of Canadian operations, was a former commissioner of the Canadian Football League. The Rogers Centre has hosted several Grey Cups, and Wright compared this event favorably to that sport's championship game.
"The Grey Cup has never sold out like this event sold out Rogers Centre," he said. "I think it's a reflection of our sport. The Grey Cup is a great Canadian celebration, but this is a worldwide celebration."