The drive by the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts organisation to become “a global company, but locally relevant” continues on Saturday when a Brazilian defends the bantamweight crown against an American at Wembley Arena, alongside eight British mixed martial artists competing on a 12-fight card.
There are high stakes for every exponent at the summit of the fight sport’s food chain.
The UFC’s return to London, its inaugural event at Wembley but 13th UK sojourn in its 20-year history, heralds a paradigm shift across the fight organisation. The fighter roster has been expanded to 450 athletes, with straw-weight and women’s divisions being added to the existing eight, and thanks to television networks, more than 500 million homes worldwide can access this truly global brand.
When Brazilian Renan Barao, the interim bantamweight champion, steps into the Octagon combat zone against Californian Michael McDonald, the contest will be watched from Copacabana to California in homes, bars, on iPads and mobile devices. Even Facebook will screen six of the fights free on its home page, which has more than 10million followers.
British fighters such as light-heavyweight Jimi Manuwa, welterweight Che Mills and Liverpool’s Team Kaobon lightweights Paul Sass and Terry Etim enjoy both UK and overseas fan bases. Thus, a UFC contract is the Holy Grail for all MMA fighters.
UFC’s new EMEA CEO Garry Cook, former chief executive of Manchester City, says such an evolution for the sports entertainment product revolves around “a global company making itself locally relevant”.
Eleven years ago, the flagging fight organisation was bought by Las Vegas-based casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta for $2million. Subsequently revamped, sanctioned and fully regulated, such was its extraordinary transformation that UFC is now estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $1.3billion. With a controlling stake in the sport of roughly 90 per cent, UFC has put mixed martial arts on the world map.
Pioneering global CEO Dana White believes in the universality of fight sports. “It’s in our DNA,” he says. “Not everyone likes it, but we all recognise it.”
On Tuesday, White received an honorary award from Trinity College, Dublin, and on Friday he visited London’s East End with Brad Pickett — a UK fighter whose parents once owned a bespoke shoe brand there — an area that has been synonymous with prize-fighting for more than 130 years.
Expansion continues. A new EA Sports UFC game will launch this year, while a series of “superfights” are being planned; two of those involving the sport’s leading star, Brazilian Anderson Silva, against American Jon Jones and Canadian Georges St-Pierre.
In the US, the fight league is 12 months into a seven-year terrestrial television deal across the Fox network, the broadcasters having bought the rights for $700m, and airing 16 events a year on average.
When the seven years are up, UFC president White may be getting close to his ambition of making UFC “as widely recognised a sport as soccer”.
It always seemed like a pipe-dream, but the evangelising zeal of the world’s leading fight brand knows no bounds.
This weekend’s contests are intriguing. McDonald has the opportunity to show that he can reach elite against the dangerous, efficient and compact Barao in the headline event at bantamweight. If McDonald succeeds, he could go on to become the youngest UFC champion in history aged 22, one year younger than Jon Jones.
Featherweight Cub Swanson has the opportunity to slay the ghosts of his defeats by Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas, as Swanson faces the skilful Dustin Poirier. Swanson is looking for a fourth straight victory, having shown signs of greater maturity in those three wins, all of which were by knockout.
Unbeaten Londoner Manuwa will aim to demonstrate against the vastly experienced Cyrille Diabate that he is no “one-fight wonder” after his dramatic and powerful debut victory over Kyle Kingsbury in Nottingham five months ago. American Matt Riddle, who has been Brit-bashing his way through the build-up, has pledged to stand and trade with Muay Thai stylist Che Mills, from Gloucester.