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UFC Is Facing Its Ultimate Fight
Posted on Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 6:47 am
by IDMA Editor

As the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Europe for UFC 122 in Oberhausen, Germany, on Saturday, a sellout crowd of 20,000 is expected for the headline middleweight title eliminator between Japan's Yushin Okami and Vitor Belfort, a Brazilian jujitsu expert.

For the overlords of the world's fastest growing sport, however, the focus is on a bigger fight, one that could define the future of the multimillion-dollar mixed-martial arts industry.

"Our biggest challenge right now is combating misconceptions about this sport," said Marshall Zelaznik, the league's U.K. managing director. "We have big ambitions globally, but in some countries, there's still a perception that it's two guys walking off a barstool, going out and fighting in the street."

Mixed martial arts has developed over the last 15 years from a series of unregulated, no-holds-barred free-for-alls into what some people now consider the world's most sophisticated combat art. It is brutal, bloody and very big business indeed.

The UFC is the sport's premier brand and its slickly packaged version of mixed martial arts has helped fuel a meteoric rise in popularity and profitability. The fight group owned by Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC is valued at more than $1 billion by Forbes magazine, and the sport now has more than 300 million fans around the globe and sells more merchandise than the Rolling Stones and U2.

But the UFC wants to be the most popular sport on the planet and while it has a strong presence in Britain and Canada—and claims to sit comfortably in the top four most popular sports in the U.S. based on revenue, television ratings and ticket sales—its international business still faces a fundamental challenge.

The organization has spent three years and millions of dollars stepping up its efforts to create a fan base in Europe. It has staged six events in the U.K., Ireland and Germany and Dana White, the UFC president, has talked big about his league's plans here, with live shows planned for Italy, Sweden and France.

But despite all that, many Europeans still think of this sport as a lawless spectacle. And an unprofitable and violent one at that.

"The way they talk, it's like it's the early dark days of the sport again," said Mr. Zelaznik. "We have faced questions from the media that are very fundamental in terms of what the sport is, and what the rules are."

The league's UFC 121 show on Oct. 23 drew roughly 300,000 television viewers in France, but the sport is still illegal there, and although the organization's first foray into Germany brought a sellout crowd, it also brought some serious headches.

The UFC 99 show in Cologne last June provoked a media firestorm, brought finger-wagging comment from government ministers and went ahead only after local authorities demanded that minors were barred from the show. A few months later, the Bavarian state officials banned UFC programming from DSF, the Munich-based sports television network.

"In new territories, you're always going to find some resistance and the market that's giving us the biggest challenge right now is Germany," said Mr. Zelaznik.

At issue is the fact that many Europeans seem to have missed the last decade, in which time UFC has worked to repair the sport's image by transforming mixed martial arts into a sanitized business suitable for sale at the box office and in homes.

When it began 15 years ago, the UFC was marketed as a bloody, barbaric organization, with no rules, no restrictions and no time limits—just two men battering each other into submission. In 1997, UFC fights were banned from nearly every state and dropped from pay-per-view television.

Today, the UFC has weight classes, tough referees and a scoring system that is similar to boxing. It has also instituted a lengthy list of rules—31 of them, far more (in fact, 31 more) than in the early, bloody days of the 1990s when the sport traded on its unlicensed notoriety and allowed crowd-pleasing tactics such as hair-pulling, head-butting and eye-gouging.

The sport remains unquestionably vicious, but it is arguably no more violent than rugby, ice hockey or boxing. Doctors are ringside at every fight and in order to protect its hard-won status as a properly regulated athletic pursuit, medical intervention comes much earlier than in boxing. After almost two decades and more than 1,000 bouts, the most serious injury suffered by a fighter is a broken arm.

"The fact is this thing is safe," said Mr. White, the league's president. "There's never been a death or serious injury in the 20-year history of UFC—not even cheerleading can say that. That's why we're really focused on sitting down and talking to the powers that be in every country about what this sport is really about. It's an education process."

In that respect, the UFC has a blueprint for success. In the U.S., the organization has helped legitimize a sport that only a decade ago was likened to "human cockfighting" by Sen. John McCain and was banned in 49 states.

Since it was bought in 2001 for $2 million by Mr. White and his partners, the UFC has worked with state athletic commissions to begin regulating mixed martial arts and establishing a unified set of rules.

Those efforts helped transform UFC into a business that draws the largest pay-per-view audience of any televised American sport and its success has made blue-chip corporate partners take notice: Over the last three years, the UFC has signed advertising deals with sponsors such as Harley-Davidson, Bud Light, Burger King and Bacardi.

Now the UFC is leading similar regulation efforts in Europe, holding discussions with France's Sports Ministry over proposals to sanction live events in the country.

The league could probably have expanded into Japan or Brazil more easily, given the long history and immense popularity of martial arts in those countries, but the organization's officials believe its focus on Europe will be worth the effort.

Roughly a third of the traffic to the organization's website comes from outside the U.S. and the UFC 120 event, which was staged in London in October, drew a crowd of 17,133, the ninth-largest attendance at a UFC show and a European record.

Although UFC officials say that its European operations aren't currently profitable due to the costs of building and promoting the brand, if the league grows in Europe, they expect it to generate merchandising, television and online revenue.

"We could have said we don't need France, who cares about Europe?" said Mr. White. "But we're trying to build the biggest sport in the world here. And I don't care what country you come from, or what language you speak—we are all human beings and fighting is in our DNA."

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