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The Trials and Tribulations
of Taking it on the Road
Eight months ago, a carefully laid plan was put in place. The plan was fairly simple. Fly in low under the radar, dig in deep, and then explode onto the scene. While sounding more like a World War I strategy, the "little company that could" gambled millions on it that it would pay off. In its quest to become an international sensation, Zuffa Sports Entertainment set out to take their mixed martial arts promotion where it had never been before. On July 13, 2002, the planning came to fruition. To the applause 4,500 plus fans, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its European debut at England's famous Royal Albert Hall. It was a hard road to London, harder than most will ever know, with obstacles arising in the days and even hours leading up to UFC 38 that will never be told. But true to its name, Zuffa wasn't going to give up their greatest challenge yet without a fight. With its Las Vegas office packed in suitcases, Zuffa made the 10-hour flight overseas, knowing that the stakes were high, but the payoff would be sweet.
It's July 29th, two weeks after the show, and Zuffa president Dana White is trying to balance his one-year-old on his knee as he talks shop. The subject is London and he discusses how the city first came into the big picture. "When we first bought the company," he starts, "we were only on DirectTV in the United States and Brazil and we had Viewer's Choice in Canada. We were taking this thing global and that meant London. We talked to the guys from SKY TV and we drafted a good game plan with how to run this thing with free shows on TV, then turn it into pay-per-view. Basically, it was a strategy."
With the premiere of the UFC's weekly show in the United Kingdom at the beginning of this year, Zuffa knew it had its foot in the door. A culmination of fights, past and present, sprinkled with commentary and (of course) advertisements for the upcoming UFC in London, the weekly show initially introduced the product to the fans. Within a couple of months, the show's success bumped it up to two-hour installments. "We were playing on TV for months and months there. The viewership grew every week -- huge. Our ratings were just below the WWF there, but they were blowing away major league baseball, the NHL, and the NBA -- blowing them away!"
With the show wetting the public's appetite, Zuffa turned its attention next to a venue that would make a strong statement. Hoping to a make a splash overseas, Zuffa set its sights high on a 140-year old historical landmark, the Royal Albert Hall. But just how did Zuffa get the house where such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra once performed? Explains White, "We kind of flew in under the radar. That's how we got the Royal Albert Hall. We really did a 'soft launch' to them. What you have to understand about the Royal Albert Hall is it's not like a regular venue where they're out to make some money. That place is like a national treasure. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles have played there. They have a board of directors there who decides what goes in there and what doesn't. When the Royal Albert Hall found out what the UFC event really was, they weren't too crazy about it."
Happy or not, a contract was in place, and now it was UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's turn to work his magic. The challenge? To put together a card that would appeal to a live British audience as well as the fans situated at home from around the world. Four local fighters were tapped for the show, while remaining slots were filled with returning champions, up-and-coming challengers, and one outrageous Japanese showman. With the roster set, the plan rolled on.
Wishing to plant its roots in even deeper in the UK, Zuffa joined forces with the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts (BAMMA), an organization formed last year, according to president Dale Adams, to "focus on mixed martial arts events in the UK, ensuring that they meet the correct safety regulations." Even though BAMMA had not been recognized by the British government thus far and Zuffa had no obligation to align itself with it, White says he still saw a need to coordinate with the organization. "We wanted to make sure we had a governing body involved that was overseeing everything we did."
With a venue, fighters, and sanctioning in place, the UFC unveiled the show in April at the Haymarket's Sports Cafe in London. Recalls White, "It wasn't until we really started getting aggressive and had our first press conference and everything else, that we started popping up on everybody's radar. You know, people [with] 'human cockfighting' and all that kind of stuff -- the controversy." Undaunted by the "characters that started to come out of the woodwork," the cause trudged on. "Once you're sanctioned and you know you're allowed to put on an event, let 'em say that," taunts White. "Maybe they'll get more people to tune in. They think they're going to see a car accident, but what they see are great athletes in a great sport. Who knows, maybe we can turn them into fans." As the months turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to days, the Sunday before the event arrived. Many of Zuffa's employees, sans matchmaker Joe Silva (who stayed behind in case there was a last-minute fighter dropout that he might be able to replace from Las Vegas), boarded their planes for London. Fighters were also flown in at this time, (hopefully) giving them ample enough time to adjust to the time difference and jetlag. In the meantime, once they arrived, the office staff dealt with poor telephone lines that made Internet access almost impossible. By Tuesday, every computer had to reinstall fresh programs to get online.
As the show fast approached, Zuffa was set to handle their next sizable obstacle -- the venue. Putting on the show at such an illustrious and popular location had its price. The venue would not be available for load-in till that Friday night at 8 PM, the shortest period of setup time Zuffa had ever worked within. However, with calculated precaution on its side, the deadline was surmountable. The large and intricate lighting truss, along with much of the staging platforms, were pre-constructed and stored in warehouses close to the venue. As of early Saturday morning, thirty or more men could be observed lifting the lighting grid up into place. The familiar Octagon had already been assembled below.
If having limited time to setup was not enough, the Royal Albert Hall added some interesting challenges to the mix. "Normally when we move into our venues," explains White, "we pull up to a loading dock and the guys have forklifts to pull the equipment in. Here, they only had an elevator. Everything had to be brought up in an elevator."
With the architectural limitations of "the Hall," adjustments were made and the usual elements of past American extravaganzas were scaled back. Per RAH's instructions, the pyrotechnics of the show were simplified. "I guess they didn't want us burning down their national treasure," recalls White with a chuckle. With its antique walls and opera-like box-seating, Zuffa was pinned down to only one viewing screen, situated at the very top of the fighter's entrance ramp. Unfortunately, depending on where one sat, view of the screen was obstructed. "We couldn't do our normal setup with the screens, but we figured it wouldn't be a big deal because the seats were so great. Anytime that we're not limited by the venue, we always us the same set up -- two screens on the side and now the center screen we have as well." Regardless, the actual seating for the show offered fans sitting at the highest points in the arena a breathtaking panoramic view of the cage, something that White observed on one of his many trips to the venue prior to the show. "It's beautiful, not to mention the layout is perfect for MMA. We've talked about building a stadium here in Vegas, and if we do it, that's what we're going to build. We'll build the Royal Albert Hall, but it will seat 7,000 -- not 5,000." With the Octagon ready to host a night of MMA action, staff members buzzed around the arena making final preparations. They were ready for the fans. They were ready for the press.
"With headlines like "Glorified Bloodbath" and "Caged Beasts," the British press had descended on the UFC, like vultures to a dead carcass. But Zuffa, determined to get a fair shake in this town, did their best to roll out the welcoming mat for their newfound guests. When unsuspecting throngs of mainstream media showed up to a bonanza press conference on April 17th, Zuffa introduced the event in grand fashion, complete with instructional video, live demonstration, and the three very live British fighters set to fight at the event (fourth Brit James Zikic was added to the roster later). Zuffa was out to put its best foot forward, and reporters that had come looking for a juicy scoop most likely left somewhat perplexed. With a clear agenda and glowing professionalism, Zuffa was probably not what they were expecting. Careful preparation and planning had been utilized, and as articles on the upcoming show began to hit the newsstands, the reviews were generally favorable (apart from the "catchy" titles, a trademark of the British writing-style). Combat magazine ran a thoughtful 4-page story, complete with a mostly accurate history of the show as well as interesting commentary from British competitors Ian Freeman, Mark Weir, and Leigh Remedios. The day of the show, articles ran simultaneously in two major London publications, The Sun and The Times. The Sun ran a page on main event participants Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton in its own sports section - Newton, from British Colombia, obviously got major props for being quoted as saying, "...being in Britain is like coming home." The Times focused on the UFC's turbulent past, and although theirs might have been one of the harsher articles of the lot, thousands of people were introduced to the sport through the printed word that day. Although it remains to be seen how the press handled the UFC following the show (a quick scan of papers the next day yielded no results), White was undoubtedly pleased with the outcome. "I thought they we're pretty fair," he remarked. "We got more press there in the one month than we've gotten for ten years here in America."
As show time loomed, the fans began to stream in around 5 PM to take their seats. The male 18-25 demographic was out in full force, but women and even senior citizens could be seen among the growing audience as well. Many of the fans were undoubtedly seeing the show live for the first time, and had been sustained till now by the steady flow of imported videotapes, followed by the installation of the weekly UFC show on SKY TV. Twenty-two year old James Shears of Southampton, a regular viewer of the weekly show, had driven two hours to the event, but says it was a trip well worthwhile. "I think it's excellent," he chimed. "It's long overdue. I think the country as a whole will be totally receptive to it. We have little events you can go in on, but this is the big time." Donna Wyatt, age 30, and Lucy Richardson, age 22, both of Bedford and taking in the show together for the first time, had followed the event in its earlier days. Said Wyatt, "I started watching it about ten years ago. I saw UFC 1 on tape but obviously there's been a lot of changes since then. I've kinda lost touch. When I first started, it was Royce Gracie and Tank Abbott. So when they decided to come to England, I was there." Whether it be a fan of old or new, everyone had their favorites. "It's unbelievable that the UFC has come over to England anyway, but the fact that we've got Carlos and Matt Hughes is like 'Oh my God'!," announced 23-year old Robert Butler, of Sheffield. Indeed, Carlos Newton (possibly due to the little extra push he received from the local press) was an early favorite. Ian Freeman, although the strong underdog in his match-up with Frank Mir, was deemed a main attraction as well. "He's the only British fighter that's been in the UFC mix for a while," cited Steve Shears, James' brother. Whichever fighter one came out to see, there were thirteen others on the card that were sure to impress as well. By the night's end, the ecstatic yet respectful crowd, were noticeably moved. In fact, much of the audience still sat in their seats moments after the main event had reached completion -- they didn't want to leave!
With UFC 38 a resounding success among those who attended (the buzz in the air could be felt for miles), the fighters, their entourages, family, and friends adjourned briefly back to the hotel and from there it was onto Piccadilly Circus (London's thriving nightlife quarter) for the official after-party. Two large buses transported the upbeat crew through the busy streets of London to the exclusive China White nightclub where they were treated to an open bar and delectable edibles. While the invitations indicated the festivities concluded at 4 AM, "the brawl after the hall" occurred somewhere in the early morning hours of that Sunday morning. What is known is an impromptu fight occurred on the street outside China White, but many of the details regarding the fight have seemingly been "forgotten" by those involved. Among those identified in the melee, UFC Light-heavyweight Champion Tito Ortiz and friends, as well as British fighter Lee Murray, who according to Ortiz, kicked the him in the face while he was down. White, himself, is tight-lipped about what exactly happened, claiming to have not been at the party when the fight occurred. "I have no information on that. What that was, was a bunch of stupid drunk people," he commented. Confirmed by Ortiz the next day in the fighter's hotel lobby as he sported a nasty scrape on his forehead and cuts in the inside of his lip, is that all involved were under the influence of the complimentary liquor. Hesitant to comment on the events until those involved were identified, he explained that he became a part of the action when he exited the club to find his friend facedown in the street being attacked by unknown assailants. Conveniently, many of the fighters left for the airport that morning, substantially cutting down on the usual festering of gossip that could have proved lethal if leaked to the British press. White admits they did get numerous phone calls regarding the incident but fortunately, none of these inquiries have come from England. Although, upon returning to the States, some fighters involved went on the Internet to describe their implications in the melee, White seems determined to get his company past the incident, and it seems Zuffa has dodged yet another bullet (one can just imagine how the British and American headlines could have read). "We get enough negative press without a bunch of jackasses getting into a fist fight at the after-party." Evidently, White and Zuffa have bigger fish to fry.
Apart from its apparent plans for world domination, what can fans and foes alike look forward to with the future of the UFC? "Our next overseas show will be in Japan -- probably in January," announced White. "We're on free TV over there on WOWOW. Next, it's going to be free TV over here." With two one-hour specials for the Fox Sports Network in the can, it seems part two of the plan is well in the works. As for England, when asked if there is anything that Zuffa would do differently next time if given the chance, White had this to say. "No. I loved it. I walked away from England with not one negative feeling, comment, or thought. The fans were great. The venue was great. Everything worked and nobody got hurt. It was a fantastic show." It seems the perils faced have turned to payoffs and with it's first international show successfully under its belt, the sky's the limit for Zuffa and the UFC. Sakè, anyone?
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