On Saturday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will touch down on British soil for the twentieth time, 15 years since the promotion first ventured here in July 2002.
Staged at the Royal Albert Hall, UFC 38 was attended by less than 4k people and attracted a global buyrate of just 45k. An encouraging 13-week broadcast deal with Sky Sports was signed prior to the event, but negotiations to extend the partnership broke down shortly afterwards, and the UFC did not return to these shores for another five years.
The media, meanwhile, found themselves more fascinated with the brawl outside the hall, as warring entourages clashed at the official after-party. In one now infamous incident, the legendary light-heavyweight, Tito Ortiz, was allegedly knocked out cold by Lee Murray, a Brit currently serving 25 years in prison for armed robbery.
How times have changed.
Saturday’s Fight Night event will be the seventh time the UFC has visited London’s 20k capacity O2 Arena, with tickets selling out in a matter of minutes. The last big event to be staged in England, UFC 204, was watched by hundreds of thousands. Mixed martial arts (MMA), once considered to be a niche pursuit in this country, now lays claim to being one of the most popular spectator sports in the country.
“The United Kingdom is established as our flagship market in Europe and in terms of revenue it is our fifth-largest market worldwide,” Joe Carr, the UFC’s Vice President of International Business Development, proudly tells me. “And when we have a PPV model established in the UK I expect this market to catch up with Australia, and possibly even Canada, too.”
Which rather begs the question: how exactly did this happen? How did a sport so maligned by some — a sport that the British Medical Association was campaigning to have banned as recently as 2007 — suddenly lay claim to be as popular as boxing in the UK? And how did the UFC, a distinctly American promotion company, become quite so beloved in this country?
I spoke to some of the most prominent figures in the UFC’s British revolution to find out how the company has so emphatically embedded MMA into the sporting psyche of this country.
There are only seven miles separating the O2 from Old Street, but the self-consciously cool organic coffee shops and vintage markets now commonplace in this particular part of east London feel a world away from the neon razzmatazz that awaits 20k rapturous fans on Saturday night.
Hidden in plain-sight among the hipsters working on the Silicon Roundabout sits the London Fight Factor mixed martial arts gym. Its founder, Luiz Ribeiro, has noticed a distinct change in the people coming through the doors of his dojo.
“Our MMA classes are very popular now, I would say on an even level with boxing,” Ribeiro, a wily old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a bucketload of charisma, tells me. “Suddenly we have a lot of people who want to be the next [UFC lightweight champion] Conor McGregor or [first British champion] Michael Bisping, people who they have seen and been inspired by, and they want to be that person.
“Nowadays you can watch the UFC down the pub with your mates, just like you can watch football or rugby. So people down the pub see it and naturally they want to try it for themselves. And obviously the UFC bringing shows to the UK has helped a lot in drawing attention to the sport.”
Dan Hardy, a former UFC title contender, is another in the sport to take note of its exponential surge in popularity. Since being forced into an early retirement with a rare heart condition, 34-year-old Hardy has embarked on a career as a UFC fight analyst, fronting up the company’s successful Inside The Octagon show as well as penning a column for the Independent.
His YouTube series — unapologetically analytical and somewhat similar in tone to Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football — attempts to “reestablish the martial arts in mixed martial arts”, in Hardy’s own words, in an attempt to educate the raft of new fans who are engaging with the UFC. Hardy, erudite and engaging, is the perfect host.
“We want to help some of the new fans along, because a lot of the people who are getting introduced to the sport really do not understand what it is about and what we are trying to achieve,” he explains.
“When you start showing people the techniques, thought-processes and game-plans behind these fights, it shows them that there is so much more to this sport than they initially thought.”
The UFC has not only proved a hit with British fight fans on YouTube. Last year, BT Sport retained exclusive live UFC rights within the UK and Republic of Ireland, paying a huge sum and committing to over 150 hours of live action per year. Simon Green, Head of BT Sport, admits that “eyebrows were raised” when the broadcaster first partnered with the UFC in 2013.
Despite the initial scepticism, the partnership has proven highly profitable for both parties. The UFC has benefited from a consistent and experienced broadcast partner while they continue to build their brand recognition in the UK. And BT Sport has benefited from a growth in viewing figures and significant digital engagement.
More than 300k people are believed to have tuned in for McGregor’s most recent bout, his lightweight title-fight against Eddie Alvarez. Which is impressive when you consider that it took place at 06:20 on a Sunday morning.
“However, it is not really about the viewing figures,” Green says. “We know that they are always going to be limited by the time difference. It is more about the engagement we get around the sport — particularly on our digital channels — which mean that the brand association we have with the sport is particularly valuable.
“Of course, if we could isolate why people subscribe to BT Sport then it is likely we would find nine out of ten people subscribe for the football. But we believe that there is crossover potential for any sports fan of a certain age group and clearly if you are a football fan in your early 20s, you probably know who Conor McGregor is and most probably want to watch the UFC. Our younger viewers are very engaged with it.”
Two of the factors Green touches upon — viewing figures and a predominantly youthful UK fanbase — are topics Carr speaks about at length while outlining his vision for further UFC expansion into the UK.
“I think it is unlikely we will ever get to a point where we are doing 13 pay-per-views (PPV) in the UK like we are in Australia or Canada because of the time-zone challenges, but I think a PPV model could work here,” says Carr.
“And once we have that capability here in the UK we will be more open to bringing Conor or somebody like that over here for a primetime title-fight, because although we might take a hit with our US numbers, we know we will be able to balance it out in the UK and Ireland.”
If developing a PPV model with BT Sport is a plan to keep the sport growing in the short-term, investing in young British fighters is a long-term plan to keep MMA developing in the UK for many years to come.
“The British fighters we currently see coming up are really doing well because of the investment we made in the UK around a decade ago, when they were all teenagers,” Carr adds.
“It takes a long-time to develop MMA at the grassroots in some of the international markets and, in the UK specifically, we know that we cannot always continue to ride the coattails of Bisping. We now have such a big group of UK talent coming up. When you invest early on you might not see those rewards for five years or so, but the success does come.”
It is all a far cry from the early days of MMA in the UK. When Hardy started fighting in 2004, at venues including the Bracknell Sport and Leisure Centre and Sheffield University, the sport was still seen as belonging to the underground — perceived by many as little better than bare knuckle boxing. The glitz and glamour of the UFC, already well established in the US, seemed like it was taking place on a different planet.
“I just couldn’t see a route to the UFC from where I was in those early days,” he says. “Essentially, the British guys were carving a path that just did not exist. I know that sounds sensationalised, but it’s true, we were going in a direction nobody had been before and at times it was discouraging because we knew that at any time things could all fall apart.”
In 2017, the route for young Brits to superstardom, while by no means easy, is becoming increasingly well-trodden. The success of men such as Hardy and Bisping has inspired a new generation of fighters, who are now spotted, coached and nurtured from a much earlier age by the UFC.
Suffolk-based fighter Arnold Allen is just one example. At 23, he is the same age at which Hardy dropped out of his undergraduate degree in art and design at Nottingham Trent University to take his first footsteps into the unknown. In contrast, Allen is preparing for his third fight in the UFC, with a place in the featherweight top ten rankings in his sights.
“The older guys – Brad Pickett, Dan Hardy, Michael Bisping — these are the guys who have set the path for the new breed to come in and take over,” he says ahead of his eagerly awaited fight against Finland’s Makwan Amirkhani.
“And obviously I am happy to have the opportunity to have a main card fight in the UK, which is something that I have always wanted.”
It would be easy to say the future success of the UFC in the UK lays heavy on the shoulders of fighters like Allen. But unlike their predecessors, this current generation of British fighters are not duty bound to succeed inside the Octagon to keep MMA moving forwards as a sport in this country. Not when knowledge of the sport, television figures and participation numbers are all steadily increasing.
And so while the eyes of the UK’s MMA community will be trained on the O2 on Saturday night, the venue, packed to the rafters with committed fans, is arguably no longer the true yard-stick of how far the sport has come in this country. Instead, glimpsing into a pub or local gym, where many thousands more will tune in to see British hopeful Jimi Manuwa take on Corey Anderson, will give a better representation of the depth of the UFC’s success on these shores.
As Luiz Ribeiro tells me in between busy training sessions: “Now, everybody has seen the fights and everybody wants to know some basic techniques or just know a little bit more about the different strategies. The UFC boom in the UK has happened.”
Watch UFC Fight Night: Manuwa vs. Anderson live in the UK on BT Sport from 9pm GMT on Saturday, March 18, or catch the UFC FIGHT PASS Prelims from 5:30pm GMT.