Abu Dhabi in sight for UFC

Dana White, president of the UFC, is in the country and the possibility of holding an event here is high on his agenda.

UFC fighters Chuck Liddell, left, and Mauricio Rua as they square off at a news conference in Montreal in April to promote an upcoming light heavyweight fight. Dana White, centre, is the man responsible for reviving the sport and propelling it to new heights.
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ABU DHABI // The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a global sporting phenomenon, and mixed martial arts (MMA) fans in the Emirates could be about to benefit with a major event in the country. Dana White, president of the UFC, is in the country and holding an event here is high on his agenda. "I don't like to talk about things unless they are going to happen or make predictions, but I'm pretty confident we can get something done here," he said.

"Without extending myself too far out there, I think it's very likely to happen." The UFC has evolved from no-holds-barred grudge matches - pitting masters of specific fighting styles against artisans of opposing techniques - into a multi-million dollar form of MMA, firmly established as the biggest pay-per-view draw in the United States. After convincing childhood friends Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to purchase the ailing franchise for $2million (Dh7.3m) in January 2001, White has overseen the largest commercial transformation of any sport worldwide.

Persuading two Las Vegas casino owners to open their cheque books and install him as their purchase's public face was only White's first master-stroke. The next was incorporating audience-friendly rules, creating weight division classifications and introducing corporate sponsors for fighters. While White's stewardship has reshaped the UFC's destiny, his next move will define its long-term international success. "The difference between now and nine years ago is our track record of safety and success - it's only going to get better," said White.

"The first nine years were the hardest, the next nine years are going to be a lot easier." Falling after a gap of every five to six weeks, the UFC bills - featuring big-name fighters - have opened up lucrative television deals in new, revenue-generating markets driving the sport's popularity. Restricting events to the United States would not appease a burgeoning international fan-base forever; the sport needs to be as international as its fighters. Events have been held in the United Kingdom and Germany - Australia is next on the list.

Abu Dhabi's UFC fans could soon be the next step of the global expansion strategy as is evident by the fact that White is here four days ahead of the next billing - UFC 101 in Philadelphia. "Things are booming here, Abu Dhabi is growing and looking for new events. All these event centres are being built and we'd love to bring the UFC here," he said. "I didn't fly over here for nothing - I didn't come here the week of an event because I didn't think good things were happening," White said."Abu Dhabi is an amazing, hip new city which is run by visionaries. I don't think we are going to have any problem putting on events here."

His attraction to the emirate is not simply one of financial proportions. He is all too aware of UFC's aversion to neutrals and knows unearthed audiences need education into the sport, its fighters and its format - time-burning and cash-costing nuisances. That is why Abu Dhabi has the jump on other potential hosts. "There is always an education factor in the UFC," said White citing the example of wrestling, another form of MMA, that has been held in Abu Dhabi since 1998.

"When we go into new countries we have to educate people about what the sport is, but Abu Dhabi's annual Submission World Championship has been around since before the UFC." White has spent the last eight years turning his life's biggest risk into a profit-driven juggernaut. The joint UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta left his casino business to devote his energy to the cause. Rewards are reaped from such risks. Indeed, as Muhammad Ali once said: "He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life."

Mr UFC remains walking proof of the 'Greatest's' sentiments. emegson@thenational.ae