UFC’s crazy trip to Conor McGregor headline show in Madison Square Garden
Saturday night’s New York card shows how far the sport has travelled this last 20 years
Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, UFC president Dana White and featherweight champion Conor McGregor interact with the media and fans during a press event at Madison Square Garden in September. Photograph: Jeff Bottari/Getty Images
The day before UFC 12 was due to begin at the Niagara Falls Civic Center word reached the organisation that New York State would not allow it go ahead unless headgear was compulsory, the octagon was enlarged and kicks above shoulder height were banned. Within hours, an over-worked crew and a bunch of agitated fighters were loading up three private planes and heading for Dothan, Alabama.
Nobody had ever heard of the small southern town before but it had an empty theatre available at short notice, no moral objections to the spectacle, or last-minute demands to change the rules. In February 1997, for those trying to grow the still fledgling sport, those details were all that mattered.
Almost as soon as they touched down in the self-proclaimed “peanut capital of the world”, the hard sell began. Big John McCarthy, the referee, did the rounds of radio stations talking up the contests and assuring fans tickets were free because nothing looks worse on television than empty seats. Somebody even rustled up t-shirts asking, “Why is the UFC in Dothan, Alabama? Because New York only allows street gangs to whip your ass!”
Somewhere around 3,000 slightly bemused locals eventually turned up to watch. Barely 25,000 more bought the event on pay-per-view. Under those most trying of circumstances, it was a slick enough evening’s entertainment and, in the brief history of UFC, earned some significant footnotes.
In an effort to convince sceptics this was a legitimate form of combat, actual weight classes were introduced, fighters splitting into light and heavy categories. Vitor Belfort, a 19-year-old Brazilian phenom, caught the eye on his American debut, becoming the youngest ever winner of a bout. A stand-up comedian named Joe Rogan cut an oddly nervous figure conducting post-fight interviews for the first time.
Most of all though, that night was forever remembered as what happened the last time the sport came anywhere near New York, a place that it always coveted but could never quite reach. Seven years ago, the video game UFC Undisputed offered players a virtual opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden. The makers knew this was a venue their people would want to sample. Not long after that, Dana White began talking about his fervent wish to host the sport’s 20th anniversary in 2013 at the storied arena where Ali fought Frazier.
On Saturday night then, UFC finally, belatedly, checks into the Garden amid quite the fanfare, the almost two-decades long wait having obviously whetted the appetite. The card headlined by Conor McGregor’s meeting with Eddie Alvarez will be the largest grossing event in the history of the organisation, simultaneously smashing the box office record at the Garden previously held by Lennox Lewis versus Evander Holyfield. On the secondary ticket market, the cheapest seats are currently retailing for around $970.
Even allowing for UFC’s tendency to inflate figures and exaggerate impact, these are phenomenal numbers. Whether you love it or believe it to be one step up the food chain from the scripted entertainment of WWE, there’s no denying many in New York have been anxiously awaiting this day. That it took so long and cost UFC millions in lobbying fees through the years offers a window into the corrupt nature of state politics and the circuitous journey the sport has taken from the fringe to the mainstream.
‘’I think extreme fighting is disgusting, it’s horrible,’’ said Rudy Guiliani, then mayor of New York City, in 1997. ‘’I happen to be a boxing fan, have been all my life. And I know there are issues regarding boxing, and they are serious ones. But this is way beyond boxing. This is people brutalising each other.’’
Guiliani wasn’t the only high-profile opponent.
“We don’t allow Americans to put two cocks in a ring or two pitbulls,” said Senator John McCain back then. “Why should we allow people?”
While those sort of comments generated plenty of headlines and negative media coverage, UFC’s biggest obstacles were actually less well-known politicians. For many years, even after New York was the last remaining state not to allow UFC, attempts to push through a bill reversing the ban inevitably became mired in the state assembly where Sheldon Silver, the Democrat speaker of the house, held sway.
Silver’s objection to UFC was long-standing and complicated. For somebody charged with representing the interests of his Manhattan constituents in state politics, he had a curious relationship with a Las Vegas Culinary Union that had a beef with the Fertitta brothers (then co-owners of UFC) about them preventing workers unionising at their casinos. Of course, his repeated refusal to even allow a vote on legalising mixed martial arts may also have had something to do with the fact Silver was notoriously and spectacularly corrupt.
Earlier this year, he was sentenced to 12 years in jail for charges that included money-laundering, extortion and the wonderfully titled honest services fraud. Once the case against Silver went public in 2015, forcing him to relinquish his hold over the assembly and to start paying back illegally-obtained millions, it really became a matter of when not if UFC would arrive in New York.
Even still, the eventual bill passed this year contains added comprehensive insurance provisos that will cost UFC an extra $1,675 per fighter. A lot of money? About the price people are paying for half-decent seats for Saturday night. They aren’t in Dothan, Alabama anymore.