Those are big dollars, but White and his team know it's only a fraction of what they could be making. The UFC has far grander aspirations than the puny confines of the Mandalay. And that's where Toronto comes in.
Three days later, "the Kick" has become a YouTube sensation. And White has flown from sunny Las Vegas to the deep-freeze that is Toronto in February to promote Georges St-Pierre's April 30 bout at the Rogers Centre, where the Canadian will square off against Californian Jake Shields.
If St-Pierre wins-and he is widely expected to-he will take on Silva in White's megafight. After all, GSP is the UFC's biggest brand and, White has said, the most famous athlete Canada has ever produced (a statement that enraged Gretzky fans nationwide). From Brazil to Japan, the 29-year-old St-Pierre is practically a household name, and the UFC has made millions off the GSP action figure (part of the league's extensive line of merchandise). He has done Fashion Week in New York and partied with DiCaprio in Paris. "This guy is a monster superstar all over the world," says White.
For the thousands of fans who started lining up outside the Rogers Centre early this morning, the chance to see him in the flesh is worth the hours of waiting in sub-zero temperatures. When GSP and White arrive, they are swarmed by mostly young men waving UFC hats, sweatshirts and action figures, begging for autographs and pictures. "I love this fucking place, man," White tells them. F-bombs are his calling card, and the crowd loves it.
The day ends with a Q&A session. St-Pierre, the main attraction, takes a seat on a stool on the Rogers Centre field, neatly adorned in a blue pinstripe suit and red tie. White wears a black sweatshirt and jeans. The first timid question comes from a kid named Domenic, who asks GSP to sign his plastic replica UFC belt. Before St-Pierre can answer, the boy's mom leans into the microphone: "We were also wondering if GSP could sign Domenic a note to explain why he wasn't at school today." St-Pierre-a man who once shattered his opponent's orbital bones-grins bashfully and drops his head.
For reasons White and his partners can't explain, Canada is home to the UFC's most fervent supporters. Huge numbers of Canadian fans regularly pack UFC events, particularly in the United States. And the five matches held on home soil since 2008-four in Montreal and one in Vancouver-have all been box-office bonanzas, drawing north of 17,000 spectators apiece (compared to the average Vegas fight, which seats about 11,000). UFC 124 in Montreal last year stuffed 23,152 people into the Bell Centre, with a $4.6-million gate.
White always knew that staging an event in Toronto-a city he has called UFC's mecca-would blow that record away. Enter Tom Wright, former commissioner of the Canadian Football League. Two years ago, he was working as a consultant in the Canadian sports world (he advised Jim Balsillie on his failed bid to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes to Ontario) when the phone rang. On the line was a former colleague who'd gone to work for the UFC in Las Vegas. An
upcoming event in Montreal was going off the rails due to a sudden change of heart by the organization that oversees combat sports in Quebec, and White needed a fast fix. Wright-who says he was a "fringe fan" of MMA-agreed to help. He dialled up Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin, whom he'd met through his role as chairman of Special Olympics Canada. Wright asked Boivin to make a few calls, and within days the event was back on track.
Then came another call, last year: White had been trying for years to persuade Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to join other provinces in sanctioning the sport, but McGuinty wouldn't budge amid fears of glorifying senseless violence. Did Wright have any advice on how to sway Ontario? "You know what? If you really want to be successful here, my advice is that you need to open up an office," Wright told them. "You need to demonstrate that you're not these carpetbagging Americans flying into a city and stealing all the money and getting out of Dodge." His words made an impact. A few days later, the UFC phoned back and asked him to run its new Canadian office, based out of the Rogers Centre. "My mandate was pretty simple: First and foremost, it was to help facilitate getting the sport sanctioned in Ontario," he says.