Wright found a friend in Consumer Services Minister Sophia Aggelonitis, who worked hard to persuade her government that the UFC was not a bloody free-for-all but a highly regulated sport along the lines of boxing. "We've never had a serious injury or death in more than 2,000 fights," Wright says. "Competitive cheerleading can't say that."
When asked about concerns over the long-term effects of concussions that are dogging football and hockey (Sidney Crosby being the latest example), Wright says UFC athletes are tested often to make sure they're fit to compete. He offers to produce medical studies to back him up. "Our athletes are medically tested, they are drug-tested, so we know confidently that there's two very healthy, finely tuned athletes about to compete," Wright says. "If you are knocked out, you can be put on medical suspension, and you aren't even allowed to train." That said, MMA has never claimed to be safe; fighters face the same threat of concussion as boxers.
In Ontario, though, it all came down to money: A study commissioned by the UFC pegged the spinoff benefits of a single event in Toronto at $40 million, including hotels, food, parking and so on. The ticket tax alone would pour $1.5 million directly into government coffers. McGuinty had a choice: cave to the UFC or continue watching all those dollars flow into Quebec and British Columbia. In times of fiscal austerity, cash is cash.
On a Saturday in August, 2010, Aggelonitis announced that MMA was in. An ecstatic White turned immediately to Twitter, imploring UFC fans to show "some love" for McGuinty and the rookie cabinet minister.
Toronto represents a key piece of the UFC's longer-term strategy. The April 30 event is more than just a payday for White and his partners in UFC parent company Zuffa LLC, Las Vegas casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. The event is a proving ground for the UFC-the young league's first stadium event. Until now, it has only ever staged fights in arenas built for boxing or hockey. If this works, it will pave the way for even bigger fights at venues like Cowboys Stadium, the 80,000-seat Dallas monstrosity that recently hosted the Super Bowl.
But if fans in Toronto leave unhappy-due to bad sightlines, lacklustre fights or a mismanaged show-White and Co. could end up eating their words for a long time to come. "I always talk about how big Canada is for us, and how crazy Canadians are for the UFC," White says. "Every time we go up to the Bell Centre [in Montreal] we sell that thing out. We got 23,000 there, but the question is, how many more people were really looking for tickets?"
Standing in the luxury-box level of the Rogers Centre, Wright is methodically breaking down the seating strategy for UFC 129 in Toronto. With greying hair, the bespectacled 57-year-old is the polar opposite of his boss-the straight man to White's blue-collar hustle.
In theory, Wright says, this venue could hold nearly 70,000 people. In 2002, WrestleMania packed in more than 67,000. In 1995, the Billy Graham Mission drew 72,500, mostly because the field level was opened up completely. The problem with events like those, says Wright, is that most people couldn't see a damn thing.
To properly stage a UFC fight in a big venue, the league's most important weapon is restraint. "If people can't see, they're not going to be happy," Wright says. "We're going to put a 100-foot screen over there," he says, pointing to a section of 500-level seats in the rafters. "That in itself is going to kill about 3,000 to 4,000 seats." There are plans for four screens in total, thereby vanquishing at least 12,000 seats. "We're also going to kill some tickets on the floor," he adds, and some rows closer to the field will be too low to have a good view of the Octagon. "Now, you could argue, why not just sell them as obstructed-view seats? Charge $50 and somebody will buy them, right?" Wright says. "Well, no-it's about making sure that the experience is proper."
After months of playing with various configurations, Wright and White decide to put an initial 42,000 seats on sale in Toronto-far more than the UFC had ever attempted to fill in its 18-year history-ranging in price from $50 to $800. When they finally go on sale to members of the UFC's fan club, they sell out in less than seven minutes. An additional 13,000 added over the next two days sell just as fast. "When we put 42,000 on sale, I'll admit I was a little nervous," White says. "I've been saying for a long time that this is going to be the biggest sport in the world. People said I was a lunatic."