Ever the promoter, White comes off as less than genuine when he acts surprised by the demand in Toronto. But he insists he has no idea what the ceiling actually is for a UFC event in a major market. If Toronto goes well, then maybe it's on to Dallas, then Japan later this year. Soon after, China, India and Scandinavia.
There's one major North American market the UFC hasn't cracked, a place White and the Fertitta brothers desperately want to be: the world's most prestigious sports town, New York City. White and his partners have been lobbying state legislators for years-they even donated a reported $75,000 to New York governor Andrew Cuomo's 2010 campaign. But when Cuomo announced the state's budget in February-an event closely tracked by numerous UFC blogs-he made no mention of new infusions of cash from licensing MMA.
And that's the second reason Toronto really matters. More than dollars, more than prestige, and more than attendance records-New York will be watching. If the UFC can pull off a successful show in Toronto, proving to skeptics that the young sport is ready for the big-time, then maybe it stands a chance of playing the hallowed Madison Square Garden or, better yet, the 54,000-seat Yankee Stadium.
Back in 1993, when the UFC was founded, mixed martial arts was a curiosity based predominantly on what-if scenarios: What if a boxer fought a wrestler? What if a black-belt in karate took on a jiu-jitsu master? Fights were built mostly around one style versus another, gross mismatches were common and, unlike boxing, there were few rules. This led Arizona Senator John McCain, in a bid to keep the sport out of his state in 1996, to brand it as "human cockfighting."
At the time, boxing was still the king of combat sports. Fighters like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were true household names, and title bouts regularly drew sellout crowds and A-list celebrities, with gates in the tens of millions.
White and the Fertitta brothers attended their first UFC event in the late 1990s. They were weekend warriors at jiu-jitsu and developed a rabid interest in watching MMA live. White-a former amateur boxer who grew up in South Boston and moved to Vegas as a teenager-found himself sitting in the stands thinking he could run the league a lot better than its current owners, who included pay-per-view tycoon Bob Meyrowitz. White soon began managing fighters, and gained some valuable insider knowledge: The UFC badly needed a bailout.
In 2000, White and the Fertittas offered what seemed at the time to be a very generous $2 million (U.S.) for the struggling operation. The brothers ponied up the bulk of the cash for 90% ownership. White, who would become the face of the UFC, assumed a 10% stake.
MMA was banned in almost every state. The new owners realized that the secret to their success lay in bringing structure to the sport. Since many jurisdictions already allowed competitive kickboxing, jiu-jitsu and other martial arts, why not sanction MMA, as long as it followed the same guidelines? The league had already mandated the use of gloves and introduced a more rigorous system of weight classes, similar to boxing, so middleweights weren't fighting heavyweights-a common occurrence in the sport's early days. It had also brought in rules: no eye-gouging, no direct strikes to the throat, no head-butting, no small-joint manipulation. The UFC would adhere to drug testing mandated by individual state athletic commissions and do whatever it could to operate in the same way as, say, boxing. In a sense, Zuffa (the Italian word for "brawl") became a proponent of even more rules. The strategy was twofold: First, a more competitive product would attract fans and build legitimate fighters into superstars. And second, it would persuade regulators that there was indeed something to regulate, rather than just unscripted violence.
Today, MMA is sanctioned in 44 of the 48 states that have athletic commissions-New York being the most notable exception.
Zuffa also tried to impose some business rigour on the operation, controlling every aspect of the production and owning all of its content-unlike boxing, where a mishmash of independent promoters line their own pockets, rather than funding a central operation (which has fed fan disenchantment and opened the door for MMA). "Each fight is its own business," explains White. "We do everything. We rent out the venue, we pay for the production, we put on the show. We sell the tickets and we do all the promotion. We assume all the risk."