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Dana White, president of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) during a press conference April 27 2011 in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Dana White, president of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) during a press conference April 27 2011 in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

STEPHEN BRUNT

UFC makes a brash entrance ahead of long stay Add to ...

It should come as no surprise Dana White knows how to make an entrance.

The president, minority owner and public face of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is not one to tread lightly, to slip into a room unnoticed, to keep his thoughts to himself, to hold it down to a whisper. He is by nature brash, occasionally profane, and you certainly always know when he's around.

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So arriving in Toronto for what will be the biggest promotion in the UFC's history on Saturday night - and the first since the sport of mixed martial arts was blessed by the Ontario government - is naturally an occasion for fanfare.

From the street banners, to the huge fan expo, to various events designed to engage the larger community, there's no avoiding what is taking place this week, even if that were your preference.

"This is a lot different," White says. "When we've been to Toronto before [on promotional tours for other shows] we weren't sanctioned there. Now that it's sanctioned, we always knew that if we could get into Toronto, Toronto was going to be huge. We're taking it over. … It's going to be hard for us not to leave an impression."

But the intent is to leave a very specific kind of impression, it seems, designed to resonate beyond the 55,000 paying customers who will be in the Rogers Centre and the untold number of others who will be watching on pay-per-view TV.

In terms of the committed, Canada in general and Toronto in particular are MMA hotbeds - when it comes to the city, an unlikely one, given the traditional combat sport, boxing, has historically been a tough sell in the Big Smoke, no matter who was involved.

"The funny thing is it was a no-brainer for me when we bought this company that we would do well in the United States, Mexico and the U.K., traditional boxing countries," White says. "I never saw Canada coming."

The UFC's ambitions, though, extend far beyond appealing to that committed hard core. Dismiss if you choose White's repeated proclamations about taking a run at the place occupied by major team sports in North America, but there's no avoiding the push to ease MMA into the mainstream, to break down what once seemed an impregnable barrier between those who always liked watching people fight for their entertainment, and those who found the whole idea repugnant.

So it is a benign, family-friendly, inclusive, square as square can be version of the UFC that Toronto will see this week, at least outside of the octagon.

It is the same face the company put on the product when it hired Tom Wright, the former CFL commissioner and certainly no street-fighting man, to head its operations here. And this show, while not a culmination event, per se, is the biggest MMA promotion anywhere in the world in at least a decade, and is being positioned as UFC's de facto Super Bowl - a great big week-long sport festival which at its heart just happens to have men in tight little shorts trying to choke each other or knock each other unconscious rather than men in pads and helmets trying to smash a leather ball across a white line.

If you're still not prepared to buy that, or at least to accept MMA as part of the landscape, there is always the straightforward, what's-in-it-for-us rationale.

"The economic impact," White says, "is going to be enormous."

And while that argument normally fails on basic analytical grounds when it comes to spectator sport (where money is simply being shuffled from one place to another), that the UFC attracts a significant travelling crowd, means the hotels and restaurants and bars near the Rogers Centre will do a land-office business from MMA tourists. The option exists, then, to hold your nose and take the money.

"It's going to be a great weekend for the city," White says.

It is going to be a weekend unlike any the city has seen before, that much is certain. Get used to it, because they'll be coming back real soon.

 

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