The mixed martial arts fighter Mike Malott is a big and intimidating 32-year-old man – a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a 10-1-1 record. But on Tuesday morning at the midtown Toronto studios of Sportsnet he seemed like just another sweet, bubbly kid in a backwards ball cap, as he talked about how he will feel when he gets to fight in front of a hometown crowd for the first time since signing with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
On Jan. 20, UFC will return to Toronto for the first time in more than five years, with a championship card featuring the title bout of Sean Strickland vs. Dricus Du Plessis. That fight will be carried as a pay-per-view special, with the preliminary bouts airing on Sportsnet and TVA Sports. And Malott, who last fought in Vancouver in June, when the Burlington, Ont., fighter submitted Adam Fugitt with a guillotine chokehold at UFC 289, is still electrified by the experience of fighting on home soil.
“The energy was intoxicating, it was addicting. I’ve been craving that feeling again since fighting in Vancouver,” he said during a news conference. “And to not only get to fight in Canada, but the closest city to home – Toronto – to fight in what’s now Scotiabank Arena, but everyone who grew up in this area knows that arena as the ACC, that was the one where you used to go to watch the Leafs play as a kid. You know, growing up, that was the arena to go to, so for me this is monumental.”
”Scotiabank Arena is going to be absolutely vibrating on fight night.”
On Tuesday, UFC played host to four of the eight Canadian fighters who will feature on the UFC 297 card – Malott as well as middleweight Marc-André Barriault, featherweight Charles Jourdain, and the bantamweight Serhiy Sidey – to help promote the fact that Sportsnet has taken back the rights to the English-language Canadian broadcasts of UFC for the first time since 2014.
The multiyear deal for the rights, which begins Jan. 1, 2024, was about 18 months in the making, according to David Shaw, executive vice-president and head of international and content for UFC.
Canada is UFC‘s third-largest market, after the United States and Brazil, according to the company. It is also a growing source of fighters for the UFC circuit.
Shaw said that Sportsnet had played a key role in raising the profile of MMA, and its Canadian-born superstar Georges St-Pierre, especially after the sport was legalized here in 2010. Now, he said, the broadcaster, “has made a commitment to not only profiling our brand and the sport of mixed martial arts, but putting particular emphasis on Canadian athletes across the company, to tell their stories.”
Jourdain, from Beloeil, Que., noted that the fight will be his 13th in UFC but his first in Canada. “I’ve got a lot of people coming down from Quebec,” he said. As for the eight Canadians on the card: “I think the fans are thrilled.”
Malott said that Canadian MMA fighters are always asked about fighting in the shadow of Georges St-Pierre.
“I don’t think of it so much as a shadow as it is we have a path that’s been paved for us. He worked so hard to bring MMA fans to this sport and build a community, and since then that community has been hungry for talent, and we have this pool of fighters that I’m sure is just about to explode,” he said.
“I think we’re in an amazing stage right now. I’ve been saying it for years, this area’s about to blow up. I really expect Canada to make another huge run.”
Asked whether Canada’s importance as a market might earn it a designated annual spot on the UFC pay-per-view calendar, a mark of the company’s respect for its local fan base, Shaw demurred. New York’s Madison Square Garden hosts a PPV spectacle every November, and UFC stages its International Fight Week in Las Vegas every July.
“It’s a little bit challenging in this country, because … there are a lot of sports that dominate the arenas,” Shaw said. But, he promised, “we will always find a pay-per-view date every year in Canada.”
Editor’s note: Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Mike Malott's fighting record. This version has been updated.