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April 19, 2014

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No. 7: Brave new world: UFC goes global

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Associated Press

Rich Franklin, right, lands a kick in his UFC 99 fight against Wanderlei Silva. Franklin scored a unanimous decision victory over the Brazilian Saturday, June 13, 2009 in the UFC’s first ever event held in Germany.

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Editor's Note: The Ultimate Fighting Championship is celebrating its 100th show on July 11 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. In the days leading up to this historic night, the Las Vegas Sun is presenting a Top 10 list of key personalities and points that have helped propel the sport into the forefront of the world's fighting conscience.

The physical fireworks will be exploding today as Americans celebrate their independence, but for U.S. fight fans a similar celebratory event will take place next Saturday when the Ultimate Fighting Championship makes mixed martial arts history with its 100th show at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

While no country as helped put the competition on the map more than the United States, UFC brass know for the sport to take its next step it has to appeal to a global audience.

“The crazy thing about this sport is we haven’t even scratched the surface on how big this thing is going to be,” said UFC president Dana White in January, on the heels of the UFC’s first-ever event in Dublin, Ireland.

“It’s going to be the biggest sport in the world. Bigger than the NFL, bigger than soccer, bigger than anything out there.”

Since those comments, the UFC has taken the premiere MMA promotion outside of the United States three more times — holding events in London, England, Cologne, Germany and set a company attendance record with 21,451 fans watching UFC 97 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in April.

“Lorenzo (Fertitta) really wants a global footprint, and that’s what we’re going after,” said UFC Vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner of the UFC's co-owner.

But just as important as Lorenzo is to his own company’s ever-evolving worldwide success, so too is Ratner.

The UFC lured the longtime executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission away from his post three years ago to help pass MMA legislation in both the United States and abroad.

“I believe to this moment I had the best regulatory job in the world. I loved being the director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission,” said Ratner, who can still be found hanging out with his NSAC buddies at various boxing events in Las Vegas.

“I think what appealed to me more than anything was to be on the ground floor of a new sport. None of us can say we were around for the beginning of baseball or basketball or boxing for that matter.

“Going to these different states and capitals and trying to educate everyone, then seeing these states approve it one-by-one has been great.”

With Hawaii coming on board July 1, 40 states now sanction the sport. But two that don’t, New York and Massachusetts, are big-time carrots the UFC has in front of it.

“I think we were really were on the verge of having the sport approved in New York. Then they had a coup in their Senate and threw the whole legislature in turmoil. The Senate has not met again. The governor is trying to call special sessions and figure everything out,” Ratner said. “I think if it had been a normal course of events we would have got the sport approved this time.”

Things were looking good on June 3, when the New York State Assembly's Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports garnered a favorable vote for Bill 2009-B — which would call for the New York State Athletic Commission to regulate MMA.

But mitigating factors stopped the process from advancing past the committee and fizzled out in the bizarre legislation session.

“We’re hoping they will call some special sessions and we still have a chance in 2009. If not then we’ll go right back and try again next year. We’re going to get the sport done there,” Ratner said. “Right now we’re in the legislature in Massachusetts and confident that this will be the year we finally get Boston. We’re in legislatures in Rhode Island and Wisconsin as well.”

The bureaucracy can be even tougher outside U.S. borders.

Just before the widely successful UFC 97 show in Canada, Fertitta and Ratner had to make an event-saving junket up north to help translate the UFC’s unified rules that differed with the Canadian province’s own MMA sanctions.

Things got even worse in Germany last month.

A local child-protection group helped ban fans 17 and younger from attending the event. False media reports depicted the sport as a no-holds-barred competition with bare knuckles and few rules, where matches can even end in death — making the UFC resemble its infamous early days that Sen. John McCain notoriously dubbed “human cockfighting.”

“Once again it’s all about education. We met with the Cologne city government and took them around and showed them how we have all the medicals. We really tried to educate and did a great job. There was a big crowd, and it couldn’t have been more successful,” Ratner said.

“There are some people who don’t like the sport, that’s also part of it. Nobody forces them to go.”

But judging by recent pay-per-view and live gate numbers, those that oppose the UFC are in the minority.

The company just finalized a deal with Inner Mongolia Television to bring the UFC to television in China, reaching more than 240 million viewers.

With first-time shows on the horizon in Philadelphia, Portland, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Memphis and foreign events in the works in France, Macau and Australia, White’s global domination dream doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched.

“There’s no comparison to the NFL with any sport in America. But obviously when you get outside of the states the big sport is soccer. I’m amazed at how big soccer is. But everywhere in the world, there is some kind of fighting. People understand fighting on a basic level,” Ratner said.

“Whether it’s Karate or Jiu-Jitsu or Tae Kwon Do or mixed martial arts or boxing. You’re seeing all these different people who are doing these types of fighting or watching these various forms. It definitely has a chance to be one of the biggest sports, if not the biggest sport in the world.”

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