November 22nd, 2002 marked the real return of the UFC to the prominent spotlight of Las Vegas sports when Tito Ortiz took on Ken Shamrock in a packed house at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The hype that was built around this monumental match-up was seen on mainstream television sports networks for the first time since the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC just years before. The personal grudge that was at stake between Ortiz and Shamrock helped to fuel one of the most charged crowds to ever witness professional mixed martial arts in America. On that night, 13,055 fans packed into the MGM to watch these two fighters battle it out for the UFC light heavyweight championship.
Since the UFC was purchased by the Zuffa Corporation consisting of casino moguls, the Fertitta brothers and president Dana White, they have made Las Vegas the home of mixed martial arts in America. Every major boxing promoter in the U.S. knows that if a major fight is to be held, Las Vegas is the place to be. The promoters and officials for the UFC were able to see the profitable nature of holding their events in Sin City and the numbers since don’t lie.
For the first major event that the UFC held after Zuffa purchased the struggling namesake, they were able to book a great main event with Tito Ortiz taking on Brazilian, Vitor Belfort. Despite Belfort sustaining an injury just weeks before, the UFC was able to plug in Russian wrestler and veteran fighter, Vladimir Matyushenko, to take his place headlining at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The crowd totaled out at 7,238, which was not a bad number for an event that had just lost one of its main event contenders weeks prior to the fight.
One of the biggest signs that the UFC has to look at when booking an event in Las Vegas has to be the numbers surrounding the big main event fights. Until the “Ultimate Fighter” premiered in 2004 helping the casual fan to see how great MMA was no matter who was competing, the UFC was dependent on name recognition of their fighters. Another of the big main events that the UFC held featured now light heavyweight champion, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell against former champ, Tito Ortiz.
This was another classic grudge match as Ortiz and Liddell had been having a war of words for well over a year and the fans had grown to love both competitors. Both fighters coming off of losses to Randy Couture, finally readied themselves for war in the octagon on April 2nd, 2004 again at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. 9,129 people paid to see this great fight and sales reached over 1.4 million, the highest they have had since the fight with Ortiz and Shamrock.
UFC President Dana White has said for years that the UFC would gain worldwide notoriety and popularity with a television show featuring the stars of the octagon. When “The Ultimate Fighter” debuted and fans started to watch in record numbers, the true test of how much fans would buy into the UFC would be determined at their big pay per view bouts held mostly in Las Vegas.
Super Bowl Sunday holds almost a religious significance in this country as billions of people gather around the television to see the best in football compete. UFC 51, nicknamed “Super Saturday” was a pre-cursor as it was held the night before the Super Bowl, in Las Vegas. The main event finally saw Tito Ortiz take on Vitor Belfort, a fight that was supposed to take place almost 4 years before. This time the numbers reflected both a great main event and the growing popularity surrounding the UFC’s exposure on mainstream cable TV. 9,268 fans were inside Mandalay Bay for the fight and again sales skyrocketed over 1.4 million.
The truest test for the UFC’s success in Las Vegas came when the main event featured two fighters that hardcore MMA fans and casual watchers of “The Ultimate Fighter” would both recognize. A rematch for the light heavyweight title pitted champion and “Ultimate Fighter” coach Randy “The Natural” Couture against devastating kickboxer and co-coach, Chuck Liddell.
Not since the fight with Ortiz and Shamrock have more fans clamored to see a MMA event. The battle that saw the two coaches go to war drew a crowd of 12,643, which was the second largest behind the Ortiz/Shamrock fight, but outgrossed that event when the UFC was able to pull in over 2.5 million in sales. In that one night the UFC was able to gross over a million dollars more than their most successful show ever.
A couple of questions still remain about the UFC’s future and it’s presence in the city of the sand, Las Vegas. First, has to be will the UFC be able to hold a strong crowd without a huge main event? No fight may be able to match Ortiz and Shamrock for quite sometime, but the Liddell/Couture build-up was very solid. The UFC learned how to market their talent using the hit Spike TV show, but that formula of coach vs. coach won’t succeed for this season. Coaches Matt Hughes, who is the current welterweight champion, and Rich Franklin, who is the new middleweight champion, have said that you won’t see them fight when this season is over. Now, the UFC has to bank on other mainstream sports outlets to put their fighter’s faces into fans’ minds and hope they show up in record numbers for live events.
The second question that begs to be asked is with the UFC holding only six major pay per view events per year and Las Vegas showing that it is proud to be the home for professional MMA in America, why would the UFC ever travel elsewhere? I’m sure fans on the east coast love having the UFC in Atlantic City at least once a year, but the numbers don’t lie. Fans will always travel in packs to see the big fight, and the celebrities that help with the recognition of the sport come in large numbers when the fight is in Las Vegas. Roy Jones Jr. was about the only named celebrity when the UFC ventured back to Atlantic City for UFC 53, and while Donald Trump always plays the host, the UFC can ill afford to send an event east when the biggest gates seem to draw in the west.
The MGM Grand will host the UFC again in August when champion Chuck Liddell makes his first title defense against Jeremy Horn. While longtime fans will love to see this fight, again the casual fan may not see the true luster around this match-up. But with the newest season of “The Ultimate Fighter” starting two nights later and with the primetime debut of “Ultimate Fight Night” on August 6th in Las Vegas, live on Spike TV, the hype machine will sure to be in full motion. Hopefully, for both Las Vegas and the UFC the numbers will only continue to grow.