The most significant bout in Utah’s storied mixed martial arts history remains the time Dana White took on God and lost.
On paper, it was a square match. White is to today’s incarnation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship as Ronald is to McDonald’s. As president and part-owner of UFC since 2002, the feisty onetime amateur boxer has had a heavy hand in the organization’s growth from evolving curiosity into mainstream sports powerhouse.
But when UFC booked EnergySolutions Arena for Aug. 1, 2010 — a Sunday — White’s unwillingness to back down from a challenge led his promotion into a rare submission. “UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko” was a flop at the Utah box office, and it prompted UFC to do something it had never done: move an event for which tickets had sold.
White bridles at the mention of a rematch. After a fan asked at a July Q&A if UFC would ever come to Utah, he smiled and shook his head. “Nope. I tried to do it once, man, and that was it for me.”
Craving the cage • A UFC crowd makes for a subdued Saturday night at Lumpys Downtown. More than 200 people — mostly men; a few in Tapout and Affliction muscle shirts, but many wearing everyman plaids and solids — paid the $7 cover charge to view UFC 163 earlier this month. Patrons stared intently, punctuating hard shots and takedowns with “oohs” while a blood-drenched bout between Thales Leites and Tom Watson brought groans from the women.
Utah’s inordinately high TV ratings lured Bellator, MMA’s next-largest promoter, for a Thursday-night event last February at West Valley City’s Maverik Center. Headlined by Utahn Rad Martinez in a tournament finale, the near-sellout was dubbed a “resounding success,” by Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
“Why anyone would not want to engage with this tremendous market is beyond my pay grade,” he said, adding that Bellator wants to return. But Bellator is no UFC.
Jeff Dutcher, editor of Utah’s fightingoutof.net, says he often has to correct non-fans: “’People say ‘Oh, I heard you train UFC,’ ” he says. ”They’re the Kleenex, they’re the Q-Tip. ... UFC is synonymous with MMA.”
Although the main card for UFC 163, Jose Aldo vs. Korean Zombie, was seen as a likely dud, people called Lumpys throughout the day to ask if they were showing the fights. On that night, the Korean Zombie (his mom calls him Chan Sung Jung) surprised avid MMA fans by taking the favored Aldo into the fourth round before separating his own shoulder during an awkward exchange of punches. He seemed as likely to have gotten injured doing yardwork, but most viewers were satisfied to see Aldo retain his featherweight belt.
Was Sunday best? • DaMarques Johnson asks White the Utah Question each time he sees him: How ’bout now?
Born and raised in West Jordan, Johnson was coming off a successful run on the “Ultimate Fighter” and carrying a two-fight win streak into the would-be Salt Lake event. He’s one of many UFC veterans with ties to Utah, including notables Jeremy Horn, Court McGee and Jossh Burkman, and two Utah fighters, Steven Siler and Ramsey Nijem, who fought last Saturday in Boston during the first live event to air on sports cable upstart Fox Sports 1.
UFC frequently brings hometown fighters to new markets, and Johnson was an obvious choice in 2010. He would lose in San Diego. “It’s still a fist fight no matter what city, state or country you’re in,” he says, but he still feels that White underestimated Utah’s “Sunday no-fun policy.”
White himself told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time he was “surprised,” and UFC Vice President Marc Ratner admits that he regrets trying to promote an event on the sabbath in a state where the majority of residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On short notice, they sold 8,132 to San Diego’s 14,500-seat Valley View Casino Center.
EnergySolutions Arena Vice President Mark Powell says UFC originally pitched a Saturday pay-per-view card headlined by legend Anderson Silva, and that die-hard fans may have felt cheated by a Versus matchup between middling journeyman Vladimir Matyushenko and up-and-comer Jon Jones (now the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in UFC’s rankings).
And Utah Athletic Commission boss Bill Colbert thinks UFC failed to take into account Utahns’ tendency to procrastinate at the box office. “By the time we heard rumors that there were concerns, the decision had been made,” Colbert says. “I wish they would have given us some heads-up that they were disappointed with the ticket sales.”
EnergySolutions has sold out Sunday concerts and Jazz playoff games, but they rarely book Sundays. In fact, UFC isn’t very keen on them, either. The last Sunday UFC event in the U.S. was held in August 2011, drawing just 6,751 to the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis., which has a capacity of more than 18,000. Few events since have had a weaker gate.
Never say never • White has changed his mind before. Not long ago, he swore UFC would never have a women’s division, and then media-friendly Judo sensation Ronda Rousey made him eat those words.
Colbert holds out hope that White hasn’t fully considered the merits of taking another stab at Salt Lake. Powell says UFC representatives have recently inquired about EnergySolutions’ availability, and Colbert says he’s optimistic after a recent meeting with UFC representatives at the Association of Boxing Commissions conference in San Antonio.
“I think Dana will just say what he feels at the time,” Colbert says. “Sometimes his responses are emotional, which we’re all guilty of. Maybe he’d been asked too many times about having an event in Salt Lake City in the last few months.”
White declined comment for this story, but Ratner said of Salt Lake: “It’s a good area. It’s still on our radar.”
So while God won Round 1 in Zion, Salt Lake City fans may have a fighting chance.
Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest and highest-profile mixed martial arts organization, scheduled a nationally televised UFC show in Salt Lake City three years ago. But ticket sales for the EnergySolutions Arena event were so poor that UFC president Dana White cancelled the card and vowed never to stage another show in the Utah capital. Not fair, say local MMA fans, who say the sport is thriving here. The Sunday booking for the Salt Lake UFC event, they argue, was the real reason the show failed — not a lack of fan interest. They are lobbying White to bring another event to town.