Dana White says UFC 278 is coming to Utah simply because ‘Salt Lake City has arrived’

After UFC staged a blasé show and got a mediocre response in SLC some six years ago, the company’s president and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith are guaranteeing a proper spectacle this time around.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC president Dana White, left, and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith conduct a news conference ahead of a mixed marital arts event UFC 278 at Vivint Arena, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

It had been rumored for a month or so. On June 11, it became official: big-time mixed martial arts was coming to the Beehive State, in the form of the UFC 278 pay-per-view event.

The official announcement spelled out the what (a night of 15 or 16 MMA fights), the who (pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman and challenger Leon Edwards main eventing in a welterweight championship bout), the when (Saturday, Aug. 20), and the where (Vivint Arena).

But it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, in a news conference staged in the Legends Club room at the Viv, that Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and UFC president Dana White finally explained the why.

Specifically, why would the UFC — arguably the most popular combat sports promotion in the world — bring a major pay-per-view fight card featuring arguably its most talented performer to Salt Lake City of all places?

The energetic White, playing the dual roles of showman and salesman, said it was simple: the Las Vegas-headquartered organization now takes its show on the road, and Utah’s growth warranted an event.

“If any of you know at all how I operate, you know I like destinations — I like places where people want to travel, great hotels, great restaurants, shopping, flights; and much like the UFC, this place is on fire right now,” White said. “It’s continuing to grow, it’s booming, and becoming one of the better global destinations in the world.”

Quite the claim about a place that’s frequently been lamented by outsiders as being too Mormon, too white, too conservative, too backwater. And yet, when pressed about his view of Salt Lake City now being a destination locale, the carnival-barking impresario doubled down.

“It’s that place now. Listen, Salt Lake City is on the map. I know you guys have this chip on your shoulder thinking this place hasn’t arrived yet. You’ve arrived,” White said. “Believe me, Salt Lake City has arrived. This is a destination.”

Smith, who upon purchasing the NBA’s Jazz franchise from the Miller family in October 2020 said that part of his mission going forward would be to re-shape national perceptions of Salt Lake and Utah, was thrilled to see a sports promotion with a worldwide footprint choose to bring an event not just to the arena that he owns, but to the place that he calls home.

“Salt Lake City is not a flyover city, and Utah is not a flyover state,” he said. “That’s manifesting through concert tours, that’s manifesting through events like this. It’s becoming a destination.”

Though not a huge UFC fan himself, Smith recalled accompanying Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Raul Neto in August 2017 to the massive crossover bout featuring boxing legend Floyd Mayweather and UFC star Conor McGregor, and being awed by the spectacle of “The Money Fight.”

And so, he said that he and his Smith Entertainment Group team had talked for the past few years about potentially trying to bring the UFC back to Utah following the disappointment that was the underwhelming “Fight Night” event held back in 2016.

They worked up a plan with the Utah Sports Commission, Smith used his relationship with Ari Emanuel (CEO of entertainment and media agency Endeavor Holdings Group, of which UFC is a subsidiary) to get the ball rolling, and began some conversations with the fight promotion, which is now constantly on the lookout for new places to host events.

“We thought a couple months ago it was gonna happen,” Smith said. “I don’t think we anticipated a card like this, and this type of fight.”

(John Locher | AP) Kamaru Usman celebrates after his win against Tyron Woodley in a welterweight mixed martial arts title fight at UFC 235 in Las Vegas, March 2, 2019.

Indeed, getting the likes of Usman, one of the sport’s biggest stars, to headline the first-ever UFC pay-per-view in Utah is a significant development. Adding such household names (in the fight world, anyway) as Jose Aldo, Merab Dvalishvili, Paulo Costa, and Luke Rockhold to the card just elevates it all the more.

Which also makes this a far, far cry from that disastrous UFC Fight Night 92 event held at Vivint Arena on Aug. 16, 2016.

The combination of a lack of marquee names on the card (it was headlined by then-relatively unknown Yair Rodriguez and journeyman Alex Caceres) and the event taking place on a Sunday led to a half-full arena and a listless atmosphere.

“I heard we picked the wrong night last time,” White cracked, before adding he had “a laundry list” of mistakes the promotion made with that event.

Now, though, he boasted that the sport has grown tremendously, and the UFC is not in the same place it was back then. The same is true, he added, of Salt Lake City — making it a great landing spot for a company looking to grow wherever it can.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith speaks to media at Vivint Arena, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Indeed, UFC has staged recent fights in places as disparate as London, Singapore, and Austin, Texas.

“You think about the way boxing used to do it — you fought in Vegas, maybe sometimes you fought in the Staples Center [in Los Angeles], and you fought in Madison Square Garden. That was it,” White said. “We travel all over the world.”

Still, even as he kept going back to his refrain of Salt Lake City being a worthy host site on account of the city “exploding,” he acknowledged that it was incumbent upon him and his company to deliver a better product the second time around, a show worth shelling out money for.

That, he promised, would not be an issue this time around.

“It is the best live sporting event you will ever see,” White enthusiastically bragged, before turning to Smith, giving him a consoling pat on the shoulder, and facetiously adding, “Sorry, brother!

“… I guarantee you it will be the greatest sporting event that you have ever seen live,” he added, pausing for comedic effect. “The Utah Jazz [are number] two.”