‘A catapulted, catalytic opportunity to grow again’: The UFC’s return to Australia is not before time

Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic there was one constant question that plagued Australian MMA fans: When will the UFC return Down Under?

This Sunday morning [AEDT], after more than 1,220 days that have come and gone, the Octagon will once again take centre stage on the Australian sporting consciousness when UFC 284 begins at Perth’s RAC Arena. Headlined by local superstar Alexander Volkanovski’s pursuit of history against lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, with the Australian attempting to become only the fifth UFC fighter to earn champ-champ status, the promotion’s return Down Under could not be more eagerly anticipated.

Although the 284 card has suffered multiple casualties and been denied two of Oceania’s brightest stars following the cancellation of Robert Whittaker’s fight with Paulo Costa, and Kai Kara-France’s withdrawal through injury, if absence makes the heart grow fonder then the Australian UFC collective has been like a 10-year-old child told that Christmas is cancelled — for three straight years.

If the UFC is Santa Claus, then, the promotion could scarcely have afforded to waste another moment before sliding back down the Australian chimney.

“There’s a number of reasons why it’s so important,” Dave Shaw, the UFC’s Senior Vice-President of International and Content, told ESPN of the UFC’s return to Australia for the first time since 2019. “No. 1, let’s start with the athletes, if you look at the quality, not only the quality but the number of athletes that are coming out of Australia and New Zealand is as impressive as it’s ever been.

“I know Israel [Adesanya] lost the belt… but to have Volk as the pound-for-pound No. 1; Israel at top of middleweight division, he hadn’t lost in five or six years maybe; Kai Kara-France in the top five; you’ve got Tai Tuivasa; you’ve got Tyson Pedro who is looking really good, and a variety of other athletes that are continuing to shine through. It’s such a testament to how far the sport has grown and its first and foremost because of the athletes.

“I think No. 2, there’s a lot of competition in this country. A smaller population, 26 million people, you’ve got a long list of other sports codes that are dominating a lot of people’s time, and they’re codes that have much more historical significance, the history of rugby and footy and cricket in this country is long.

“We’re turning 30 next year, the UFC, but Lorenzo [Fertitta] and Dana [White] and Frank Fertitta only bought the intellectual property for the UFC in 2001, so as a company we’re really only 21/22 years old. So we don’t expect to be at the same level as those other sports, but to start to shine through amidst so much other really compelling sports content, I feel like that is really important for us.”

When Shaw references the calibre of UFC athletes in both Australia and New Zealand, he is talking about an Oceanic region that has five fighters ranked inside the ESPN’s top 10 across all divisions. There are several more who sit just outside, others who are trending in the right direction as well as recent graduates of Dana White’s Contender Series.

Headlined by pound-for-pound champion Volkanovski’s ascent to superstardom and previously Israel Adesanya’s exploits, the UFC has two of its brightest talents from one of the world’s furthest flung corners.

While the cancelled Whittaker and Kara-France bouts were setbacks for UFC 284, the raft of homegrown Australian and New Zealand talent on show speaks for itself. And that’s when you consider the likes of Tuivasa, Dan Hooker and Casey O’Neill were never set for inclusion at the Perth event.

Analysing the quality- or level- of local fighters against those who fought at UFC Fight Night 121 in Sydney in 2017, which was headlined by a heavyweight bout between Fabricio Werdum and Marcin Tybura, is largely chalk and cheese.

And there is perhaps no better illustration of that than Volkanovski, who in 2017 was unranked and just three fights into his UFC career.

Six years on, after 12 straight UFC victories, Volkanovski is ESPN’s pound-for-pound king king — that winning run propelling him to a whole new challenge altogether.

“Even the amateur levels compared to where it was, just everything, you’re getting so many good athletes coming through,” Volkanovski said of the growth in mixed martial arts Down Under.

“You’ve got guys like Rob [Whittaker] that really showed people that anything is possible from Australia when the sport wasn’t even really that big, he really got people into the sport and understanding the sport.

“And we’re just continuing that process; I’m showing you that anything is possible from a small guy. The David and Goliath stories, you name it, whatever it is, I’m showing that a regular bloke from a small town can go out there and be the king of the UFC, the pound-for-pound king, and then doing the unthinkable and all that type of stuff.

“That is something that I am looking forward to doing in this fight, too, showing the underdogs around the world that anything is possible.”

While Volkanovski was the first Australian to be recognised as the UFC’s pound-for-pound champion, it was Whittaker who created Australian sporting history when he was crowned middleweight champion in 2017.

Seven years after he was part of reality TV show, The Smashes — a play on the famous cricket rivalry between Australia and England — Whittaker was the first Australian to have a UFC belt wrapped around his waist.

That in itself shows how far both the sport and UFC has come in Australia, and six years on from that triumph over Yoel Romero, Whittaker continues to be amazed by the transformation not just within the promotion, but the growth of mixed martial arts entirely.

“It does [blow my mind], I’m very proud to have had a hand in the growth in MMA, to bring the spotlight here, and then the Australian athletes, the Australian talent, have just carried to a level to where we’re filling out pay-per-view cards top to bottom with Australian fighters, belt holders all the way to those on debut,” Whittaker told ESPN.

“It’s amazing place for it to be in, and it’s only opened up more doors for Australian mixed martial artists, it’s a massive industry. So to have this industry building up, offering jobs to people, athletes and non-athletes, it’s great for everybody.”

Beyond this weekend’s UFC 284 card, the future appears bright for Australian mixed martial arts — it’s highly unlikely fans will have to wait another three years between UFC events anyway.

Just a fortnight ago, NSW opposition leader Chris Minns committed to bringing the UFC back to Sydney after a six-year hiatus if his Labor Party is successful at the NSW state election next month, a promise that would afford Volkanovski the opportunity to fight as close to his home town as possible.

But it is expected the UFC will be able to pick and choose where it is they next return to Australia, a position Dave Shaw says is borne out of a lot of work and investment.  

“The place that MMA has in this country is a lot different than it did even five years ago,” Shaw told ESPN. “We’re still doing a lot of education, we’re nowhere near where we think we should be, our next cycle or chapter of our growth in Australia is going to happen more expeditiously than the last few years.

“No one in our company is shying away from any of the hard work that is required to educate people, and if that means trying to find more footy fans that can become MMA, or golf fans, surfing fans, netball fans to become MMA fans, we’re all in for that hard work.

“I think the education that we had to make early on in changing some of the state regulations in Victoria and W.A., making sure that MMA was legalised properly or the Octagon was accepted, that just built the foundation for this growth. And then all of the investment over the years in different types of partnerships in content distribution, all of this has brought us to this point, which is this kind of catapulted, catalytic, opportunity for us to grow again and we’re excited to see what can happen.

“We’ll be back in Australia in 2023 after Perth. We’ve only got 12 pay-per-views a year as the standard…so I would expect us to come back to Australia probably with a Fight Night. But you never know, Dana loves these opportunities to say ‘we’ve got this great fight to make at this moment in time with two athletes on a pay-per-view card because they’re champions, or fighting for a belt whatever it is, we need to move hell and high water to figure out another pay-per-view.’

“So it’s not out of the question we could come back with another pay-per-view, but the way the events schedule is shaping up for [2023] the plan is to have one pay-per-view and one or two Fight Nights between Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had a pay-per-view in Sydney and I think Sydney is the type of the city that deserves a pay-per-view. But when you’ve got so many great options in this country, it’s tough when the allocation for Australia is typically one pay-per-view and one or two Fight Nights.”

This week, however, the focus is squarely on Perth. While RAC Arena will top out somewhere between 15,000 and 16,000 Sunday morning [AEDT], leaving UFC 284 some 40,000 fans short of the record attendances that have swarmed Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium in the past, there is a chance those on hand in Perth will bear witness to a piece of UFC history.

“I’m trying to do things that a lot of people wouldn’t do because I know I can do it, but not just that, it’s to separate me from the rest,” Volkanovski said of his pursuit of champ-champ status.

“Again, I want to inspire people. And this fight’s huge, this fight isn’t an easy task, but I know it can be done and I am going to show you. There’s a lot of people with doubt out there, but just remember when I get my hand raised, I need you to remember that.

“A lot of the people who are doubting me and thinking that this is impossible, just remember that when I win and give me the respect I deserve. If this is such a big task [then] that should separate me from the rest.”

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