When Rony Mariano Bezerra came to the cage on Oct. 13 at the show in Rio de Janeiro for one of the Fuel prelims to face Ameican Sam Sicilia, the crowd of 16,844 at the HSBC Arena erupted like the main event with Anderson Silva was about to happen.
For most Americans watching, it suddenly felt like we were in another dimension. Rony Jason, as he was called because he usually enters the ring wearing a Jason mask from the 'Friday the 13th' movie series, would barely be known in the United States. He had appeared on a pay-per-view once before from Brazil. And a few fans may have seen him as one of the stars of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in Brazil.
But Brazil is a different world, and about 12 million people weekly were watching the show. To them, Rony Jason, who won that night - and fighters like Erick Silva, who wasn't even on the show but has had explosive first-round finishes on major UFC events - were like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Forrest Griffin in the United States going back seven years. Perhaps even multiplied due to greater exposure.
Before, and even more since that show, meetings have been held in the UFC offices in Las Vegas to take advantage of that, figure out how to best create a strategy to create more Rony Jason's around the world and turn them into headliners. The answer, for those of us who think too many shows has been a negative for popularity, is to run far more shows internationally.
"The big thing we're incubating right now is how to get more events for starving markets in places like the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. Canada seems to be humming along, and Brazil is bubbling over," said Marshall Zelaznik, UFC's Managing Director of International Development. "Our attention is on making new markets, continuing to grow the economics, on ideas like an Asian Fight Series, and a European Fight Series."
The battle plan in most markets is to copy how the U.S. was built, working with a local broadcaster on a market-specific Ultimate Fighter season, like was done first in Brazil and is currently airing in Australia. The next step is using the stars created on those shows to headline live events in markets all over the country, not just in the biggest cities as has been done in most new markets so far.
In some markets, they may have one or two main events with well-known UFC stars as headliners and all local fighters on the undercard. Some markets may do shows exclusively with fighters from that country and hoping to build around them and create them as the big stars. The feeling is that will give the company the ability to create local heroes and a grassroots following for them, the best of which would then move on to appear on the bigger pay-per-view shows. It's an idea of building fighters that has been around as long as there has been a fight game. In MMA, it kind of exists with local promotions, but the difference is local shows with the UFC brand attached will air live on television throughout the country as opposed to just in local arenas. The idea is to keep a live event UFC presence in countries year-round, as opposed to maybe the two months or so a year building to the one big show.
What the company is looking for is to find fighters and personalities like Dan Hardy was for the U.K. market, guys who put on exciting fights, and who will work hard at promoting the sport.
"We don't have the flagbearer right now for every country, but we are confident we'll be able to find them and build them like we were able to do with Dan Hardy, or with George Sotiropoulos in Australia," he said. "A lot depends on how the guys can perform. It's not easy but we're confident we'll be able to find the fighters."
Because the popularity and exposure are already there, Brazil will be first, with plans of five to seven shows there in 2013. The key to these newer shows is they will be geared toward the market, not shows in the market that are really geared toward the U.S. and worldwide market. That means fighters relevant to the country, like perhaps a Rony Jason, as opposed to those who already have international names, could be featured in the main events. It also means airing in prime time in places like Europe, Japan, Australia and Brazil, as opposed to time slots more geared to fitting into the established UFC pay-per-view time slot of 10 p.m. Eastern. In other words, late night in Brazil and early morning in Japan or Australia.
"The arena space in Brazil is a challenge," Zelaznik noted about problems going in. "There is one arena that we've run in that is no problem in Rio de Janeiro. There are production challenges with other venues, although we overcame them in Belo Horizonte. We'd like to do 12,000 to 13,000 seat arenas, but I had thought we may do 5,000 to 7,000 seat arenas, but right now we're getting more bullish. We'll be going to cities like Florianopolis, Brasilia, Port Alegre, Recife, Fortaleza, going to all those cities and bringing live events to the people. The interesting thing with Brazil is that every city and every state, most of the cities and state government officials have reached out to us. It depends on their local arenas and stadiums. Brazil is one of the most unique markets, we have 40 to 50 million people who have seen some of our biggest fights, 12 million a week watched Ultimate Fighter around the country. We've gotten 60 percent shares (meaning 60 percent of the homes watching television at that time) on some events. We can even put on an event in the jungles of Manaus."
Not every market is like Brazil, where the sport is a part of popular culture already, where they have world champions and superstars already, exposure on the biggest network and even a history and roots.
"I think that these guys are very big stars and becoming national heroes who fought on TUF Brazil, sort of like when Dan Hardy came on the scene in the UFC," said Zelaznik. "He came from the European circuit and then the world got to see him. In Brazil, people are aware of these guys. 12 million people were watching them a week. They can't walk down the street. If we can recreate that local interest and local talent and then expose those guys to the world, we will have locally relevant heroes."
On the flip side, you have a market like India. The Indian market is far more risky, due to the economy. But the population is gigantic and right now, very few have any idea what UFC is.
"India isn't as mature, but based on our research and talking to our network partners, we're confident we can find fighters there," he said. "Will there be hundreds of fighters trying out right away like in Brazil? India won't have that maturity. But when we set out to do the India deal, or the Asian deal, fighters will be the easiest part. We'll be able to find those fighters. People everywhere are training MMA."
Right now, they are talking about an Asian series, which may have the key events first in Japan and South Korea, where the sport already has established popularity. Zelaznik feels it's 60 to 90 days from the deals being in place so they can decide exactly how to approach it.
For Europe, the battle plan is going to be put together and headed by Garry Cook, the controversial former CEO of the Manchester City soccer team, who was just hired and is learning the product.
"He's (Cook) in Las Vegas this week, it's going to be a little bit longer, as Garry needs to get up to speed," said Zelaznik. "He's a super bright guy, knows the European sports culture and he'll be the one with the strategy and we'll figure out what makes the most sense. But it won't be as quick."
The Nov. 10 show in Macau is a prelude to running events in the Chinese market in places like Beijing and Shanghai.
"We're definitely able right now to go to Shanghai and Beijing," he said. "We're reliant on dates. Macau had a great venue so starting there made a lot of sense. It's near Hong Kong. We had good media partners in that area and it was important for us to be there. We're always looking at other markets in Asia. I don't know which ones will pop up, but there's nothing stopping us."
Right now they are in talks with a major Chinese broadcaster that is looking for a locally relevant product. That means, like with all new markets, the goal is to run prime time television on a night of the week people are used to watching sports, then doing both Ultimate Fighter and local fights.
"Television networks in Korea and Japan would love to find a way to work with us for fights in the right time zone. Indonesia is another big market; Thailand, Vietnam, there's real interest in these markets," said Zelaznik.
The idea is to build to doing four to eight Asia-specific events per year, with Japan and South Korea as the base, and running an event in those other markets annually as well.
As far as U.S. fans seeing those events, the hope is that as many as possible will air on Fuel and FX, but the major concern is prime-time television with a strong partner in those countries themselves.