2010: ‘Ferrari World,’ Sheikhs and the WEC comes calling

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

(As the UFC turns 20, we revisit each year from 2013 to 1993 with 20 articles in 20 days.)

Since the advent of mustached strongmen, the circus has traveled around on the rails and pitched multicolored tents. Part of the attraction was that the attraction came to you. And part of the UFC’s model is similar -- the idea is to travel around to whatever sector of the globe is ready to embrace it. Instead of a tent, they pitch an Octagon. And unless you live in the Falklands or in upstate New York, chances are the UFC will end up in your general area sooner or later.

When the UFC decided to go to Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi in April of 2010, this felt by far like the craziest thing the promotion had attempted. It wasn’t that they sold off a minority portion of the company to Sheikh Tahnoon, or that it was headed to the Middle East, or that the event would be held alfresco under the wheeling constellations just like Tunney-Dempsey back in 1927 at Soldier Field…it was that there wasn’t a freaking venue in place.

It was that they were going to build a temporary arena to house UFC 112, and then tear it down a week later.

Therefore, "Concert Arena" was erected as nothing more than ephemera, just a glamorized squat house for the UFC’s visit. If that weren’t enough, it was built within something called "Ferrari World." You could practically see the Sheikh using $100 bills as kindling for his fireplace while swirling a glass of Henry IV cognac. Laughing. Laughing. (With the flames dancing in his eyes.)

The event in Abu Dhabi was a catalyst for a lot of things. It told everyone that the UFC meant business in taking the Octagon all over the world, not just ports in Europe and Canada. That night on April 10, 2010, the UFC rolled out two title fights like a lush red carpet, and yet neither of them came off even remotely close to what might be considered "reasonable expectation."

Frankie Edgar fought B.J. Penn in the co-main event, and Anderson Silva -- who was originally supposed to fight Vitor Belfort -- took on Demian Maia for the middleweight crown. Maia and Edgar were of course the sacrifices. I remember beforehand a very well known MMA journalist telling me, while emboldened by his Guinness, "Edgar might be the first fatality in the cage." He was of course exaggerating, but the sentiment was there; Edgar didn’t stand a chance.

Turns out Edgar did stand a chance, and in fact fairly dominated the scorecards en-route to taking Penn’s belt. That was the first "say what?" moment in a night full of eye rubbing. The Silva-Maia nightcap was one of the most bizarre main events to ever have pay-per-view customers screaming for rebates. In it Anderson Silva sort of flew off the handle. He mocked and preened and went into theatrics for much of the five rounds he wasn’t even supposed to need in putting Maia away. The performance was so remarkable for all the wrong reasons that Dana White put out a piece of caution on the Jim Rome Show afterwards that said this: He’d cut Anderson Silva if it happened again. Even the greatest living mixed martial artist in the world wouldn’t be suffered such shenanigans.

(This was the context for Silva and his rivalry with Chael Sonnen, who came along at just the right moment right after. Sonnen breathed life back into Silva, just like Silva became a sort of world stage for Sonnen to reinvent himself).

A month earlier, at WEC 47, on March 6 in Columbus, Dominick Cruz defeated Brian Bowles to become the promotion’s bantamweight champion. That night was brimming with the talent of today. Look at the names that appeared on this card before Cruz -- Joseph Benavidez, who fought Miguel Torres; Danny Castillo and Anthony Pettis; Scott Jorgensen, who fought Chad George; Chad Mendes and Erik Koch. The card was so stacked that Ricardo Lamas, who fights for the UFC featherweight crown against Jose Aldo at UFC 169, was the first fight on the prelims.

It was just another WEC card.

Zuffa owned the WEC, but at this point had kept the two organizations separate. The WEC had the smaller weight classes. The UFC had everything else. By October of 2010, with the UFC growing and holding more events and needing more star power to carry them, Dana White announced that the promotions would be merging. This was significant for two reasons. One, it meant existing undersized UFC lightweights could fight at 145 pounds without leaving the UFC. And two, it meant people like Cruz, Pettis, Demetrious Johnson, Benson Henderson, Benavidez, Mendes, Lamas and poster boy Urijah Faber would finally showcase their wares for those who avoided eye contact with the WEC’s blue cage.

The WEC would bring over a world of talent to the UFC.

"That was the goal -- it was always to find the best fighters," says Reed Harris, who was the general manager and face of the WEC. "We worked very hard at that. When I came into the office, I never would hear people say, ‘hey the lighting on that show was fantastic.’ Inherently I knew it was all about the fights, and that it’s all about the fighters. So we spent a lot of time looking at them, and went down to Brazil to find Jose Aldo. We did a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t do in trying to find the best people."

Jose Aldo. The man who made Americans figure out the correct order of the vowels in Nova Uniao.

"The first time I saw Jose, he jumped out of the cage, and I took him in back with his manager Andre Pederneiras -- and I’m a guy who rarely raises his voice, because that’s just not who I am -- but I was yelling at him," Harris says. "I read him the Riot Act. Little did I know he didn’t have any idea what I was saying, but he knew I was mad.

"The next show, I was in the cage after he won, and he looked at me, ran towards the door, stopped and then sat down," Harris says. "He looked up at me and smiled, kind of like a f--- you, and ever since then I’ve liked him. Now we’re very close. We spent a lot of time together."

Harris is now the Vice President of Community Relations with the UFC. Aldo is the long-tenured featherweight champion who is hovering the top three space of most pound-for-pound lists. At UFC 142, after Aldo knocked out Chad Mendes, Aldo disappeared into a sea of his countrymen once again. And once again, Harris was right there tapping his foot with his arms crossed.

"I yelled at him to get back in the cage," he says. "That’s his place, right? I wasn’t mad at him for doing it. It was crazy. I actually got punched in the crowd. Not on purpose. The guy who punched me looked at me like he was in shock because he was trying to grab Jose. It was just very chaotic, and I yelled at him to get back in for safety reasons."

That Harris is now scolding Aldo outside of the UFC Octagon instead of outside the WEC blue cage marks the evolution of the times. At some point along the way, Harris knew that the bantamweights and featherweights he’d helped along, not to mention his crop of high-powered lightweights, would all be migrating to the UFC. The thing was inevitable.

"I think at some point it was just decided, look, the UFC is going to be the dominant brand in this sport forever," he says. "Especially when all of us were watching these lighter-weight fights including Dana and Lorenzo and Frank [Fertitta], and they were seeing that they were entertaining and that people were interested. So why not add to the brand? Why not make the brand even stronger?"

On Feb. 1, 2014, at UFC 169 in Newark during Super Bowl weekend, the WEC’s elite will be on display. Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz will unify the bantamweight belts, and Aldo will defend his title against Ricardo Lamas.

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