Saturday's UFC show at the O2 Arena was the first time in Europe that an American viewer would notice that this isn't the same UFC. Instead of being an American television show that takes place in Europe, this was a European-based show viewed by Americans.
Saturday's UFC show from the O2 Arena in London was the beginning of a new era for the company.
In the company's prior journeys to Europe, it always felt like this was an American company doing a special date for United Kingdom fans, similar to a U.S. concert performer or the National Football League.
The fans who were there came to see an authentic American product that they only on rare occasions get the chance to see. They want all the American trappings, the biggest stars from U.S. television, and a show that resembles what they see elsewhere.
On Saturday, from the commentary of John Gooden and Dan Hardy
, but more, the appearance of soccer host Andy Friedlander in the Octagon as the ring announcer, the immediate vibe of the show was different.
This is no longer an attempt to give Europeans the "American UFC" as a special event, but an attempt to recreate the UFC as a European product, that just happened to have originally come from the U.S.
It may seem like semantics or a minor change when Bruce Buffer is not introducing the matches with his familiar style, but it is an altogether different approach. And it's a different kind of a risk.
In the U.K., the "American UFC" is something that a relatively small number of fans watch on television at 2 a.m., but when it comes to town, the appeal is it's a rare cultural novelty.
This is an attempt to be a company that airs six times a year on prime time television, does shows made for Europe, and to create European stars and to be part of the mainstream sports scene. The fact is, in the U.K., it's boxers like David Haye, Carl Froch, and especially Ricky Hatton that were the superstars in recent years. They have their own boxing promoters who run regularly and shows that appear on television in a decent viewing hour.
It's a risk. The NFL tried to create a European league, which didn't make it. But British boxing has a long and storied history. Years ago, the WWE considered doing a full-time European troupe, but quickly gave up on the idea.
This was the first time the show wasn't largely catered to the American audience, the backbone of UFC's economic base. The show wasn't on U.S. television. It started in the morning on the West Coast, where UFC's popularity is its greatest. While it aired on Fight Pass in the U.S., it's meant to be a different product mix. The Americans are the outsiders looking in at something not aimed for them, a distinction some American fans can't fully comprehend since it's never been the case.
The show is meant for prime time television on Ch. 5 in the U.K., the equivalent of a network special, and to create a new fan base that will learn the product from ground zero now, on stations throughout the continent.
The key to making this work is fighters who become stars in the market. The fact the O2 Arena sold out and did a $2.06 million gate headlined by European fighters is a strong sign. But the key is a year from now, if these shows remain a hot live ticket, and even more, if the television audiences are strong, and people like Jimi Manuwa
, Alexander Gustafsson
, Brad Pickett
and others garner the kind of popularity which will, in turn, cause the masses to follow them when they do fight in the U.S. in the middle of the night.
There is no obvious U.K. superstar to lead that charge. Michael Bisping, the original face of U.K. MMA, is likely in the latter stages of his career. Dan Hardy at this point is off the active roster and is a full-time announcer.
While the U.K. fighter, Jimi Manuwa, lost in the main event, it was to a Swedish fighter, Alexander Gustafsson, who can lay claim to being the next contender for the UFC light heavyweight
title. Manuwa with his heavy hands, could be the kind of fighter to fit that bill, but he's also already 34. The U.K. favorites lost four of six fights, with the only wins coming from Luke Barnatt and Brad Pickett.
Barnatt is undefeated at 8-0, and stands out as being a 6-foot-6 middleweight
Pickett usually delivers exciting fights, and Saturday's decision win over Neil Seery
was the kind of fight that would appeal to almost anyone who is going to be a potential fan. But he's also 35. He gave people an immediate reason to pay attention, issuing a challenge for the UFC flyweight
title. He noted he had a win over flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson
, which took place in 2010, when both were bantamweight
His face was a mess when it was over, from taking a lot of solid shots from Seery.
"Obviously he hit me with some shots, but I didn't feel anything," said Pickett.
Pickett noted he's got a tough head, as he's only been stopped by punches once in his career, nine years ago, in his second pro fight, fighting at 145.
"I don't think I can get knocked out in this weight class," he said.
The action was good in most fights. But the search is still there for that new, young, U.K. superstar who can grow before the public's eyes, like the 27-year-old Gustafsson already is in Sweden, and like 25-year-old Conor McGregor has the chance to be in Ireland. That's usually a key in establishing a new sport crossing over to the mainstream.
Let's look at the Fortunes Changing for Five from Saturday:
ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON -
Saturday was about Gustafsson risking his title shot at the winner of the Apr. 26 fight between UFC light heavyweight
champion Jon Jones
and Glover Teixeira
With a strong showing, he's one step away from having the potential to be the Georges St-Pierre
or Anderson Silva
of Scandinavia, a champion who can establish roots of the sport in a new part of the world.
didn't rule out a Jones vs. Gustafsson fight in Stockholm, Sweden, where UFC has a show booked on Oct. 4. But for a number of reasons, the fact it will be one of the company's biggest pay-per-view events of the year, the time difference would seem to make Europe unlikely
JIMI MANUWA -
The British fighter will have to rebound, as he lost his golden ticket to be the company's U.K. star. AT 14-1 with an entertaining style, perhaps the new exposure will help him more than the loss hurt him. But he has yet to establish he can beat top-tier competition. Coming off a loss, Manuwa's best bet is to get Ryan Bader
, or the loser of the March 23 fight between Dan Henderson
"Shogun" Rua, because a win over any of the three would mean he would be taken very seriously as a contender. But a loss would remove him from being able to be seen as a headliner.
BRAD PICKETT - At 24-8, Pickett walked into a flyweight division low on contender since Johnson has run through the top four contenders. Pickett's prior win over Johnson gives him a storyline. With Johnson's improvements since their first fight, and entering his prime at 27 while Pickett is leaving his, the champion would be the favorite in such an encounter.
(13-2), with three UFC wins at flyweight, would be the clearest No. 1 contender. After just one win, Pickett would be right behind him.
GUNNAR NELSON -
With a 12-0-1 record, Nelson has the chance to be the star that opens up his native Iceland as a strong UFC market. He's been stalled in recent years by injuries as opposed to performance.
LUKE BARNATT -
At 25, Barnatt said that he'll always remember Saturday's show.
"It was probably the biggest moment of my life walking out in the O2 Arena. The walk out will live with me forever. A fight is a fight, it's all the same."
Barnatt took his third straight win since being a cast member of the spring 2013 season of The Ultimate Fighter. There are a number of fighters at the mid-level range in the division who he could face next, including former TUF fighters Uriah Hall
(8-4) and Tom Lawlor
(9-5), who would be solid tests to see how much upward mobility he has.