The UFC made two European debuts in 2015 and promised a couple more. Those did not pan out, but places like the Netherlands and Russia are targeted for 2016, per James Elliott, the new UFC vice president and general manager of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
The UFC officially announced Elliott's new position Wednesday. David Allen, his predecessor, abruptly resigned in June. Elliott had been working as the UFC's senior director of content for two years and was instrumental in setting up television deals for the promotion in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Slovakia and Russia.
The Netherlands, which has a substantial kickboxing pedigree, seems to be the top target for 2016 with a TV deal in place on FOX there.
"Holland is still on the list," Elliott told MMA Fighting. "Holland is a key market for us and it's somewhere we want to be."
Elliott also said Russia and places in Central Europe -- like Czech Republic -- are also being looked at in 2016 for events. In 2015, the UFC debuted in Scotland and Poland. There was also a European event in Germany with one more in Dublin on Oct. 24 to come. The Dublin card, Elliott said, sold out in less than 60 seconds. The UFC has already scheduled a return to London on Feb. 27, 2016.
In the last two to three years, there has been an influx of high-profile European fighters in the UFC, including interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor, women's strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and top light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson.
"European MMA has never been stronger," said Elliott, an England native. "I think we've got both fighters and athletes at the top level challenging for world titles and we've got people coming in from the grassroots, people coming onto the roster and into Fight Nights and onto FOX shows and pay-per-views. Every week there's a new European fighter who's coming on board."
One large European market the UFC won't be going to any time soon is France, which Elliott calls a "big hole." Earlier this month, an MMA event with a cage was held for the first time in France. Elliott said the show caused a lot of controversy, and the UFC will wait to see how things play out before proceeding in the country.
Elliott, 36, will also hope to continue the UFC's growth in the Middle East and Africa. The UFC has been to Abu Dhabi twice in the last five years and a sect of the government there is a business partner. Elliott said the UFC could be in that part of the world again next year, but perhaps in another location.
"There are some interesting things coming down the tracks for the region, that's for sure -- which them as a region have driven and demanded," Elliott said. "The desire is definitely there and we're trying our best to service it as best we can."
Along with France, breaking into Africa is a priority for Elliott with major caveats. He acknowledges that they "haven't made many strides there." However, Elliott said he expects to announce a television deal in South Africa in the coming weeks. That is typically a prelude to the UFC holding an event in the country. Of course, there are other logistical issues, most of them financial with a city like Johannesburg.
"We'll use [the TV deal] as a way of gauging response to it," Elliott said.
Other potential issues exist in what has emerged as an MMA hotbed: Ireland. UFC president Dana White said last week that McGregor will defend the featherweight title at Ireland's Croke Park if he beats Jose Aldo at UFC 194 on Dec. 12. Elliott said the team in Europe is working hard to figure out the logistics, but there are things standing in their way, including the fact that it is outdoors and Ireland is a country that gets a lot of precipitation. A pay-per-view would also be difficult there because of the time difference for the U.S. audience.
"Time zones are the one thing that we really, as much as we try, we can't really do much about," Elliott said. "We'd like to build a roof over the whole of Ireland, but that would be a challenge as well."
Elliott said his goals are fairly simple: to procure television deals and hold events regularly in all the biggest cities throughout Europe. South Africa and cities in the United Arab Emirates are also part of the mission. The UFC has come a long way over the last few years and Elliott is hoping now the growth is exponential.
"I'm not sure anyone really thought that we were gonna be where we are now in terms of European MMA three years ago," he said. "Imagine what it's gonna be like in five years time."