After winning their biggest political fight earlier this year, the biggest mixed martial arts promotion brings its biggest card with its biggest star to the biggest market in the world on Nov. 12.
The UFC, eight years after it began lobbying for legalized MMA in New York State, rolls into Madison Square Garden for the first time in history with a monumental fight card known as UFC 205.
Enter Conor McGregor, the brash Irish champion with the type of gift for dominating the spotlight (and his opponents) that could reduce the Big Apple to a tiny little slice of McGregor’s pie.
“The city has been hungry for the sport for so long,” McGregor said. “So now here we are and it’s a honor to be leading the way heading the bill. And I’m going to go out and put on a show.”
McGregor, the featherweight champion, will move up a weight class to challenge Philadelphia’s Eddie Alvarez for his lightweight title. McGregor could become the first fighter to hold two UFC titles at the same time, and just the third fighter to win a UFC championship in more than one weight class.
“Everyone always looks ahead,” McGregor said. “Let’s enjoy this moment right now because it took so long to get here. So many hours went into getting the UFC into New York City. Now here we are, potential two-weight champion.”
Hours, days, years, and millions of dollars.
The New York State Assembly voted 114-26 in favor of overturning the 1997 ban on professional MMA last March. It ended an eight-year battle with politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups. In a matter of a few hours, the cliché question of “When is it going to be legal in New York?” switched to the original and suddenly pertinent “When is the first UFC card going to be at The Garden?”
This first card next Saturday includes three title fights, four current champions, four former champions, and 13 total fights. From top to bottom, it unquestionably is the most loaded card the UFC has put together.
But the stars at the top, of course, draw the most attention. Alvarez has said since his fight first came about that McGregor was the easiest opponent he would face in the lightweight division. McGregor, of course, disagreed.
“He’s claiming it’s an easier contest,” McGregor said. “I look forward to when the eyes shift, when the eyes roll and the electric shock darts through his whole body and he goes to his knees and then he comes up and he’s in survival mode and that panic sets through his whole body, his whole face. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And I will go out there and I will punish him for those words that he is saying. I’m going to retire him on this night.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
MMA officially was banned in New York in February 1997, shortly after the state denied UFC co-creator Campbell McLaren from putting on an event in Buffalo. That event — UFC 12 — was shifted to Dothan, Alabama, “ the peanut capital of the world,” on about 40 hours’ notice.
“The fact that people thought the UFC was bad, and you look at the problems now, oh my god, whoa, can we go back to those days?” said McLaren said. “The fact that the UFC was the threat to our way of life was hilarious.”
At that time, the sport was marketed as “No holds barred” and “There are no rules!” and “Banned in 49 states!” None of those actually were true, though, but it helped add to this aura of MMA as blood sport. The first 11 UFC events did not have weight classes, and the unified rules of MMA weren’t established until 2001.
The violent nature of the sport — and the marketing that played up to it — helped lead Sen. John McCain to refer to MMA as “human cockfighting.” (As guidelines and regulations were established in later years, however, McCain endorsed the sport.)
“The guy who was against it, he ended up running for president,” McLaren said. “Twice.”
‘JOANNA CHAMPION’ AND UNDEFEATED, TOO
Joanna Jedrzejczyk has quite a few goals and dreams for the remainder of her MMA career. The undefeated women’s strawweight champion from Poland wants to remain that way, with Karolina Kowalkiewicz the next opponent in her path.
“I know that I’m not the prettiest one, I’m not having big boobies or I’m not American, but I want people to remember me as the best female fighter, undefeated in MMA, and the UFC champion of the world,” Jedrzejczyk said Wednesday on a conference call.
Jedrzejczyk (12-0, 6-0 UFC), who shifted her training camp from Poland to American Top Team in Florida for this fight, has a long-term plan as well.
“I want people to talk about me in five, 10 years, 20 years, that I was one of the best female MMA fighters, that I was one of the best UFC champions in the world back in the day. This is what I want. I just want to retire as an undefeated champion. This is my goal.”
Jedrzejczyk and Kowalkiewicz, also from Poland, fought one another in an amateur bout four years ago, with Jedrzejczyk winning by rear naked choke.
“She wanted this girl in the UFC,” UFC president Dana White said. “That girl was the champ in Poland in another organization and a lot of the people feel like she’s the toughest chick in Poland. Joanna wanted this fight to prove to Poland that she’s the baddest chick from Poland. She’s a gangster, man.”
Rashad Evans, 37, begins his middleweight fighting career at UFC 205, a drop in weight he probably should have done earlier. But, ego is heavy.
“Pride got the better of me, to be honest,” said Evans, a former light heavyweight champion who lost his last two fights and four of his past six. “I felt like if I left my weight class it was because I wasn’t good enough to compete. Now, I’m to the point where I’m like the hell with it, I’m just gonna go give it a shot. Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself.”
Evans fights Tim Kennedy, who returns after more than two years off.
“You need new challenges in life, and I feel like this will be a new challenge,” Evans said. “At 205 , things are kind of stagnant for me. I fought most of those guys at 205. It’s better for me to set my sights on 185.”
The bout also serves as another first for Evans, who grew up in Niagara Falls. He never has been inside Madison Square Garden before.
There are benefits to fighting in your hometown. No lines at the airport, no time zone adjustment issues, no logistical concerns over family arrangements or where to get those last few workouts, no need to wonder what the situation will be like when arriving in some faraway town.
“You feel the excitement and people talking about the fight more just being that it’s out here in New York,” said Chris Weidman, the former middleweight champion from Baldwin who fights Yoel Romero on the pay-per-view portion of the card.
Weidman is one of two fighters from the Long Island/NYC area on the card and by far the biggest. Rafael Natal doesn’t have quite the following of Weidman, who became the face of MMA in New York during the legalization battles. That has tempered some of the local build-up to UFC 205, Weidman said.
“If it was all of us, kinda the way I always imagined it, it would be a little different,” said Weidman, referring to teammates Aljamain Sterling, Al Iaquinta and Gian Villante.
Fight night at MSG will be similar to his past fights in Las Vegas and elsewhere, Weidman anticipated, “other than maybe not getting as many boos out there walking to the octagon.”
One thing clearly will be different, though. It’s that thing that always happens when the local kid reaches big heights close to home: everyone whoever knew you for at least three minutes comes a knocking.
“I make it very clear to people that I don’t have discounts,” Weidman said, “and I get four tickets and they go to my wife, my dad, my mom and my father-in-law.”
MONEY SQUARE GARDEN
Before MMA was legal in New York, UFC officials estimated a live gate of around $12 million. With tickets ranging from $100 to $1,500 and The Garden planning for more than 20,000 fans, UFC president Dana White told Newsday he is anticipating a gate of close to $18 million, which would set a record. A look at the top gates in UFC history so far:
1. UFC 129 in Toronto: $12,075,000
2. UFC 200 in Las Vegas: $10,746,248
3. UFC 194 in Las Vegas: $10,006,249
4. UFC 196 in Las Vegas: $8,197,628
5. UFC 202 in Las Vegas: $7,700,810
6. UFC 189 in Las Vegas: $7,201,648
7. UFC 148 in Las Vegas: $6,901,655
8. UFC 193 in Melbourne: $6,800,000**
9. UFC 168 in Las Vegas: $6,238,792
10. UFC 167 in Las Vegas: $5,759,350
* 55,724 fans at Rogers Centre in UFC’s first stadium show
**56,214 fans at Etihad Stadium in Australia
When: Oct. 12
Where: Madison Square Garden
Main card, 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view
Eddie Alvarez vs. Conor McGregor (lightweight title)
Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson (welterweight title)
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz (women’s strawweight title)
Chris Weidman vs. Yoel Romero
Donald Cerrone vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Miesha Tate vs. Raquel Pennington
Prelims, 8 p.m. on FS1
Frankie Edgar vs. Jeremy Stephens
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Michael JohnSon
Rashad Evans vs. Tim Kennedy
Vicente Luque vs. Belal Muhammad
Early prelims, 6:30 p.m. on UFC Fight Pass
Jim Miller vs. Thiago Alves
Rafael Natal vs. Tim Boetsch
Liz Carmouche vs. Katlyn Chookagian