UFC’s Boston road trip well worth it
With his signature bombast, Dana White has vowed to “blow the (expletive) roof” off TD Garden.
And the UFC president will attempt to back up that boast when his mixed martial arts organization makes its Massachusetts debut at the Garden with Saturday’s pay-per-view event, UFC 118.
White, media savvy and ever-quotable, will be ubiquitous this week. He’ll attend Wednesday’s Red Sox [team stats]-Mariners game at Fenway Park [map] and will make numerous radio and television appearances. And there will be plenty of star power around the city with dozens of UFC fighters on hand for the Fan Expo at the Hynes Convention Center on Friday and Saturday.
On fight night, music will blare, fans will roar and the action will excite.
It figures to be a wild week. But getting the UFC to Boston was the result of a quiet and steady process that took years.
Mapping out plans
The map, measuring about 4 x 6 feet, rests against the window in Marc Ratner’s Las Vegas office.
Displaying the United States and Canada, the map features three colors: green, yellow and gray, representing the different stages of MMA regulation.
Green means MMA is sanctioned in the state, yellow means regulation is pending and gray means the state or province has no athletic commission, as is the case in Alaska and Wyoming. The UFC won’t hold an event in unregulated states, so the organization has strived for MMA regulation in the other 48 states with commissions.
When Ratner joined the UFC in 2006 after 14 years as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, there was far less green on the map. MMA was sanctioned in 22 states and faced an uphill battle, due to lingering misconceptions that the sport was no-holds-barred.
As the UFC’s vice president of regulatory affairs, Ratner has spearheaded the effort to get the sport regulated across the country. Well-respected from his time overseeing many of the biggest fights in boxing, Ratner set out to educate legislators about MMA.
“It’s always about education,” Ratner said. “We had to do more education to really have the legislators really understand exactly what we were doing and really explain to them about the healthy and safety.”
While the UFC aimed to grow the sport globally, it had a keen eye on a few markets. One of those targeted spots was Massachusetts.
Though smaller, local promotions had legally conducted shows for years, there was no government regulation.
The first step in bringing UFC to the Bay State came in May 2008 when White and Ratner enlisted the Dewey Square Group, a Boston-based lobbying firm. Though it succeeded in getting an MMA regulation bill passed as an amendment to the 2008 budget, there was not enough time for a full hearing, so it didn’t get through the legislature.
When a new legislative session began in 2009, State Sen. James E. Timilty, the chairman of the public safety and homeland security committee, made the bill a priority.
“We should have some oversight just to make sure something doesn’t go wrong,” said Timilty (D-Walpole). “And secondly, there’s a significant economic benefit.”
At a hearing in front of the public safety committee at the State House in April 2009, Ratner was joined by other executives and UFC lightweight Kenny Florian, a Dover native who is set to fight on Saturday’s card.
The bill ultimately faced little opposition, passing by a 34-1 vote in the Senate and a 144-10 vote in the House. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill into law in November.
Massachusetts then became the 42nd state to regulate MMA. Such progress wouldn’t have been possible without Ratner’s work.
“The guy is legendary for his work with the (Nevada) athletic commission,” White said. “To have a man like that going out representing us and working with all these other commissions to get it done, you can’t put a value on that.”
Garden is ripe
Regulation paved the way for the UFC to come to Massachusetts, but it wasn’t the final hurdle. The UFC needed a venue, and though there was some discussion of an outdoor show at Fenway Park, TD Garden – home to the Celtics [team stats] and Bruins [team stats] – was the only realistic option.
Once MMA got regulated, the UFC and Garden quickly agreed on the date.
“We knew from seeing what was happening in other major markets that the UFC is breaking out and doing incredible numbers,” Garden president John Wentzell said. “The interest is skyrocketing, both live as well as on the pay-per-view side. We knew it was a very hot commodity and it hasn’t disappointed.”
The state also needed to revamp its athletic commission to include officials with backgrounds in mixed martial arts. The three-person commission grew to five.
Though the commission has experienced some growing pains, everything is now going smoothly with UFC 118 now just six days away. Commissioner Todd Grossman – noting that “the biggest show on Earth” is about to be held in Boston after just five months of planning – said it is testament to the panel’s hard work and progress.
“The fact that we’ve been able to get a program up and running as efficiently as we have is quite impressive for a government agency,” he said.
Green means go
Ratner’s map now has 44 green states. Among the UFC’s priority destinations, only New York remains unrealized, but Ratner considers regulation in the Empire State inevitable.
That’s the same belief Ratner had in Massachusetts when he set out to convince its lawmakers two years ago. Now that it’s come to fruition, the UFC will get the big, glitzy payoff for all the dull, behind-the-scenes work.
“You know how much this means to me and how long I’ve wanted to come there and how much I love the city of Boston,” said White, who once lived in South Boston and ran a boxing gym in the Hub. “Boston has always been good to me. Believe me when I tell you, I’m going to put on a show that’s going to blow the (expletive) roof off that place.”
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