Thursday, March 1, 2007

'The Count' is out to rewrite rules

COULD Clitheroe be to cage fighting what Manchester has been to boxing?

Well, judging by one man's success, Michael "The Count" Bisping is about to re-write the rule book and do everything in reverse. Absolutely everyone wants to break into the American market. The British national press were clamouring over Manchester boxer Ricky Hatton's light welter-weight championship fight in Las Vegas in January, but twice as many fans watched Bisping's first Ultimate Fighting Championship fight at the same venue two weeks earlier.

Whether they be pop stars or sportsmen alike, the holy grail is the land of hope and glory, but while others struggle to make it big, the undefeated mixed martial arts fighter has quite literally beaten them to it – despite being a relative unknown in his own country.

In fact you could say he's pounded the opposition into the ground as, by the power of television, US sports fans have taken him into their homes and their hearts as a future champion of their new-found favourite sport.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is beamed into the homes of millions of Americans and is now more popular than Major League Baseball, and only beaten in the ratings by American Football, as it edges closer to mainstream status.

It has replaced boxing as the country's leading ringside sport and now aims to give its British fans a piece of the action.

Cage Fighting has come a long way since its dubious beginnings in the 1990s. It used to be no-holds-barred, anything goes with no rules, no judges, no time limits and no gloves, but in 2001 it was relaunched and reinvented by UFC president Dana White, rules were applied and safety measures were taken.

Today the UFC is the premier mixed martial arts event in the world, incorporating weight classes, five-minute rounds, boxing, jujitsu and every martial art known to man.

At Friday's press conference in Manchester, White unveiled his plans for the sport in the United Kingdom with the MEN Arena event, the first of many he has in store: "The Manchester Evening News Arena is the finest venue of its kind in Europe, which is why we've chosen it. Manchester is the home of sporting legends, so what better place to launch Ultimate Fighting in the UK."

It's not the first time UFC has been held in Britain, though, as in 2002 it sold out the Royal Albert Hall, but didn't catch on.

White added: "We were a little premature when we came over here in 2002, but now's the right time and we are here to stay.

"It's been a long hard battle for us in the US over the last six years. We had a very successful event at the Royal Albert Hotel last time we were here and tried to cut a television deal, but it wasn't until the reality show Ultimate Fighter with Bravo that it took off.

"In 2002 there wasn't much talent but when he came back in 2005, to find two guys from the UK for season three of the Ultimate Fighter, I was blown away by the amount of talent to have appeared in two or three years.

"But what we knew when we built this company was that America, Mexico and the UK love their fighting. Boxing started here in the UK, which is why we're sure mixed martial arts can be just as big here as it is anywhere else, that's why we've spent the time, money and energy to make it finally happen."

One of those two fighters was Bisping, who has the makings of a champion: "Without a doubt the most talented guy we saw was Michael Bisping," said White. "It's funny, take Ricky Hatton for example, he's a huge star over here and now we're trying to break him into the American market, while this guy is a huge star in the United States and we are trying to break him into the UK where he lives.

"He's a talented fighter who's got a great personality. Some people have got it, others don't, Bisping's got it. Mike is one of the most popular fighters in the UFC, and it is incredible just how much people over there love him and I'm sure people over here will do too."

Bisping's Manchester fight pits him against Australian Elvis Sinosic , just one of several fights planned that night, and victory would certainly enhance his title chances.

The UFC president enthused: "He's in the mix and I want to take my time with him, but he could end up fighting them all," said White. "He is undefeated after 13 fights, which is incredibly hard to do, it's hard to go two, even the best champion fighters have lost four or five, so he could become the best."

Bisping, who celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday, has confidence in his own ability too, he said: "I won't stop until I've got that belt around my waist. I've got to beat the likes of Chuck Liddell (the UFC light heavy-weight champion), I'm certainly not here to make the numbers up and I would be very disappointed if I didn't do it.

"There's still a long way to go, though, I've only had two fights in the UFC and you've got to work your way up and prove yourself in the octagon."

Unlike some sports, Ultimate Fighting doesn't pretend to be something it's not, it's raw, exciting and honest, and that's why UFC and Bisping stand a good chance of succeeding.

Doors will open at the MEN Arena at 5-15 p.m., and the first of several fights will be at 6 p.m.

Ticket prices are at six price levels and start at £25, rising to £250, and so far pre-sale tickets to American fans have been as high as ever for the 13,700 seater event.

Tickets for UFC 70: Nations Collide are now available from the Manchester Evening News Arena and Ticketmaster, or alternatively, the fight night can be seen on pay-per-view sky television channel Setanta (channel 481) for £14.95.


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