Saturday, March 3, 2007

UFC's Ohio stint sounds like a broken record

By Josh Hachat

COLUMBUS -- Sporting a good-sized shiner under his right eye, Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Rich Franklin joked he knew he was ready to fight this weekend if he had his trademark black eye.

But after an illustrious four-year career in the UFC, Franklin, a former middleweight champion (185 pounds), never thought he'd be doing it in his home state.

The UFC comes to Ohio for the first time today, another sign of how mixed martial arts has taken the sports world by storm and skyrocketed in popularity.

Aptly titled "UFC 68: The Uprising," the show sold out in days, and more than 18,000 fans are expected to invade Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
The event is expected to shatter previous UFC attendance records, and it will be Nationwide Arena's highest-grossing single event, producing a live gate of more than $2.8 million.

For Franklin, a Cincinnati native, it's a dream come true.

"It's funny because once I started fighting in the UFC, a lot of my friends and family asked when I would be fighting in Ohio again. I always said probably never," Franklin said.

"I never dreamed that they would bring this to Ohio. The amazing thing about it is tickets basically sold out in day three, which just goes to show you this thing is national. It's exciting for sure."

The previous attendance record at a UFC event was 14,765 for a show May 2006 in Los Angeles, and Saturday's show also is expected to challenge the North American MMA attendance record of 18,265 set last year by the Strikeforce promotion.

The impact in Ohio is huge. Before this weekend's UFC, the largest gate for a boxing/MMA event was just less than $250,000 for a Don King-promoted fight in Cincinnati in 2001. The UFC flew past that amount just hours after tickets went on sale.

But boxing has taken a backseat to MMA in Ohio, as well as nationwide. Last year, there were 80 MMA fights compared to just 24 for boxing in Ohio.

Bernie Profato, the Ohio State Athletic Commission Director, said more than 900 amateur fighters competed in MMA last year in the state, easily besting the amount in boxing.

"That's where I think boxing has fallen back," Profato said. "There's no amateur base in boxing anymore. (The UFC) has really come out of nowhere, and now it's head of the pack. Ohio might be one of the top states in America right now. This is a history-making event."

The buzz around Saturday's event further shows how the UFC has made an inroads across the country. After being pushed off pay-per-view and nearly going bankrupt, Dana White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the company in 2001.

Rule changes -- kicks to the groin, headbutts, knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent now are illegal -- allowed the sport to be sanctioned by major athletic commissions, and the sport started to grow. It took off in 2005 when the UFC reality show "The Ultimate Fighter" began on Spike TV.

Now, the UFC is white-hot. It regularly outdraws the NBA and the MLB in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, and its pay-per-view events drew more than $200 million in 2006 according to the Associated Press.

It's also not just a regional sport anymore, and moving live events east of Las Vegas appeals to several fighters.

Matt Hughes, a nine-time welterweight champion (170), hails from Iowa and will fight on Saturday's card.

"We're in the Midwest and I love it," Hughes said. "I'm from the Midwest, and my family and friends get to come here cheaper than flying. It's just great, and the fact that we're going to be the biggest attended event in UFC history, that's just a selling point. It tells me that it's going to come back to the Midwest, and that's just great for me."

Hughes and heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia both represent a strong fighting camp from Iowa, and Franklin trains in a state-of-the-art, 13,000-square-foot facility in Cincinnati. Sylvia is putting his belt on the line against Randy Couture, the UFC Hall of Famer and two-time heavyweight champ who is coming out of a one-year retirement to fight.

The 43-year-old Couture started his career with the UFC 10 years ago and has seen the company's highs and lows. Right before his retirement, however, Couture was fighting in sold-out arenas, but he never doubted the sport would sell in the Midwest.

Couture, a three-time Olympic alternate in wrestling, cites Ohio's strong wrestling pedigree along with wrestling-dominant states like Iowa.

"A lot of wrestlers have an affinity for the sport," Couture said. "It's not a surprise that it's big here. It's one of the hottest things going. It's very exciting to be a part of."

Hughes added that Saturday's success in Columbus indicates the sport is here to stay.

"People generally think that submissions and that come from the east or west coast," Hughes said. "They gotta know now that there's a big gym in Iowa, Rich Franklin is from Ohio; there's so many tough competitors that come out of the Midwest. It's great."


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