The UFC was on a roll there for a spell, with standouts like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell having some success breaking out of the Octagonal holding pen and getting on the radar of more casual sports fans. But Liddell retired at the end of 2010 and Couture aged out, hanging up the mini-gloves in April 2011 at age 47.
So this is something of a UFC Version 4.0: You had the Gracie-Tank Abbott era, the Tito Ortiz era, the Couture-Liddell era and today's era, which is being presented by the market makers who wish to continue to make growth strides.
The company standouts are Anderson Silva, a 37-year-old Brazilian who is majestically talented but mercurial, sometimes prone to showboating his way through rounds; Jon Jones, a 24-year-old Rochester, N.Y. native who is still finding his sea legs as a public figure; 31-year-old Georges St-Pierre, a Canadian who has battled injuries and a nice-guy personality which makes him easy to like but not as easy to publicize in the TMZ age; and heavyweight Cain Velasquez, the son of Mexican immigrants, who regained the UFC title from Junior Dos Santos in December.
UFC boss Dana White has the most compelling personality of all of them, so maintaining the push to introduce the sport to people who haven't checked it out hasn't arguably been as fluid of late. Thus, another push to get UFC into NYC, into MSG, perhaps takes on a touch more urgency.
White, though, says that the company is running on high octane. He sounds like he's still in a honeymoon stage regarding his "free" TV deal with Fox.
"We're two years in. ... It's the greatest move ever, " he said, "and we have another six years and I hope it goes for another 60."
Sports Business Journal reported when the UFC-Fox deal was announced that UFC would get $100 million a year to provide live and taped content on Fox, FX, Fox Deportes, Fuel and more.
White's insistence on providing content on social media platforms, like Facebook, and making his fighters and himself fixtures on Twitter -- he has 2.3 million followers -- makes him something of a sage in branding in this era. He logs mad miles on the UFC jet, placing events in far-flung locales; last calendar year, UFC ran in Brazil, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, the UK, China and, of course, the U.S., so he's working to drop anchors all over the world.
What are the chances an anchor gets dropped in New York? "I'm bullish, cautiously optimistic," Marc Ratner, UFC's VP in charge of regulatory affairs, told me.
In the last five years, Ratner has trekked to the state capital 15 or so times to make the case to lift the professional MMA ban in NYC, talking to lawmakers about the upside to letting MMAers do their thing in New York and not letting Jersey have all the fun (and money). A bill to allow professional MMA in N.Y. has previously passed through the state senate and made it through the various committees in the assembly, but continually gets choked out when it gets to the desk of the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver.
"I've been in his office every year," said Ratner, who is known to boxing fans as a former fixture on the Nevada State Athletic Commission, "and he's been as polite as can be. But for whatever reason, it doesn't get to the floor. If it gets to the floor and gets voted down, then we know we need to do more education. But if we got to the floor, I think we'd win and the governor would sign the bill if it got to his desk."
The legislature is in session until June, so there is time to get 'er done. Ratner is hoping MMA fans might hear some good news as early as April. Has he picked up on any signals that make him more optimistic this time around? Ratner said he has been in constant contact with the New York State Athletic Commission and chairwoman Melvina Lathan. Ratner says the commission is quite keen on adding MMA to the fold and notes that UFC in N.Y. would be an economic bounty. His studies indicate that a card at Madison Square Garden would bring between $8 million to $12 million to the area, with fans flooding to the building, staying in hotels, buying meals and drinks, and so forth.
Sellouts at the Garden, or maybe Barclays in Brooklyn, are a good bet, considering that an April 27 UFC date in Newark has sold 7,500 seats already, with 60 percent of buyers being New York residents.
I'm a fan of the product, so I cannot portray myself as an unbiased source on the subject. But I agree with Ratner: I don't fathom why the state allows and regulates one combat sport, boxing, and doesn't allow or regulate another, mixed martial arts.
"New York is a very important state for MMA," Ratner said. "It validates everything. It's going to be regulated there. It's not a question of, it's a question of when."