UFC 118 has grand appeal in Boston

BOSTON -- He grew up a boxing fan, and as a young man spent many a sweaty hour training to be a fighter.

When he wasn't throwing leather in the gym, he worked a straight job at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Over time he became a fan of a different form of hand-to-hand combat, one seen on the occasional pay-per-view cable telecast but little known to mainstream sports followers. His burgeoning interest led him to meet several of these mixed martial artists, and he began managing some. Eventually he was putting on MMA fights as a promoter.

That is the story of Dana White.

That is the story of Joe Cavallaro, too.

"Yeah, Dana and I go way back," Cavallaro said of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's audacious president, who spent many years in Boston before moving to Las Vegas. The rest is a billion dollars worth of UFC history -- a history that writes its next chapter Saturday night, when White fulfills a dream with the debut of his fight promotion, UFC 118, in his former state.

"I'm excited that he's bringing the UFC to Boston," Cavallaro said, "and I know Dana's excited to be here. Finally."

It took until now because White, in reshaping the UFC's image over the past decade from no-holds-barred street fighting to rugged-but-rules-abiding competition, has refused to schedule his company's fight cards in locales where MMA was not regulated by a state athletic commission. Last November, following much lobbying by the UFC, Massachusetts became the 42nd state to sanction the sport. And soon after came the announcement: TD Garden, here we come.

"Boston is in for a treat," Cavallaro said. "And the UFC coming here is going to be a huge boost for my business."

His business is World Championship Fighting, which since 2007 has put on 10 MMA events at the Aleppo Shriners Auditorium, a 4,000-seat hall in Wilmington, Mass. Most of those seats have been sold out show after show because WCF has successfully tapped into the Boston area's historically rich fan base for combat sports, Cavallaro said.

"There are a lot of fight fans around here," he said. "But the UFC, with all the star power that Dana has built, is able to reach not just fight fans but sports fans in general. A lot of sports fans don't know about World Championship Fighting. But after being hooked by UFC 118, maybe they'll check us out."

The WCF is no UFC, but it's a step up from what Cavallaro calls "the mom-and-pop shows" that you see advertised in local papers and then you don't see anymore at all.

"I wanted to create something that would last, a brand that New England sports fans would care about," he said. "And the way to do that was to put on fights that matter."

What constitutes such a fight?

"It's a fight that gets a guy someplace, gets him to the next level," Cavallaro said.

Cavallaro's company has seen its share of fighters move up to the UFC (Dan Lauzon, whose brother, Joe, is on the UFC 118 card) and to the UFC-affiliated World Extreme Cagefighting (Mike Campbell). The promotion's most notable alum is Jon "Bones" Jones, the UFC light heavyweight wunderkind -- although if any fans in Wilmington blinked, they missed him. Jones needed just 36 seconds to knock out ill-fated Parker Porter at WCF 3 back in 2008.

"That was at the very beginning of Jon's career, and the guy he fought is a tough kid," Cavallaro said. "With Jon's inexperience, we thought that was going to be a big test for him. But he walked through the kid."

And then he moved on.

Losing exciting fighters to buddy White's big show may be frustrating, but the man whom everyone on the New England MMA scene calls "Joe Cav" has been around the fight game long enough to understand: Stepping up in competition is what it's all about for the guys who get into the ring or cage. And Cavallaro knows that WCF has a role to play in nurturing the growth of a sport that's already soaring.

"People ask me why I got into promoting fights," he said. "I knew it was time to get in when I was talking to my mother and she started telling me why Chuck Liddell was going to win his next fight. It occurred to me then that all sorts of people were watching MMA -- men, women, young, old. And the numbers continue to grow. Here in Boston, the whole city is excited for this weekend. There's a buzz all over town."

Fight fans aside, there's a buzz in the bars, restaurants, hotels, taxi companies and retail stores of Boston. Or at least there should be.

"Some people may not understand what this event is going to mean for the visitors industry because they don't know anything about the sport and its fans," said Patrick B. Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This is huge. Sports is big business, and this is big even among sporting events."

A Red Sox game typically generates around $1.3 million in revenue, not counting ticket sales or any other money made inside the walls of Fenway Park. A game against the Yankees or a postseason game brings in closer to $2 million. When the NBA Finals were in town, the visitors industry's take -- outside the walls of the Garden -- was $3.5 million.

For UFC 118?

"We're expecting it to be between $5 million and $7 million," Moscaritolo said. "That's a lot of dollars to be dropped into an economy over a three-day period."

In addition to fight night at the Garden, the UFC is presenting a two-day Fan Expo that is expected to draw 30,000 people to the Hynes Convention Center on Friday and Saturday.

"And what surrounds the Hynes? Great retail shopping. Great dining experiences," Moscaritolo said. "There will be money spent there, just like in the area around the Garden."

The dollar figures in his calculations surprised Moscaritolo. The visitors bureau has been closely following the business generated by sports ever since 1999, when Boston played host to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, the Ryder Cup golf competition and early-round games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Those who study Boston's tourism revenues have developed a sense of what to become excited by, and the announcement of UFC 118 initially did not get them too stirred up.

Moscaritolo, who says he's "a rabid Boston sports fan" but acknowledges that he doesn't know much about MMA, assumed that the audience for such an event would be "a lot of young kids who don't have a lot of money in their pockets." But the more he looked into the demographics, the more his jaw dropped.

"The people coming to this event are not just young guys with knapsacks," Moscaritolo said. "There are also going to be people who carry briefcases."

Lots of them. Seating capacity for UFC 118 is 15,500, and tickets range in price from $75 to $600. Those $75 seats are long gone, as are the $100 ones. But as of Thursday night, decent loge seats were still available for $200. Cageside seats in the 10th row -- where one shouldn't wear white because blood will stain -- were available for $600. And the best tickets on re-seller sites were going for thousands of dollars.

"The UFC does a great job building up the anticipation in the weeks prior to [the event]," said TD Garden spokeswoman Tricia McCorkle, "and we expect a sellout, as their events are known to have a considerable walk-up [clientele]."

On fight night in Boston, one would expect no less.

"This is a fight city, always has been, and the UFC has an appeal right now that boxing seems to have lost," said veteran boxing trainer Joe Lake, who worked Dana Rosenblatt, Micky Ward and most of the area's top pugilists during his many years at the old World Gym in Somerville. "I ain't going to say that boxing is dead in Boston, but we don't see guys anymore with the appeal of a Marvin Hagler or even Dana Rosenblatt or Johnny Ruiz. We don't see local kids going on to fight for world titles.

"Now the big thing is MMA, and it has a real shelf life for a younger audience. It's the 18-to-40 crowd, guys with tattoos, pretty girls. And the fights themselves, that's the closest thing we have to the Roman gladiators."

Lake is speaking with admiration, not bitterness. Unlike some boxing guys, he has embraced MMA. He's known White and Cavallaro years; they used to come into World Gym to train with him. As did Joe Rogan, color analyst for UFC telecasts, who grew up in Newton and was a tae kwon do black belt and jiu-jitsu brown belt.

Now, in the lead-up to UFC 118, Lake has served as boxing coach for Marcus Davis, who faces Nate Diaz in a welterweight match on Saturday. Davis used to be a pro boxer, with Lake as his trainer.

"This is a whole new world for me," Lake said. "The UFC is great at what it does. They don't just put on fights; they make it an event. They wrap a two-day party around it. I mean, they get 10,000, even 15,000 people coming to their weigh-ins. And now they've brought their road show to Boston."

Cavallaro, for one, can't wait to see the reaction of the Garden crowd.

"I don't think there's a better sporting event in the world than a night of UFC fights," Cavallaro said. "If you haven't seen a UFC fight live, you haven't seen a fight."

Jeff Wagenheim writes an MMA blog for thefastertimes.com.