Potential fans put Australia, New Zealand high on UFC venue list

Volkanovski claws back to defeat Holloway in rematch (1:20)

Despite being knocked down by Max Holloway's high kick in Round 1, Alexander Volkanovski rebounds to defend his featherweight title by split decision. (1:20)

Australia and New Zealand could host a UFC event later this year given their respective successes of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and for the fact that they have already welcomed fans back to other sporting events.

UFC President Dana White suggested Saturday both countries could stage such an event in the back half of 2020, and that he was aware of the situation in New Zealand where there is currently no restrictions on crowds.

"I've been hearing things...I'm hearing that in New Zealand they're doing things with fans, so it's possible," White said following the conclusion of the UFC's first event at Fight Island, Abu Dhabi.

Those comments have been backed up by David Shaw, the UFC's Senior Vice President of International and Content, who told ESPN that the UFC was desperate to get fans back Octagon-side wherever and as early as safely possible.

"There is nothing better than the live event experience for UFC, so it is important we get fans back to the arenas as spectators as soon as it is safe to do so," Shaw said. "Looking at how the world is responding and recovering from the pandemic, it could be that Australia and New Zealand may be the first real options for UFC to host events and welcome fans back - and that would be the first step required for us to consider our return."

The UFC was due to return to Perth in June, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to force UFC 251 to be rescheduled and then contested over the weekend, an event in which Australian Alexander Volkanovski defended his featherweight crown via a split decision victory over Max Holloway.

Although it was yet to be announced before the Perth date was cancelled, Volkanovski had been expected to headline the Perth event, giving Australian UFC fans what would have been their second home title fight in two years after Israel Adesanya had knocked out Robert Whittaker for the middleweight crown in Melbourne last year.

Asked whether getting back to Perth to fulfil the UFC's original plan was a priority, Shaw said: "Of course, we were all looking forward a return to Perth back last month. A return to Perth is a top priority...we were able to host a Fight Night event in Auckland back in February. It would be a shame to miss out hosting an event in Australia during this milestone year - so let's call that added inspiration for a result in 2020."

In a promotional spot ahead of UFC Fight Night Auckland in February, Adesanya pointed to Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium as a stadium venue that had a roof, and could cater for up to 30,000 fans, when it came to the possibility of the New Zealander potentially defending his middleweight strap on home soil.

While New Zealand hasn't typically been viewed as a large enough market to host an event of such standing, the global coronavirus pandemic and the fact New Zealand has no limits on spectators - some 40,000 fans recently attended a Super Rugby Aotearoa match in Auckland - could present Adesanya with the chance to perform on home soil.

Shaw said Forsyth Barr Stadium was one of the "many options" the UFC was looking and that the array of MMA talent in Australia and New Zealand was added motivation for the company to get an event scheduled Down Under as soon as was safely possible.

"What's so great about the development of Australia and New Zealand for UFC is there is no shortage of quality talent. Two world champions in Adesanya and Volkanovski, but also the likes of Robert Whittaker, Daniel Hooker, Megan Anderson; it's a long list of exciting athletes that we want regularly competing in front of their home crowds."

The first hurdle for any event in either Australia or New Zealand will be getting the proper government approvals, which would allow not just the athletes but also the entire UFC operation to enter the country and complete any quarantine requirements.

That might prove difficult in Australia given the country is experiencing a second wave, of sorts, of coronavirus cases with the state of Victoria forced back into Level 3 lockdown and concerns over a growing number of cases in New South Wales, too.

That could potentially turn things in favour of New Zealand getting a second event, although the UFC's desire to return to Western Australia, where there are low rates of community transmission, for a card that could potentially include Volkanovski's second title defence, should also not be overlooked.

For now, though, Shaw said the UFC was focused on delivering safe events, for everyone concerned.

"It is about ensuring the health and safety not only of our staff and athletes, but also the fans," he told ESPN. "To make an event work in Australia or New Zealand we would want to welcome the fans back to arena, a decision that will be guided by the advice from local authorities.

"From there and only with the support, desire and determination of local government, partners and stakeholders we are confident on finding solutions to make the rest happen...be patient, we're working on it. In the meantime stay safe and healthy."