Nationwide Arena in Columbus was the stage last Saturday night for two remarkable achievements in the world of sports and entertainment.
The first was one of the most amazing athletic feats I have ever witnessed.
Randy Couture is a 43-year-old three-time U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team alternate and former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight and heavyweight champion. Couture came out of retirement on this night to upset the 6-foot-8, 225-pound reigning UFC heavyweight champion, 30-year-old Tim Sylvia, in what has been described as one of the greatest nights in the history of mixed martial arts in America.
The second remarkable achievement: This took place before the largest crowd — more than 19,000 attended — in the history of the Columbus arena. It also was the highest-grossing event — it earned $3 million — in the history of the arena, beating the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Billy Joel.
The estimated $150,000 take by the Ohio Athletic Commission for this one night is believed to be more than it earned in any year in its history.
Something is happening here, and what it is should be exactly clear: Mixed martial arts — particularly the UFC brand — is taking off like wildfire, and the burnt remains left behind might be the sport of boxing (save for what could be that sport’s last gasp, the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight in May in Las Vegas).
“We are blown away,” UFC president Dana White said after the Columbus event. “I’ve never seen anything like [what] I saw here tonight.”
UFC has held many of its shows in Las Vegas and California, staying close to its fan base. But now it is taking the show on the road and is being greeted with open arms and open wallets. The next scheduled event, UFC 69, will be held at Toyota Center in Houston on April 7, and three weeks later the show goes across the Atlantic to Manchester, England.
“We decided to move this around, and that was a very good idea,” White said.
UFC could even come to the District, where the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission already has approved the regulation and licensing of mixed martial arts and at least two such events will be held this year. The Washington Post reported one promoter will hold a mixed martial arts show on May 12 at the D.C. Armory, and promoters Jeff Fried and Nate Peake said they plan to bring another to the District by the end of the summer.
UFC, the best-known brand of mixed martial arts, is taking notice and keeping an eye on the District.
“Coming to Washington, that is certainly a possibility, certainly under consideration,” said Marc Ratner, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for UFC. “We don’t have enough dates to go around to satisfy the demand. You can’t do a big pay-per-view every week. But moving it around the country, coming here, is very important. We are talking about bringing a show to Denver, to Atlanta, to Tampa. There is a lot of action right now.”
A lot of action, indeed. Shock waves went through the boxing industry last May when Ratner, one of the most respected figures in the business, resigned as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission to work for White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, the owners of Zuffa, the company that operates UFC.
Others are following now. Boxing promoter Gary Shaw, while still in boxing, also is working with the company that will be producing mixed martial arts events for the Showtime network, for years one of the major forces in boxing. And the person who made Showtime a force, Jay Larkin, is working with a new company, the International Fight League, which will present team-based mixed martial arts events that will be shown on Fox Sports Network and MyNetworkTV.
Mixed martial arts still faces the stigma of being lumped with the old toughman contests and the old UFC events, which were less structured and regulated than they are today. And there is a fear that, as mixed martial arts spreads via hundreds of local shows around the country, an accident during a fight could have a devastating effect on the industry.
Ratner has been going around the country, meeting with state officials in various jurisdictions to get mixed martial arts licensed and regulated.
“Pennsylvania just came on board,” Ratner said. “They still have to adopt regulations, but they have approved the sport to regulate. We are having bills introduced in Michigan and Illinois in the next week to 10 days. I am talking to Tennessee and Kentucky officials. There is a lot of interest right now. Getting approval in Pennsylvania was a big thing. New York is not quite ready yet, but we will be pushing for it there, trying to find out what their problems are, if there are any. … Madison Square Garden calls me once every 10 days. They really want it. The arena managers know what is happening. They see what happened in Columbus.”
I saw what happened in Columbus: the future.