The long, frustrating and winding road to UFC 293 and the highly-anticipated return to Sydney


SYDNEY, Australia — Robert Whittaker had only just begun his three-year tenure as middleweight champion of the world the last time the UFC descended on Sydney. It was November 2017, a time when Australia’s Prime Minister was Malcolm Turnbull, the planet hadn’t yet discovered COVID-19, and future Mixed Martial Arts icon Tai Tuivasa was busy putting the finishing touches to his maiden UFC training camp.

The sport’s six-year drought from Australia’s most populous and famous city will finally end Sunday when flamboyant New Zealander Israel Adesanya and controversial American Sean Strickland headline UFC 293 at Qudos Bank Arena. The road to this point is a tale of both frustration and patience, but one which will ultimately have fight fans in the Harbour City rejoicing.

At long, long last, it’s time!

IT HAD BECOME painfully obvious the previous New South Wales’ Liberal government and its events arm, Destination New South Wales, didn’t look too fondly on the UFC, or MMA in general. Post Fight Night 121, also staged at Homebush, an unabashed, less than enthusiastic desire for the fight promotions company to return to the state quickly emerged, with little to no effort made in attempting to schedule another event.

Naturally, an overwhelming consensus was formed amongst the public that the state of New South Wales did not want to be associated with a sport which proudly embraced its bloody and brutal perception. It was hellbent on distancing itself from violence of any kind.

The decision for the state to detach from MMA came at a time when the rest of the nation was being swept up in UFC mania. What had once-upon-a-time been viewed as a niche offering with an even more niche fanbase — you only had to rewind to 2015 to find a time when cage fighting was banned in several Australian states — was suddenly taking centre stage, being covered by mainstream media outlets and growing at a rapid rate. Stadiums around the country were selling out in the blink of an eye and pay-per-view subscriptions were soaring. The thirst for mixed martial arts in Australia had reached fever pitch and Sydney was being left behind.

“This is one of the funnest places in the world to come and fight,” declared UFC boss, Dana White, in 2018. “Every time we come here, the fights are really good. I believe it has a lot to do with the energy here in Australia, and the fans. Fighters feed off that.”

The growth wasn’t just from an audience standpoint, either, with Australia beginning to produce more UFC fighters than ever before. The country proudly boasted world champions, mandatory contenders, and a plethora of highly touted up-and-comers. Not to mention several of the best entertainers in the sport; the majority, ironically, hailing from New South Wales. Even at that time, only the United States, Brazil, Russia and Canada had a greater number of active UFC athletes than Australia.

The two-way love affair between Australia and the UFC had developed into a classic win-win scenario. Both parties were sharing the spoils of a fruitful partnership and there was no sign of it slowing down. But despite the overwhelming success, the staunch mindset of New South Wales power brokers remained, and the state continued to ensure MMA was kept at arm’s length.

There had been a hope shared amongst several key stakeholders of an attitude pivot when hosting discussions began for the blockbuster UFC 243 card, headlined by region megastars Adesanya and Whittaker, and dubbed by White as the “biggest fight in Australasian combat sports history.” It had originally been slated for Sydney, but the state government seemingly refused to cough up the hosting fee and engage in any meaningful negotiations, opening the door for Melbourne to step in. The event, held at Marvel Stadium, remains the UFC’s biggest and most successful, with 57,127 fans piling into the football-sized arena, gate takings topping AU$8 million (US$5.1 million), and more pay-per-view subscriptions sold in Australia than for any other fight.

“This is an incredible market for us. Pound-for-pound one of the best in the world,” claimed UFC’s chief operating officer, Lawrence Epstein, after one of its most successful cards. He was almost urging New South Wales to reconsider its stance. “The future of the UFC is going to be here in Australia. We’re definitely coming back … as far as you want to speculate.”

By 2020, the UFC and Destination New South Wales had reached a stalemate. Negotiations had seemingly dried up and the UFC had all but given up on Sydney as a hosting city. Instead, White and his crew began focusing their attention and resources into other Australian markets, notably Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, which had not only been vocal in their desire to stage events, but also weren’t afraid to splash cash in order to make it happen. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted all short-term plans.

But change was imminent, and it would come in the form of at-the-time opposition leader, Chris Minns. At a media day in Sydney, ahead of UFC 284 in Perth earlier this year, Minns voiced his frustration at the fact his state was continually missing out on hosting these highly sought-after events. He was determined to bring the UFC back to Sydney.

The following week Minns travelled west with a number of fellow prominent Labor ministers. They soaked in the electric atmosphere of the Alexander VolkanovskiIslam Makhachev card at RAC Arena and returned to Sydney the following day with a last-gasp campaign promise. Minns declared AU$16 million would be spent on luring three fight cards to the state if his Labor government would come into power at the upcoming election.

“It generates an enormous amount of interest and exposure to Sydney and Australia,” Minns claimed at the time. “It brings entertainment, jobs, tourism dollars, enhances Sydney’s sporting reputation, and showcases our state to the world. I want to make sure we attract more major events right here in New South Wales.”

The UFC’s pay-per-view events are able to be viewed by almost one billion households across 170 countries. Research suggests there are now more than 700 million UFC fans on the planet, including a combined 250 million followers across UFC’s social media channels. Just in Australia, there are now more than four million fans of the sport.

The Minns pledge was initially met with some detractors, most notably from women’s safety advocates who claimed promoting MMA would glorify violence. “We would prefer not to see taxpayer funds used on events such as this,” argued Hayley Foster, chief executive of women’s counselling service, Full Stop. “We have very problematic messaging that we’re sending to men or boys in our communities around what it means to be a real man.” Meanwhile, treasurer of the coalition, Matt Kean, labelled the promise of cage fighting “sad” and reiterated its focus would be on securing and delivering other events, including the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Netball World Cup and World Pride.

The public spoke and the following month Minns was elected the 47th premier of New South Wales.

It didn’t take long for him to fulfill that popular pre-election promise. In May, the Minns’ Labor government announced a four-year partnership with the UFC to bring fight cards back to Sydney, in an effort to re-establish the city as the nation’s unofficial home of MMA. It was also a crucial move to help repair the previously damaged relationship between the state and the world’s biggest fight promotor.

“It’s about time,” said Minns. “It’s a major coup for the people of New South Wales.”

The news only got better for Australian MMA fans when UFC senior vice president, Dave Shaw, recently confirmed there would now be a “minimum” of two live events in Australia each year. Realistically, that looks like being one pay-per-view event and one fight night for every 12-month cycle.

The first of those events will be staged Sunday as a new chapter in the UFC’s successful partnership with Australia officially commences. The UFC 293 card at Qudos Bank Arena selling out in a record 13 minutes proves the appetite for combat sports in New South Wales is well and truly alive. And with Sydney finally joining the party, at long last the Australian UFC jigsaw puzzle feels complete.

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