Why would the driving force behind Manchester City's transformation into the most affluent football club in the world – who secured the Abu Dhabi investment and then overhauled the infrastructure of the outfit – switch to a sport whose contestants can render their opponents unconscious in eight seconds by cutting off the blood supply to the brain through a headlock?
Garry Cook's next big challenge seemed unconventional last September, though only to those who have been oblivious to the extraordinary commercial rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading promoter of mixed martial arts, whose value in 2011 was an estimated $2.2bn and which takes its next major grab at a breakthrough in Britain at the Wembley Arena tomorrow evening. On the bill are Renan Barao fighting Michael McDonald and Liverpudlian Paul Sass up against Danny Castillo. Few people over the age of 40 might have heard of them but Cook, appointed by UFC as managing director of the UFC brand in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, sees them as the type of idiosyncratic personalities who have made the sport one of the most watched in the United States.
The sport needs no introductions there. It even features in a Friends episode ("The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion" – in which Monica's boyfriend, Pete, gets a good hiding) and its strength, only a decade after it appeared to be going under as first television and then various influential cities in America pulled the plug, is remarkable.
The sport was playing out before audiences of fewer than 1,000 and condemned by the American senator John McCain, then a 2008 presidential candidate, as "human cock fighting'' when a group of businessmen in Las Vegas re-launched it as a regulated sport. It differs radically from WWE wrestling but shares a drive to attract huge audiences – pay-per-view is where the big money comes in – by providing entertainment to go with the sport. The seven-year Fox TV deal secured in 2011 – and believed to be worth $100m – has brought in pay-per-view audiences of up to eight million and for Cook, in part it's been about making stories of the fighters as he builds the sport in Europe. "In Europe we are looking to develop local heroes," he said of his task. "In Europe, we love our guy to go out there and challenge the best in the world." UFC's owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White are effectively creating a new sport, which does seem to be one big TV deal away from a serious breakthrough in this country.
Already, the biggest British name Michael Bisping has outsold Amir Khan, and Ricky Hatton is among those who believes that boxing – with its lack of coordination among promoters creating an impediment to the match-ups which fans want to see – risks being eclipsed. Hatton met one of the fighters on Saturday's bill, Sass, at his Hyde gym in east Manchester last week for one of the type of publicity events which reveal that UFC can teach boxing a thing or two.
The deal was that Hatton would coachthe Scouser some boxing – one of the component skills of UFC, which also includes karate, judo, Muay Thai, Olympic wrestling moves, kicks, elbows and jiu-jitsu – while Sass, a expertise in mat moves – would try out some of his stuff on Hatton. One of Sass's moves can have a man out unconscious in eight seconds and Hatton was quick to tap the mat, indicating a concession. "I'm not making a comeback [in UFC] so forget it!" said Hatton, after this challenging initiation.
This is the first time UFC has been to Britain since Lancastrian Mike Bisping's fight against Yoshihiro Akiyama sold out the O2 Arena three years ago and it is the sport's first event at the Wembley Arena. Bisping outsells boxing stars such as Khan when he fights in Britain and Hatton also cautioned that his sport must learn from the new contender for audiences, which flourishes by having the crowd in early to see videos telling them the stories of fighters on big screens in the arenas.
"We will always have our audience and they will always have their audience, but everywhere you go you are reading about it, and we have to raise the bar," Hatton said. "People go for the entertainment value, and if the UFC are making it more entertaining, we need to watch that. They have a big marketing machine behind them."
White, president of UFC, has made no bones about what he feels boxing's failings to have been. "Boxing has done so little over the years to protect its future,'' he has said. "At the UFC we have done the opposite – our legacy will be our future."
Sass certainly demonstrates how far the sport has come from its early years of bare-knuckled boxers, sumo wrestlers, grapplers and jiu-jitsu experts all going toe-to-toe, in an era when only biting and eye-gouging were banned. The Liverpudlian, a floor grappling submissions specialist, is known for a "triangle choke" using his legs, though is not keen on the term "Sassangle" which seems to have its origins somewhere in the Twittersphere. He feels it implies the move is not natural.
Sass, who has lost only one fight, holds the world record for winning the most consecutive mixed martial arts contests by submission, with his triangle and arm bar among his specialist techniques.
Sass displays a supreme level of technical sophistication for the sport which comprises three five-minute rounds. It says everything about its development that in Brazil, where mixed martial arts has its roots and where it commands around 40 per cent of the television audience when it is aired, UFC fighter Anderson Silva is second only to Pele as the most recognisable sportsman. Ask some of the elite footballers who attend bouts – including Samir Nasri, Kaka and Mario Balotelli, who says he fancies being in the ring – and you'll see why Ronaldinho and Robinho lag behind.
The challenge is to get British audiences switched on to the technical grappling elements of the sport. In the United States, where wrestling has historically formed part of the high school curriculum, that has not been difficult. Strategies used to educate include fight weeks and open workouts in front of the media, like Sass's recent visit to Hatton's gym in east Manchester.
"The point is that great athletes recognise other great athletes," Cook has said. "They all follow the same principles: fitness, focus, dedication. The UFC is a pure product. We have an audience, drama, unpredictability. No one is pretending to the consumer. There is talent, arenas, commercial opportunities. For me, the principles were the same at Nike and Manchester City. Now it's the UFC."
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