LAS VEGAS – Dana White got into a lot of trouble when he and his high school friends-turned-business partners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, made a $2 million deal on Jan. 12, 2001, to buy the UFC. For starters, an extraordinarily small percentage of people knew what mixed martial arts was.
From there the problems escalated.
But one of the problems White didn’t foresee as he tried to rebuild the UFC in his image was attracting fans in Mexico. Mexico has a long-standing love affair with boxing and the passion for the sport is deeply rooted in its culture.
The reality, however, did not correspond to expectations.
When White began the arduous task of rebuilding the UFC, he was shocked by the lack of interest from Mexico.
And even when Mexican fighters began appearing in the UFC a decade ago, interest was slow to grow.
Now, though, that’s all changed, and it’s proven by the fact that Saturday’s big combat sports event in Las Vegas is a UFC card and not a boxing match. Top Rank has made both Mexican Independence Day weekend and Cinco de Mayo two major dates on the annual boxing calendar. It was a clever way to capitalize on the popularity of Oscar De La Hoya, a Mexican American who became arguably boxing’s biggest star in the late 1990s.
The plan has grown to include superstars like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Canelo Alvarez, and has been a boxing staple for years.
On Saturday, the UFC will stage a fight night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, dubbed Noche UFC, which will be capped by the women’s flyweight title fight between champion Alexa Grasso and former champion Valentina Shevchenko. Alvarez, arguably boxing’s biggest attraction, will fight Sept. 30 in Las Vegas against Jermell Charlo rather than in his traditional slot on Mexican Independence Day weekend.
“Dana has long had a reverence for the spirit of the Mexican boxer and, as I recall, has talked about ways to figure out how to engage both the Mexican and Mexican American markets,” said Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s senior vice president and chief operating officer , he told Yahoo Sports. “The idea of holding this event on Mexican Independence Day is 100% his. This has traditionally been a date, along with Cinco de Mayo, when boxing has held its biggest events.
“…We’ve made great strides with Hispanic fans, and it’s a great group of Hispanic fans and not just Mexican fans. The reality is that the younger generation, just like in the United States, has connected with our brand , with our athletes and we are very excited about the future in terms of how Hispanic fans will engage with the UFC brand in the future.”
The UFC provided statistics gathered from a variety of places that support its point. YouGov and MRI-Simmons found that there are 10.1 million UFC fans of Hispanic origin in the United States, representing 21% of all UFC fans in the United States. It found that the UFC has more U.S. fans by percentage than any other sport besides boxing and Major League Soccer. This includes the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
It’s similar in Mexico. Research by YouGov, social media analysis and internal UFC research found that there are 18.6 million UFC fans in Mexico. A whopping 49% of these are adults between the ages of 18 and 34, the primary demographic that advertisers are trying to reach.
This is a higher percentage of young fans than that of Formula 1, the NFL, the NBA and several major football leagues, including the English Premier League.
UFC research shows that most fans attending Saturday will be from nearby California, which is great for the tourism industry in Southern Nevada. And it’s one reason why officials at MGM Resorts, which operates T-Mobile, were eager to stage a UFC event this weekend.
At one point, there were three Mexican UFC champions this year. Brandon Moreno won the flyweight title in January, although he lost it to Alexandre Pantoja in July. Yair Rodriguez held the interim featherweight title, but lost it to Alexander Volkanovski in July.
So Grasso is the UFC’s only surviving Mexican champion, although he looks bright for the future in terms of more Mexican stars. Epstein noted that many young athletes in Mexico choose MMA to get started rather than boxing, so their development will only strengthen the UFC’s efforts not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America.
Grasso could barely contain her joy at headlining the card. In a conversation with Yahoo Sports, she called it “an opportunity of a lifetime” to headline Las Vegas on Mexican Independence Day weekend.
But Shevchenko, born in Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union, is equally enthusiastic.
“Mexican fans love fights and help create an incredible atmosphere, so it’s an honor to fight in front of them,” Shevchenko said. “I know Alexa is very popular, but I know I also have many, many Mexican fans. It’s going to be a great night to have this kind of celebration and for two women to be the stars of a show like this.”