The UFC is making its historic debut in Madison Square Garden, crossing a threshold it has been fighting for years, and perhaps helping catapult MMA into the mainstream.
During the past two decades, Las Vegas has staked its claim to the title of fight capital of the world. The UFC has held regular pay-per-view events in the city, while the world’s richest boxer, Floyd Mayweather, fights exclusively at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Even venues like AT&T Stadium in Dallas began hosting boxing and MMA fights in front of 40,000 fans. But the apple of the UFC's eye has long been New York and Madison Square Garden, and that becomes a reality Saturday when the octagon sits in the spotlight at UFC 205.
New York, as you mayhave heard, was the last state to legalize mixed martial arts, as an outdated law kept the world’s most popular combat sport out of the biggest media market in the country and out of an iconic venue that was once the fight capital of the world.
“For a while it was always like I had to defend what I did for a living,” said former UFC middleweight champion and New York native Chris Weidman, who was at the forefront of the campaign to legalize MMA. He traveled all over the state to meet with Assemblymen, Senators and the Governor, trying to open eyes. To no avail.
“There was a bunch of times I gave up hope. Every single time I would go to Albany and speak to these politicians it was a no-brainer to them that it would pass and it never did,” Weidman said.
It wasn’t just Weidman leading the charge. The UFC lobbied to break that barrier, too, but unions from Las Vegas campaigned against the promotion’s efforts to legalize in New York, fearing they would lose the business the UFC generates in Nevada.
There's no denying, Saturday's card will be a bonanza for those promoting the event, but the event's legacy promises to be that for the first time in history, MMA fighters will wage battle in the same venue that played host to such legendary fights as Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali.
Some pundits believe the lack of access to the New York market has kept the doors to mainstream media outlets cracked, but not open. Ronda Rousey transcended the sport, but even a star like Conor McGregor hasn’t quite made the step into the mainstream. And aside from McGregor, the pool of fighters on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream is essentially empty.
“All the new UFC fans this is going to create. The buzz, having it in all the newspapers,” Weidman said. “It was a long time coming. I’m excited for all the true UFC fans, who were fans for years but couldn’t afford to fly out to all these different fights, but now they can afford to come to this event.
“There are so many people that always wanted to go out to Vegas and watch me, because that’s where most of my fights were, but now they get to take the train in and walk up the stairs to Madison Square Garden.”
Weidman will share the stage with McGregor on Saturday night when he fights Yoel Romero. History isn’t on the line for Weidman, but he’s hoping to earn a shot at middleweight champion Michael Bisping and a chance to reclaim his title. McGregor, meanwhile, takes a shot at history by pursuing the label of two-weight world champion, something never before done in the UFC. To do so he'll have to get past current champ Eddie Alvarez.
“It just all feels surreal,” Weidman said. “Stepping into that octagon [in Madison Square Garden] is going to be a dream come true.”