Why Did Dana White Lead UFC 112 to the Desert?

Yesterday there was a good bit of coverage about the possibility that bad weather in Abu Dhabi will impact the UFC's first outdoor event this Saturday at UFC 112. MMA Mania covered the story:

"I've always been terrified of doing an outdoor show. If it starts raining and the wind starts blowing ... right now there's no Plan B. The high possibility of rain happening... it's not gonna happen. It's not gonna rain there; we know it's not gonna happen. It would have to be crazy for it to rain in Abu Dhabi. Wind could be a factor. It's very dusty and sandy there. I'm worried about the wind."

UFC President Dana White puts his fate in the hands of Mother Nature heading into the promotion's first-ever outdoor event slated for the Concert Arena at Ferrari World on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. While rain doesn't come too often in the desert, it's not unusual for high winds and sandstorms to wreak havoc at a moment's notice.

Zak Woods also points out the unusual situation with the still under construction arena for UFC 112:

Speaking of the arena at UFC 112, tickets are going fast and Flash Entertainment has released additional tickets due to the "overwhelming demand". Of course, judging by the latest stadium photograph the stadium doesn't exactly appear to be a 20,000 or even 15,000+ venue. Still, it is going to be very interesting to see what kind of crowd is in attendance this Saturday.

Woods also points out the enormous cultural difference between the UFC's native Las Vegas, Nevada and the strict Muslim etiquette of Abu Dhabi:

For those who aren't up to speed with Arab and Muslim cultures here is quick refresher. Abu Dhabi may be one of the more liberal Gulf countries --then again, when your neighboring emirate is arresting people for kissing in public it isn't hard to be considered "liberal"-- and women are not required to wear the hijab (head scarf) but local women still wear abayas (the long black, flowing garb), which covers their bodies, heads and sometimes faces, as a sign of modesty. Obviously there are different expectations for Westerns in country but the Emirate's official English language tourist site states that, "[women and men] are advised not to wear excessively revealing clothing in public places, as a sign of respect for local culture and customs. This also applies to public beaches, where swimmers should avoid excessively revealing swimming suits."

Will Zuffa send the Octagon Girls in their boy shorts to walk the cat walk in front of a Muslim crowd that may be offended? Or will Chandella and Arianny wear different, more Muslim friendly attire at UFC 112?

So putting on a UFC in Abu Dhabi entails: 1) risking utter disaster due to weather; 2) putting on an event in an arena that will still be under construction at fight time; 3) Gate receipts will be low; 4) Cultural values in Abu Dhabi may impact the presentation of the fights.

That's on top of the normal hit in PPV buys in the U.S. that comes with the event being aired at 1pm EDT rather than the 10pm EDT that is the norm for U.S. events. Plus having Dana White, the Zuffa PR team and the fighters half-way around the planet from the MMA media is giving competitors like Strikeforce and Bellator a virtually open field to promote their events this week without having to compete with the UFC for attention.

And I'm not even bringing up the fact that the UFC has been absolutely starved for title fights to headline cards since UFC 100. Off the top of my head, UFC 102, 103, 105, 106, 108, 109 and 110 had no title fight headliner. I've blogged before about the erosion of the UFC's PPV numbers during this run.

And yet they suddenly pull up with not one, but two title fights for a PPV that is almost guaranteed to underperform for other reasons.

So just what the heck is Dana White thinking?

Admittedly, Dana and I are a little behind on our heart to heart chats lately, but I have a few ideas as to why the UFC is willing to invest so much and risk so much to put on their debut Abu Dhabi event:

  1. Cash Money -- Zuffa sold a 10% stake in the UFC to Flash Entertainment, a wholly owned subsidiary of Abu Dhabi. Some have speculated that the Fertittas' Station Casinos money troubles and the UFC's own significant debt obligations made this cash infusion a must.
  2. International Deal Brokering -- Zuffa is pushing this angle. Since international expansion has been such a huge priority of Zuffa's, the involvement and backing of a group of serious players from the UAE brings a whole new set of established relationships, especially in hard to reach, but potentially huge markets like India, China and Russia.

This last point is critical, especially following the news yesterday that the recent set backs the UFC has experienced in Germany were aided and abetted by Vince McMahon of the WWE working behind the scenes to sabotage his competitors. As we know from watching the UFC try and fail to break into the Japanese market or sign Russian superstar Fedor Emelianenko, Zuffa needs some diplomatic help in dealing with foreign markets.

It should also be noted that it's no coincidence that Renzo Gracie is making his long overdue UFC debut in this event. Gracie fought in the headliner of the infamous Pentagon Combat event in Brazil in 1997. That event was bankrolled by a group of investors from Abu Dhabi. Those same folks went on to found the Abu Dhabi Combat Club which puts on the world's most prestigious no gi grappling events. Read this anecdote from MMA Mania about Renzo's signing to the UFC:

"I was over in Abu Dhabi having dinner with the Sheik, Lorenzo [Fertitta], Dana [White], and Frank [Fertitta]. And Lorenzo asked me if I was done fighting or if I was planning on coming back. So I said to him, ‘is this an invitation, and he said ‘you bet it is.' It was that simple. We shook hands and here I am."

Clearly Renzo Gracie was an important middleman in arranging Zuffa's marriage with the UAE.

Will the alliance with Abu Dhabi pay dividends for the UFC? Time will tell.

-- photo via twitter.com/ufc

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