Six years after mixed martial arts was legalized in Maryland, the UFC will make its first visit to the state with UFC 172, a pay per view event that will feature light heavyweight champion Jon Jones versus Glover Teixeira in the main event.
According to John Rallo, owner of Ground Control Academy in Baltimore, legalization of MMA in Maryland was the easy part, as the bill passed in one session. According to Rallo, getting a bill passed that easily "is usually unheard of."
Bringing the UFC to the state took some more work.
The process to get the sport legalized began when Rallo first opened Ground Control and realized that "For our guys to fight, or even compete in grappling tournaments you had to go out of state."
Rallo recalled, "I thought that was kind of foolish, that the state allowed wrestling, kickboxing and boxing, but didn't allow mixed martial arts - a sport that combined those three."
With that thought running through his head Rallo began laying the groundwork to legalize MMA in Maryland, "I had some relatives in government, so the first call I made was to my uncle asking if he thought this was something that could be legalized and he asked around to some people and was like, ‘I didn't get the push back that I expected.' He turned me on to a law firm downtown and a lobbyist who brought (State) Senator Joan Carter Conway to Ground Control, and she watched practice, watched guys spar and some videos and she said ‘I don't see why this shouldn't be legal here, it's very similar to boxing.' So, she said she would sponsor the bill."
While all this was going on, the local Fox television affiliate was preparing to run a story on Rallo. A radio commercial for that story caught the ear of newly appointed State Delegate Kirill Reznik. Reznik recalled, "I wasn't aware that professional mixed martial arts was illegal in Maryland until literally the week that I was initially appointed to become a State Delegate. I was driving around, running some errands and there was a bumper on the radio for Fox 45, and they said ‘Tomorrow on the show will be John Rallo head of Ground Control talking about how he wants to legalize mixed martial arts in Maryland.' And I said, ‘Oh my God, I can do that.'"
When Reznik got to the office the next day he tasked his aide with tracking down Rallo. The problem was, Reznik didn't catch Rallo's name, or the name of his academy. All he knew was that some guy in Baltimore was trying to legalize MMA and he wanted to lend a hand. The aide did some sleuthing and put Reznik in contact with Rallo.
From there, according to Rallo, "Things just fell into place. We started lobbying in January of 2008, and the bills were approved in May. After that the state had to make the regulations official and it took almost another year for them to get all the rules set. The first event we didn't do until October 2009."
Reznik remembered there was some initial push back to the bill, "I think it was the usual stuff, people were bringing up the old quote form John McCain about it being human cockfighting. There were a lot of people that were uneducated about the sport and we had to work very hard to show them that what they perceived it to be was actually a 10-15 year old perception."
Once Reznik overcame that outdated perception, he focused on the reality of what legal MMA could mean to the bottom line of the municipality, "I stressed the economic impact it would have. I said that mixed martial arts fans are not boxing fans. MMA fans come for the sport, not for the fighters. They come early, they stay late, they patronize the businesses before and after (the event). I said this is not what you expect it to be, the economic impact is going to be tremendous."
That economic impact, according to Baltimore Arena GM Frank Remesch is going to be significant once the UFC hits town for fight week, "When you talk about economic impact, it's absolutely insane, it's incredible. It could be the biggest show that I've ever done when you talk about financial impact - to the arena, to the city, to the area. For a one time event, it's phenomenal."
The one drawback about UFC 172 coming to Baltimore on April 26 is that it forced Rallo to move his scheduled event from the arena. Rallo had the date locked up for his tenth Shogun Fights show and he could have prevented the UFC from staging its event on the requested date, but, "Obviously for me, I'm going to move," said Rallo. "Business wise I hated moving because April is our more successful show during the year, but looking at the big picture I want to keep my good relationship with the UFC and number two, while this may not be best for me in the short term I think it's best for the sport because it shows Baltimore as a viable market. I think it brings a lot of money into the city. So, I think in the long run it will be better."
Rallo and Remesch have worked together to present each of the nine Shogun Fight cards at the arena and the average attendance for the previous cards, according to Remesch has been in the 4,500 range per event. Remesch said he is happy with the numbers the Shogun cards have drawn in the past, emphasizing that the 4,500 number is fans through the gate, not some falsely inflated number.
Both Rallo and Remesch are hopeful that there will be some crossover when Shogun X does hit the arena in June, "I think it's awesome to get a big pay per view event here," said Rallo. "I think it's going to do well for the local economy, and I hope that we will have come to the (UFC) show that may have not come in the past and maybe they'll come and give Shogun a shot at a later date, and see that we do have fighters here that are very talented and we have already sent three guys over to them (UFC) and hopefully we'll send more."
The process to bring the UFC to Baltimore began before Rallo presented his first Shogun Fights card. According to Remesch, it actually began before the sport was even legalized in the state, "I may be off on the year, but I started calling them about six years ago," Remesch recalled. "I was a fan of the sport from when they didn't have weight classes, when Royce Gracie was first there and doing his thing. We would just keep in touch, and it seemed like they'd play near the area. We tried to talk - I wouldn't have the dates or they were playing another area then, then this whole thing came with Jon ‘Bones' Jones and I think he kind if stirred it up a little bit, because everyone started calling me before the UFC even called."
The Jones thing Remesch mentioned was the December interview the champion did with Ariel Helwani. In the interview Jones said, "I'm going to fight in Baltimore. My brother's (Arthur) a Raven, so this is going to work out great for me. I think the marketing going into this is going to be phenomenal." Jones was then asked to reiterate the Baltimore location and he replied, "Yes, Baltimore. It may be official."
Problem was - it wasn't official when Jones announced he was going to fight in Baltimore.
Remesch remember hearing of Jones' statement, but he had not heard from the UFC, "So, when they called, I was like 'I was wondering if you guys were ever going to call me.'"
One sticking point in the entire process is something that Remesch deals with every time he brings an event to the Baltimore Arena. - taxes. When asked about the percentage Maryland takes off the top Remesch said, "It's tough when they go to (Washington) D.C. and it's zero and they go to Philly and it's 5 (percent) and we're 10. That hurts, but they (UFC) knew it."
"It's a great market, and they're smart people," Remesch said of Baltimore and the UFC, "They looked at how the market will support the event and the tax and they said it was a calculated risk and that they were going to do it. It's a good market - Baltimore is a hell of a good market. I can hardly ever say this, but I promise it's better than D.C., and I hardly ever say that because D.C. is a monster, but when it comes to UFC and MMA, I would put up against anybody."
When asked if he thinks UFC 172 will lead to a second visit from the promotion to the city, Remesch replied, "I have baited breath. If we do this right, there's no doubt in my mind that they'll be back. We haven't spoken about it, it's just you put your money where your mouth is. If I were a betting man, I'd probably say we would look at them to come every other year if this does well."
One of the reasons Remesch feels the UFC will be back is the fact that he fully expects the event to sell out prior to the April 26 date. A look at the Ticketmaster website would support that feeling, as most of the seats have already been scooped up for the 11 fight event.
As for the marketing Jones mentioned in his December interview, that fell through when his brother, Arthur inked a free agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts, but that doesn't mean there aren't marketing opportunities for Jones if he choses to pursue them. After all, the Colts fled Baltimore in the middle of the night 30 years ago. Jones could get some attention for the event if he decided to support his brother's new team in a city where even the mention of the Colts raises hackles.