UFC's love affair with Canada remains as strong as ever
Dana White announced Wednesday afternoon that Calgary would host UFC 149
UFC 149 will feature José Aldo defending his UFC featherweight championship
The UFC's popularity in Canada is soaring, as the volume of events there implies
The UFC scheduled a news conference this week to make what its e-mail alert touted as "a major announcement."
Had the fight organization discovered that the Greg Jackson gym was paying its fighters a bounty for knocking out opponents? Had company president Dana White successfully brokered a Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight? Were he and his Etch-a-Sketch jumping into the Republican presidential race?
No, the head honcho was in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon to announce that the city in Alberta would host UFC 149 on July 21 and that the behemoth promotion would return to Canada for two other events before 2012 was over and would hold three events north of the border in each of the next two years as well.
This is what qualifies as a major announcement, one supposes, on a slow news week, as the UFC is in the midst of a six-week stretch with no fight cards to hype.
No doubt the 149 announcement was major for mixed martial arts fans in Calgary, which has never seen the octagon roll into town. (The WEC, a now-defunct Zuffa cousin of the UFC, did make a stop in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2010.) But the "news" about the three Canadian fight cards for the next three years? That was not news at all. The UFC held three events in the great white north last year and also the year before.
Despite all of this, there was something major happening in Calgary. Call it a love affair.
Dana White is a carnival barker, a hype machine with endless battery life. Yet he seemed to be speaking from the heart rather than hyperbole when he stepped to the microphone and said, "I love this place. I love coming up to Canada." This drew a roar from the hundreds of fans in attendance, some of whom had showed up as early as 6 a.m. to line up for the best seats. Not for a fight card, mind you, just a press conference.
What the fans got instead of a fight was a dominant world champion. White announced that the main event of UFC 149 will feature Josť Aldo defending his featherweight championship. No victim, I mean, challenger was named. Dana publicly had campaigned for ex-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar to be Aldo's next opponent, but Edgar instead will try to get his belt back. So the title shot likely will go to the highly ranked Hatsu Hioki, who looked impressive against Bart Palaszewski in his second UFC fight last month. Whom else has Aldo not yet beaten?
The other two UFC events in Canada? As you might expect, they'll be held in Toronto and Montreal, which have drawn the two largest attendance numbers for a mixed martial arts event in North America. The record belongs to UFC 129, which last April attracted a record 55,724 to the Rogers Centre in Toronto. That stadium-sized event shattered a mark set the previous December in Montreal, when 23,152 attended UFC 124. The common denominator: Both of those events were headlined by Canada's one UFC champion, Georges St-Pierre.
Well, guess what: The welterweight belt holder, who has not fought since UFC 129 after blowing out a knee in training, has said he'll be ready by November, and conveniently enough, one of the two other events unveiled at the Calgary press conference was UFC 154 in Montreal ... on Nov. 17. If rehab continues with no setbacks, slotting GSP vs. interim belt holder Carlos Condit into the main event for that Bell Centre card would be a no-brainer. Indeed, St-Pierre even made the 154 announcement via satellite feed.
This year's Toronto event will be UFC 152 on Sept. 22. There's nothing more to report or even hint at. Mark Hominick, the Toronto-area fighter who gave Aldo his toughest challenge on that record-breaking UFC 129 card last spring, made the satellite announcement for this one. So if he emerges from next month's UFC 145 bout against Eddie Yagin unscathed, he could end up on the 152 card. But he's not the kind of draw who'll make a difference, really.
That the UFC would unveil upcoming events without announcing a single fighter on either card is unusual, but it suggests that the promotion has bigger plans. White didn't go into specifics at the press conference, but afterward Tom Wright, the UFC's director of Canadian operations, revealed the UFC's strategy. He told the Canadian news service Postmedia that the UFC plans to make stops in Montreal and Toronto part of its annual calendar, just as it slots events in Las Vegas every Super Bowl, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The yearly visit to Montreal would come around March, and Toronto would get its UFC fix each September. A third Canadian event would alternate between Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Quebec City.
"That speaks to the strength of our sport in Canada," Wright told Postmedia. "How important it is, how committed we are to developing the sport here, and having the consistency in schedule that the best sports always have."
Why take that step? As Dana White put it Wednesday afternoon over the cheers of a Calgary crowd, "This place has been the mecca for mixed martial arts ever since we set foot in this country."
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.
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