The UFC recently announced its plans to launch a serious assault on the European market in 2014 with vastly increased numbers of events spread across the continent.

In the past, the UFC had made strides into the European market, focusing predominantly on the United Kingdom. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that the UFC really saw these shores as a real source of potential and looked to make an aggressive move only a few years ago. This intent was signaled clearly by the promotion’s decision to place the Pride and UFC title unification bout between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson on the card for UFC 77 in Dublin, Ireland.

However, despite delivering that landmark fight, the UFC never really caught on in the United Kingdom to the extent it has in other countries, such as Brazil and Canada. The reasons for this are multifaceted and largely beyond the UFC’s control. The UFC, to its credit, pushed hard from the outset without much commercial success in return for its input.

First, the obvious issue of time zones was a major factor in the lack of continued growth of the UFC. Having one event every three to six months in the United Kingdom was great, as it allowed fans to see the UFC product up close and personal, but most importantly at a reasonable hour on a Saturday night. The numbers were credible in reflecting this. The problem was that this would then be followed up by 10 events mainly held in the United States, meaning the U.K. customer would need to be awake at 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a Sunday just to watch the main pay-per-view card live (back in the dark days before prelims were aired at all, let alone on Facebook).

Additionally, there have not been enough fighters from the United Kingdom for the fans to really get behind. For the longest time, there has been Michael Bisping. He has been the face of the UFC in the United Kingdom. Without him, the UFC certainly would not be as far along as it is. However, during the early goings for the UFC in Britain, what the promotion and Bisping himself really needed were a few others alongside him to really help stabilize the show. Bisping would only fight every three to six months, and so the increased interest that would peak during the week of the fight would then be largely negated by long periods of downtime between fights that were easily accessible to the casual U.K. fan.

Every effort has been made to increase the list of U.K.-based fighters on the roster, but there has not really been another fighter who has had the sustained impact that Bisping has had, save for perhaps Dan Hardy, who fought for the title but has since retired.

Another major consideration when trying to analyze why the UFC has not broken through in the United Kingdom is the health of boxing in the country in the recent past. Traditionally, the United States has been the home of big-money boxing and has produced a large portion of its past champions. Currently, boxing in the United States is centered on just a few top-level fighters spread across the entire sport. Those fighters are the pinnacle and create universal interest, but, those aside, there are very few actual stars of boxing these days compared to the days of old.

The same cannot be said for U.K. boxing, which is actually experiencing a relative boom in terms of interest and championship-quality fighters. Unfortunately for the UFC, it tried to enter the U.K. market just as this trend was really kicking in. Fighters like Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton were in their prime when the UFC tried to break through. At that time, boxing was more established and so were its stars, to the point that the public was so much more engaged in boxing than they were with the UFC. Despite the UFC’s loyal and hardcore legion of fans, it was still a relatively new attraction to the majority of U.K. combat sports fans.

That is not to say that U.K. MMA began with the UFC. There have been several other MMA promotions that have come and gone in the intervening period which kept the aforementioned hardcore fans content when the UFC seemed initially reluctant to venture back to British shores following its initial foray with UFC 38, headlined by Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton, back in 2002. Cage Warriors had its first even in 2002 at which the likes of current UFC fighters Rosi Sexton and Alessio Sakara fought. Cage Rage is also a prominent name in U.K. MMA history, having most famously been a testing ground for a certain Anderson Silva before he went on to become perhaps the greatest of all time with an unparalleled UFC record.

Luckily for the UFC, the landscape in the United Kingdom has started to change over the last few years. Several of the previously noted barriers to its entry into the European market have now dissipated.

High-profile stars such as Conor McGregor and Alexander Gustafsson are now on hand to assist Bisping in his task of pushing the UFC forward across Europe as a whole. Behind those three, there are now fighters who certainly have potential to deliver the MMA message to a wider audience. Fighters such as Brad Pickett, Ross Pearson and Jimi Manuwa all show great potential to entertain and increase the popularity of the UFC and MMA overall if marketed correctly.

And unlike in previous years, the UFC now has the marketing personnel and experience to really capitalize on the U.K. and European markets unlike before. In the early going, the UFC thought the market could be won by simply throwing money at it, which, as UFC President Dana White has admitted, was certainly not the case. However, the present-day UFC U.K. team consists of experienced professionals who can slowly build the product by delivering a consistent and coherent message over time that will allow the sport to grow naturally.

This can only then be enhanced by the addition of a television deal which has shown signs of promise to be a real breakthrough for the UFC. Certainly, in the U.K. market, its increased local content engages UFC fans and allows U.K. fans to connect with the fighters themselves. BT Sport launched in the summer, largely picking up the bare bones of the old ESPN channel. But the network has gone far beyond that in just a matter of months to the point that although a lot of the sporting content is similar to the old ESPN programming, the way in which it is presented is vastly different.

As we approach UFC Fight Night 30 this weekend in Manchester, there is a relative feel-good factor amongst U.K.-based MMA fans that we could soon be seeing more highlight-reel moments like the one witnessed back at UFC 70 (in the very same arena as this weekend’s fights) where, most memorably, Gabriel Gonzaga left the legend Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in a pile on the UFC mat.

Photo: Michael Bisping (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.