IN FEBRUARY 2010, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) made its first venture into Australia for UFC 110. Cain Velasquez knocked out Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the main event at Sydney’s Acer Arena, and premier local lightweight George Sotiropoulos extended his five-bout winning streak. UFC 110 was a sellout, and it gave the nation a taste of what was to come.
In those days, the UFC was something of an unknown commodity to most Australians. While the company’s main events had a cult following, the wider public’s interest in mixed martial arts was only beginning to be piqued. “At that point, mixed martial arts and the UFC were very polarising,” says Peter Kloczko, vice president of UFC Australia and New Zealand. “It was unknown to a lot of people.”
Fast forward to 2023 and the UFC’s events are major fixtures on the Australian sporting calendar. Watching the UFC on a Sunday afternoon at the pub has become a cultural mainstay, as common for a growing section of Australian sporting fans as spending the summer attempting to emulate baggy green heroics in the backyard, or glibly remarking, ‘I reckon I could do that’ during the Olympics.
Earlier this year, UFC 284 in Perth saw homegrown hero Alexander Volkanovski take on Islam Makhachev in a super fight for the ages in front of a sold-out crowd intent on blowing the roof off the RAC Arena. Indicative of the skyrocketing interest in the UFC, 84,000 people registered for tickets to the event, which was held in an arena that could only fit 14,000. The scarcity of available tickets is part of what gives UFC events their pull, and one that keeps audiences wanting more, says Kloczko. “I guarantee you the fans that missed out on 284 wanted to be first in line to buy tickets next time.”
Underpinning every thriving sports organisation is a savvy business model, and the UFC is no different. After all, the company’s growth is no happy accident, but rather, the result of more than a decade of work to transform the organisation from a niche fighting contest to a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise. That wouldn’t be possible without appealing to regional fans, and Kloczko believes that finding a local hero was the key to reeling in a nation. “As we’ve brought these events, developed local content and regionalised the UFC offering, we’ve been able to build those opportunities for pathways to elite competition for local athletes, and that’s had a snowball effect,” he says.
For Australia, that hero was middleweight champion Rob Whittaker. “Whittaker put Australia on the map in mixed martial arts by inspiring a nation to follow the sport and engage with it,” says Kloczko. “We saw the same in New Zealand with Israel Adesanya, and then with Alexander Volkanovski.”
All this paints a promising picture, not just for the UFC, but the states and countries with whom it partners. In the past, 45-55 per cent of patrons at Australian UFC events have come from interstate. For UFC 284, that number rose to 68 per cent, injecting more than $5 million into the Western Australian economy. It’s that promise of a financial boon that’s prompted a deal with Destination NSW to bring three UFC events to the state over the next four years, beginning with UFC 293 in September. Kloczko promises the deal will “deliver tens of thousands of visitors to NSW and bring millions of dollars’ worth of economic impact”. As evidence of what’s to come, ticket allocations for UFC 293 were exhausted just 13 minutes after going on sale.
While some sports are yet to fully enter the digital age, part of the UFC’s success can be attributed to its willingness to embrace social media. “On many metrics, we’re showing that we are equal to, if not surpassing, many of the traditional sports in Australia,” says Kloczko. “In February, we launched our regional TikTok account and within six months that surpassed one million followers.” Globally, the UFC has a whopping 233 million followers across its social media channels.
In another encouraging sign for the future of the organisation, mixed martials arts is one of the youngest-
skewing sports in terms of fans. Seventy-three per cent of the UFC’s fan base is in the 18-44 age range and 48 per cent in the 18-34 age group, beating out all other Australian sports. As you’d expect, there’s a heavy representation of men in that group, but the number of women following the UFC is rapidly growing. Women already comprise 37 per cent of the global fan base, with one million female fans in Australia alone. In terms of fighters, more and more women are joining the UFC’s star-studded roster, and that’s helped to attract an increasing number of female fans. The continued promotion of female fighters, Kloczko says, is “crucial in fostering broader appeal and expanding the fan base”.
For Kloczko, all this is just the start. “We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of UFC in Australia,” he says. With top-class bouts locked in for the foreseeable future and local talent continuing to be positioned in the public eye, the UFC’s rapid rise is showing no signs of slowing down. But for now, the focus is set firmly on UFC 293 this weekend. “If you’ve not been to a UFC live event, it’s the pinnacle of what we do,” explains Kloczko. “Nothing beats the live experience.”
3 fighters to watch at UFC 293 this weekend
‘The Last Stylebender’ is set to defend his UFC middleweight title in UFC 293’s main event against scrappy (and controversial) American Sean Strickland. Adesanya has an impressive 24-2 record in mixed martial arts but in the stacked middleweight category, the Nigerian Kiwi’s title is anything but safe. Strickland, who ran his mouth with a misogynistic rant at a press conference this week, has won eight of his last 10 fights, but Adesanya has the talent to bring that streak to an end and add further weight to the argument that he is one of the sport’s greatest ever.
A fan favourite and heavyweight hopeful, Tai ‘Bam Bam’ Tuivasa is in need of a win to turn his recent slump in form around. The self-professed “brawler” from Western Sydney was knocked out by Sergei Pavlovich in just 54 seconds last December, and that loss was Tuivasa’s second straight by knockout. Tuivasa will get his shot at redemption this weekend against Alexander Volkov, and where better to do it than in his home city?
Nicknamed the ‘Black Jag’, Carlos Ulberg is an emerging force in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Ulberg has been on a tear since his first MMA loss to Kennedy Nzechukwu at UFC 259, racking up four consecutive wins, three of which were first-round knockouts. The 32-year-old Kiwi will look to continue on his upward trajectory as a rising star at UFC 293, where he’ll go head-to-head with crafty South Korean Da Woon Jung.