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Future looks bright for UFC events in Baltimore

Mixed Martial ArtsUltimate Fighting Championship

In March 2011, the Ultimate Fighting Championship went to Seattle. Officials released 8,000 tickets for "UFC Fight Night: Nogueira vs. Davis," the city's first such event. They hoped to sell enough to fill out the lower bowl at KeyArena.

It did not matter that the card was not pay-per-view-worthy. Ticket sales surpassed 14,000 the day before the fight. The total attendance figure (13,741) was almost 33 percent more than the previous Fight Night record (10,267). The $1.182 million gate was the first million-plus night for the series.

"Will we think about coming back to Seattle?" UFC president Dana White wrote during a live chat days before the event. "Hell, yes."

White brought up Seattle as a point of comparison early Sunday morning, after he had beamed in announcing a record night at Baltimore Arena. An unprecedented 13,485 had shown up for UFC 172, the city's first such event. Only The Rolling Stones, in the 53-year history of the venue, had drawn a bigger gate than the pay-per-view event's $2.3 million, White said.

Was Baltimore now a fight town?

"Look what we did in Seattle," White said. "We did a great number in Seattle the first time we went there. It seemed like we were back there every two weeks after that."

That number, unlike the record-breaking figures that preceded them, was an exaggeration. UFC has since returned to Seattle twice, first for a nationally televised card in December 2012, then for a flyweight championship fight seven months later.

Before and after Saturday's fights, UFC officials were understandably noncommittal about when they would return to Baltimore, except to say unequivocally that they would.

Ticket sales alone earned them that privilege, said UFC vice president of community relations Reed Harris. Less quantifiable but no less impressive, he said, was the city's "vibe" on fight night.

"I was standing with the other executives, and I was like, 'This place is full,' and it was quarter to 8," Harris said of the sold-out Baltimore Arena. "That means that people are there to see all the fights, and that means they're really fans. They're not just there to watch Jon Jones. That means they want to see those prelims and things like that."

A group of fans, Reed said, showed up at the Hyatt Regency last week to salute the card's fighters. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 showed up for a tailgate before the event. Memorabilia heralding the main event — Glover Teixeira versus the ultimately victorious "Bones" Jones for the light-heavyweight title — flew off shelves. The noise inside the 13,500-seat arena, from the night's first knockout to its last scoring decision, left ears ringing.

"They treated the first prelim like it was the main event," White said. "Real fight fans here, and definitely real UFC fans. It was awesome. I had a blast here."

Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, wrote in an email Sunday that it was difficult to determine the economic impact of the event this soon after the fight, but arena general manager Frank Remesch last week estimated it to be between $25 million and $30 million.

Driving those numbers, certainly, was Jones, arguably the most well-known fighter in mixed martial arts. But UFC senior director of public relations Dave Sholler stressed Saturday that "you could put any fight here of UFC caliber" and have spectators turn out in droves.

"From what I can see, the enthusiasm of the fans and the fact that it was a sellout bodes well for a future event," Hasseltine wrote. "Any time we can shine the spot light on Baltimore's enthusiastic fan base, it only makes Baltimore stronger in securing more of these high-profile sporting events."

Except, maybe, when The Rolling Stones are in town.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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