The Ultimate Fighting Championship could have chosen a more traditional location for Saturday's pay-per-view fight, UFC 172. The event features a title defense for Jon Jones, its top pound-for-pound fighter and light-heavyweight champion.
But just six years after mixed martial arts were legalized in Maryland, the ever-growing contingent of MMA fans in the region have rewarded UFC president Dana White's faith with a week of frenzied attention for Baltimore's first UFC event and a sold-out fight Saturday at the Baltimore Arena.
"Ultimately, did I expect the UFC would come here sooner or later? Sure, I thought they would," said John Rallo, an area MMA promoter and trainer who lobbied for legalization in 2008.
"For them to come here with a championship fight, with maybe their biggest pay-per-view draw, I think it says something for the market here. They know the numbers. They wouldn't have come here if they didn't know it could work."
Saturday's fight will be the highest-grossing sporting event in Baltimore Arena history, arena general manager Frank Remesch said. He estimated a net economic impact for the area of $25 million to $30 million.
"We love going to new markets, and new markets are usually very successful for us, like this was," White said. "It was time."
UFC was able to bring its April pay-per-view to Baltimore thanks to state legislation that legalized MMA in 2008.
Rallo, promoter of the regional MMA promotion Shogun Fights, was instrumental to the legalization and the sport's growth since, according to area officials. At Rallo's urging, state Sen. Joan Carter-Conway and Del. Kirill Reznik sponsored bills that allowed MMA in the state. He brought expert witnesses from the MMA industry and doctors who attested to the safety of the sport to lobby in Annapolis.
"My goal was to get it legalized, period, just for the growth of the sport," Rallo said.
That viability became evident quickly, Rallo said. He said gyms popped up all over the state, including four of his Ground Control gyms. His nine Shogun shows at Baltimore Arena average around 5,000 attendees. That, along with the area's UFC pay-per-view buy rate, helped convince UFC that Baltimore would be a good venue.
"The UFC leadership saw that Maryland was going to be a great place to have a fight," said Leonard Howie, secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "The level of interest we get from those [Shogun] fights is just extraordinary. When you get something like [UFC] on the books and you see the excitement — how it has built up over the last month, it's just been phenomenal."
The Maryland State Athletic Commission will oversee Saturday's fight.
Still, having a state infrastructure to put on UFC 172, and an arena to host it, would have been meaningless without fan support. Judging by the fans' reaction at Friday's weigh-in, Saturday's main event title fight between Jones and Glover Teixeira is a big reason.
Jones, brother of former Raven Arthur Jones, said his connection to the city played a large role in why he's fighting here. He said he and White couldn't agree on a location for Jones' next title bout, and when White suggested Baltimore, Jones said he "jumped at the opportunity."
Andrew Johnson, who fights Phil Davis in the semi-main event, appeared at one of Rallo's Shogun events at Baltimore Arena last year. Johnson said that experience, plus UFC's pedigree, made him confident the event would succeed. Davis sees it as an opportunity to help the UFC brand grow.
"The East Coast is a little bit under-marketed to," Davis said. "The only way to get it more popular is to be here and have a great fight cards and have great fighters here."
Despite a relative lack of UFC presence in Baltimore, area fans have turned out in droves. Hundreds filled a corner of the arena Friday afternoon for the weigh-in.
"I've been to Shogun fights before, but I've been waiting for UFC," Jeremiah Herr, 30, of Pasadena said. "Once we heard the UFC was coming to town, we jumped on it."
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