Ultimate Fighting Championship will make its Baltimore debut in April with a card headlined by light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
The show, scheduled for April 26 at the Baltimore Arena, is expected to be one of the mixed-martial-arts promotion's biggest pay-per-view events in the first half of the year. It will also rank among the highest-profile sporting events the arena has hosted in recent decades.
Jones is arguably UFC's most established star and has ties to the area through his brother Arthur, who just completed his fourth season as a defensive end for the Ravens.
He will defend his title against Brazilian contender Glover Teixeira, who has won 20 straight fights.
"I think it's going to be phenomenal," Jones said in a phone interview Friday. "I feel I already have a family there through the Ravens fans."
Arthur Jones joked that when his brother attends Ravens games, "he seems to have more fans than me."
Baltimore has hosted smaller mixed martial arts shows since 2009, but UFC is the leviathan of the sport, selling out shows around the world and drawing hundreds of thousands to watch its fights on pay-per-view.
Frank Remesch, general manager for the arena, said he's been working to bring UFC to Baltimore for years.
"This is Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, right on that level," he said. "Especially with Jon Jones having that connection through his brother. I think it would sell out anyway, but it will have more of a hometown feel because of Arthur."
Tickets for the event will go on sale Feb. 7 and Remesch predicted they will sell quickly.
"Fans have been asking for us to come to Baltimore for a long time, so we're bringing a world title fight on April 26," UFC president Dana White said in a statement.
Since 2009, the arena has hosted twice-annual cards promoted by Shogun Fights, and those have generally drawn about 5,000 fans despite featuring lesser-known fighters. "I think that shows you how Baltimore supports MMA," Remesch said.
UFC ran a show at the Verizon Center in Washington in October 2011. The card wasn't on pay-per-view and did not feature one of the promotion's top stars but drew 9,380. UFC has often drawn crowds of 15,000 or more when debuting in new cities.
Remesch said Baltimore Arena will probably seat between 13,000 and 14,000 for UFC.
Dan Root, a former teacher at Overlea and one of the more accomplished fighters in the Baltimore area, said the UFC event "can only be helpful" to the local MMA scene. In fact, he hopes UFC puts him in an undercard match on the show, something the promotion often does with hometown fighters.
"It's the NFL of MMA," said Root, an Abingdon resident. "I'm excited about them coming, and the ultimate would be to fight on the card. I'd like to show anyone who trains that if you work hard enough, you can get there."
The Jones-Teixeira fight will hold great interest for MMA fans, because Jones is coming off the toughest fight of his career in September against Alexander Gustafsson. He was battered and cut before pulling out a unanimous decision. Jones' only career loss came by disqualification, and he had badly outclassed most opponents before the Gustafsson fight.
"The last fight, I felt I could've trained harder," Jones said. "I felt I left something in the gym."
With UFC superstars Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva on hiatus because of personal issues and a gruesome leg injury, respectively, Jones, 26, faces a growing burden to lead the promotion.
He said he doesn't dwell on that but said the tough battle with Gustafsson should draw more interest to his fights.
"When you have a dominant winner over and over, it's not as exciting," he said. "But people saw that anything can happen. And now I have something to prove."
Teixeira is less familiar to mainstream fans, but the Brazilian is no pushover. He has dominated well-known opponents such as Ryan Bader and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and is just as apt to finish fights with punches as with submission holds.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," he said in a Friday phone interview.
Teixeira said he has to sharpen all facets of his attack because Jones is such a versatile, athletic fighter.
"I just have to be ready to keep the pressure going," he said. "I have to train everything, because Jon is no joke. He's a great fighter."