Planning The Punch
The news of Randy Couture’s return to the UFC came quickly and without much warning. While rumors spread throughout the fi ght world, within a few days UFC organizers had an opponent ready for Couture in Brock Lesnar, a major venue ready to host the fi ght, and the marketing/PR machine in place to push what Dana White touted as the biggest fi ght in the organization’s history. All of this came together with less than 3 months to go before the event.
But that’s where planning and execution come into play. While the UFC’s success makes putting on well-received events with little effort seem easy, it’s the behind-the-scenes personnel who truly make the machine function — ensuring that fi ghters can focus on fi ghting and that UFC organizers can focus on securing more pay-per-view buys and maximum exposure.
Since joining the UFC in March 2006 after more than 2 decades of service to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Marc Ratner’s role has been fi nding high-end “playgrounds” for the boys to fi ght in and ensuring that the right legislation and commissions are in place when they do.
“I thought I had a real busy and exciting job with the Athletic Commission, which I believe is the best regulatory job in the world,” Ratner explained. “Here, I’m busier than I was there. It’s fun to be on the ground fl oor of a fl edgling sport.”
As the VP of regulatory affairs, Ratner works mainly with state commissions and lobbyists who have yet to sanction MMA. With 13 years as executive director of Nevada’s commission, his experience provides the needed guidance and leadership for states that are inexperienced with MMA events of the UFC’s stature.
“We’re going to commissions that haven’t had a big fi ght, which can be like going from Double-A baseball to the World Series all of the sudden,” Ratner said. “I try to help them in any way that I can.” He doesn’t play a role in booking fi ghts however; that is handled by VP of Talent Relations Joe Silva.
Ratner is also involved with venue selection and advance scouting for potential UFC events in different states. There are several criteria he evaluates when looking at new locations, often seeded 6 to 9 months in advance, like whether the state has an active athletic commission that regulates MMA, that commission’s tax structure, and potential ticket prices, along with regional pay-per-view numbers and Spike TV performance.
“We like to go to areas we’ve never been to and to keep growing the sport. For example, we were thrilled with the response we got in (Atlanta) Georgia,” Ratner said. “We started working on that over a year ago. We were 95% sold out and netted almost $2.6 million in ticket sales.” The Chuck Liddell versus Rashad Evans event was predicted to fall around 590,000 buys by MMAPayout.com. And at $44.95 per pop, even 500,000 buys would bring in more than $22.4 million in additional gross revenue to the live gate.
Expansion has not been a detriment yet as UFC organizers have seen live gates remain stable and at near record-breaking levels at the venues where they work. The group’s debut in Montreal netted $5.1 million in ticket sales, and its fi rst foray to Minneapolis brought in just over $2.2 million. By comparison, Forrest Griffi n’s July win over Rampage Jackson netted just over $3.3 million in the UFC’s home city of Las Vegas. From August to October 2008, UFC organizers ran fi ve straight shows in new locations, and they are looking for more.
“Montreal was tremendously successful. I’m talking to Vancouver in getting their rules in place and getting regulated there,” Ratner said. “We’re looking at expansion internationally with maybe Dubai, maybe Australia, maybe the Philippines. … This company has a global footprint and is going to keep growing.”
After a venue is booked and a date is established, Ratner turns the procedure over to the legal team, who fi nalize the deals. The marketing machine begins with the purchase of billboards and ads, and then works with pay-per-view distributors around the world. With hours upon hours of Spike-TV programming to leverage, there are several innovative methods upon which to sell a card to the public. One of which is its well-received Countdown series the week before an event. For Couture versus Lesnar, there were even talks amongst UFC organizers to attempt to replicate HBO’s successful and highly acclaimed 24/7 show.
It’s a process and formula that works. In 2007, the UFC had nearly 4.9 million pay-per-view buys over 11 events, raking in $194.5 million, following 2006’s 5.2 million buys over 10 events. The UFC is projected to cross the 5 million threshold again in 2008, fueled by Couture versus Lesnar and the mega-card of UFC 92.
“They know their business model, know their clientele, know their fans and what they want, and do a great job of it,” said Joe Favorito, a more-than-20-year strategic communications and marketing pro who was senior VP of communications for the now-defunct International Fight League. “Much like the WWE and the NFL, they know what they need to do to create an experience and do it better than anybody.”
NOTIFYING THE TALENT
Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis has been taking calls from UFC organizers since 2005, when he debuted in the Octagon with a TKO loss to Melvin Guillard on the Ultimate Fighter 2 Finale card, and returned less than a year later with a submission win over Forrest Petz on the undercard of Tito Ortiz versus Ken Shamrock III. Since then, he has been a UFC mainstay, having lost just once in eight fi ghts with the organization.
Davis typically hears about a potential match 10-12 weeks in advance, when UFC organizers contact his management team with an opponent and a date. Davis takes care of signing the contract and faxing it to the UFC’s offi ces, leaving his managers to “argue about the money.” The organization covers airfare, hotel, and per diem for the fi ghter and one cornerman for the week. Additional personnel needed usually come from fellow team members on the card who also bring cornermen.
For a Saturday show, Davis will typically arrive on Monday or Tuesday. He will do a light workout during the week (hit pads, shadowbox, and light grapple) to help avoid injury. On Friday morning, Davis will get a call to do a weight check to see if he needs to cut anything prior to the offi cial weigh-in later that day. If he does need to cut, he will fi gure out the best approach to do so before the bus picks up the fi ghters later that day.
Then, after all the weeks of preparation, all the check-ups, the glove selection, and making weight, it’s time for Davis to eat, rehydrate, and, most importantly, relax. “I do a lot of walking. I’m usually in the UK, so I’ll walk all over the place early in the week and the day of the fi ght early in the morning,” he said, adding that he tries to eat three meals between 4 pm and 10 pm the night before his fi ght.
On fi ght day, Davis is picked up at a specifi c time, dependent on whether he’s slotted to fi ght on television or not. After arriving at the venue and going to his assigned locker room, he has between 90 minutes and 2 hours to stretch out, warm up, pray, and prepare. At the end of the entire card, Davis and others are called to the postfi ght press conference, if asked, and then are escorted back to the hotel to prepare for departure the next day.
“I was a professional boxer for over 9 years, and the UFC has surpassed anything I ever experienced by far in terms of total professionalism and production of a show. I’ve never seen anything produced like the UFC,” Davis said.
In a world that is full of blood, violence, and shady promoters, fi nding an organizational liaison that actually cares about the fi ghters would seem impossible. Don’t tell that to Burt Watson, an independently contracted employee who is the UFC’s offi cial site coordinator for all events.
“I love all these fi ghters and these camps … they’re my kids. With the respect of an adult, I treat them like they’re my children,” Watson said. “I ensure them that Papa Bear is going to pick them up and drop them off when they get out of school.”
While Watson works behind the scenes, it is his role during fi ght week that can ultimately make or break the success of an event. In short, Watson and his staff of four to fi ve assistants are the eyes and ears for everything going on with the fi ghters, and they must amass a Wikipedia-size array of answers for the most obscure of questions prior to any event.
A longtime fi gure in similar roles in boxing, Watson was brought on after meeting White through a mutual friend and began work at UFC 31 in May 2001. Admittedly, he did not know much about what MMA was at the time. Just under 8 years later, Watson has it all fi gured out and has been a presence at UFC events ever since.
Watson’s week begins on the Sunday or Monday of fi ght week as he and his staff — comprised mainly of his son, son-inlaw, and nephew — arrive in the host city for what he calls a “recon mission.” Armed with fi ghter itineraries provided by Spaulding, his direct contact, he begins by securing transportation vehicles and locating the nearest hospital, sporting goods store, drug store, health food store, supermarket, and sauna-equipped fi tness center, including the fastest routes to get to all of them.
Upon arrival, fi ghters are immediately weighed to see how much they will have to cut before the weigh-in. Watson attempts to ingrain that he is there for the fi ghters no matter what the situation or circumstance, and that their main focus is fi ghting — not worrying about ancillary details.
“The most important thing for a fi ghter and his camp is to know they’re not just there to get their ass whupped. They’re part of the production and part of the family. That starts with picking them up at the airport,” Watson said. “If it’s in their head, I want it in my ear. If it’s in their heart, I want it in my ear.”
On fi ght day, when the schedule is worked down to the minute, Watson’s job kicks up another notch as he is responsible for making sure all sponsorships on fi ghtwear are correct and proper (“I don’t want anyone walking out there with shorts that says ‘Bad Ass MF’er’ on there,” he says) and that cut men are assigned to fi ghters for taping hands. When it’s time for a fi ghter to begin the journey to victory or defeat, he will walk into their locker room and will escort every fi ghter to the holding area. However, it’s what happens after Watson sends them through the curtain that weighs on him the most. “I never watch the fi ghts or watch them coming back,” Watson explained. “I like every one of (the fi ghters). I don’t want to see one guy happy and the other guy crying. That’s kinda tough for me.”
Following the action, Watson ensures that the combatants return to their locker rooms, are checked out by doctors and the Athletic Commission, are brought back to the hotel at the end of the evening, and then are transported to the airport the next day to complete the week’s cycle. For the 60-year-old Watson, the early mornings and late evenings can be a tiring job, but it’s one that he enjoys doing.
“I couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t sure everyone was in that van and I was half-assing making sure they were good to go,” Watson said. “I don’t know what the fi ghters think, but we try to make sure they are taken care of.”
With owners like White and Fertitta, and personnel like Ratner and Watson taking care of fi ghters like Davis, the formula for success has been revealed: professionalism, respect, and an eye toward always improving their product. As the UFC will continue to grow its brand in the coming years, it’s the unbelievable work done behind the scenes that continues to make each event possible and profi table.