Saturday, 5 September 2015

Wright doesn't expect UFC to make a quick return to Sask.

Tom Wright speaks to a crowd at Saskatoon's O'Brians Event Centre.
    The UFC’s first stop in Saskatchewan will likely be its only stop in the next number of years.
    Tom Wright, the UFC’s executive vice-president and general manager for Canada, Australia and New Zealand, wants to bring the promotion back to the “Wheat Province.” The premier professional circuit for mixed martial arts held UFC Fight Night 74 at Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre on Aug. 23 before 7,202 spectators bringing in a gate of $949,000. Wright was pleased with the gate.
    Standing in the way of a Saskatchewan return is the fact the UFC brass has a lengthy list of Canadian communities they want to visit.
    “It will probably be a few years, because there are a bunch of other cities across the country that we’ve never been to,” said Wright. “We’ve never been to Windsor. We’ve never been to Edmonton. We’ve never been to Ottawa. We’ve never been to St. John’s. We’ve never been to Victoria.
    “There are a tonne of Canadian cities that we’d like to go to. When you are trying to schedule a global sport with a finite number of dates, there are a lot of different cities that want these events. A lot of depends on venue availability, it depends on the time of the year (and) it depends on what else is going on around the world.”
    With that said, Wright was happy with how well things went for the fight card in Saskatoon and with the various functions the promotion put on across the city in the three days leading up to Fight Night 74.
    “We’ve been planning to have this event for quite some time,” said Wright. “We came here last year with the UFC Experience, when we went to Regina. We were really well received.
    “We’ve always wanted to bring our sport to Saskatchewan. We know we have a lot of really engaged and knowledgeable fans here. It has been a great week so far.”
    Wright is keenly aware about how passionately people in Saskatchewan can get behind a sporting interest. From 2002 to 2007, he was the commissioner of the CFL and gained a lot of experience with how much emotion fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders invest in their team.
Fans enjoyed checking out the UFC Experience outside the SaskTel Centre.
    When government of the province where the colours of green and white dominate passed the Athletics Commission Act in early March, it allowed "The Land of the Living Skies" to hold professional combat sporting events like mixed martial arts.
    In bringing the UFC to the province for the first time, Wright said the organization wanted to have a main event that would be a crowd pleaser. He believed a featherweight tilt between Max Holloway and Charles Oliveira would fit that need. Heading into that fight, Holloway was rated fifth in the UFC’s featherweight rankings, while Oliveira was seventh.
    The card experienced a bit of bad luck on that front, when Oliveira was forced to retire at 1:39 of the first round due to injury. After an exchange, the Sao Paulo, Brazil, product started to favour his right shoulder.
    Oliveira went down and the fight was stopped, giving Holloway a knockout victory.
The co-main event between Neil Magny and Erick Silva lacked action, but Magny managed to win by split decision.
    The 10 bouts leading to the main event matches were really good, so fans did get bang for their buck.
    The welterweight fight between Patrick Cote and Josh Burkman, which was given fight of the night honours, was a back and forth physical battle. It ended at 1:26 of the third round, when Cote, who is a fan favourite from Rimouski, Quebec, knocked out Burkman. The crowd at the SaskTel Centre rose to their feet to give their loudest ovation of the night.
    “I thought the evening was terrific,” said Wright. “The crowd was here early. Half the building was filled before the first fight.
    “They were loud. They were excited. They responded.”
Cote said he could feel the crowd’s passion during his stop in Saskatoon.
    “They are great fans here of mixed martial art,” said Cote. “For sure when you are from the country, you feel the support.
    “The same thing in Montreal. The same thing everywhere in Canada. When I fought in Quebec City, it was the same thing, and here that was just insane.”
    During the UFC’s stop in Saskatoon, the athletes were pretty engaging with the fans that they met. Cote was a huge fan favourite, and his opponent, the veteran Burkman, often spoke with a soft heart.
    “It is great, because there is still a lot of misconception about our sport,” said Wright about the athlete’s interactions with the fans. “There are myths that need to be dispelled and perspectives that need to be informed.
    “The best spokespeople are our athletes. They are engaging, they are intelligent, they are well-spoken and the vast majority have university degrees. These guys and girls are tough competitors, but they are very honourable competitors too.
    “It is the hallmarks of our sport.”
The UFC makes a donation to Special Olympics Canada in Saskatoon.
    During his five-plus years with the UFC, Wright said the organization has made big growth. The fact Fight Night 74 was held in Saskatoon marked another milestone for the promotion in Canada.
    “When we first started, we weren’t sanctioned in Ontario, we weren’t sanctioned in B.C., Saskatchewan,” said Wright. “We only held events in Montreal.
    “Since that five years, we’ve gone from one city and one province to this event will be the 19th event in Canada in our eighth city and our seventh province, which is pretty cool.”
    Wright said there are a few differences between working as a high executive with the UFC and CFL. The differences include the fact Canadian professional football has been around for over 100 years, while the UFC has been around for just over 20 years and is a global sport.
    The similarities are numerous, which has made work for the UFC feel quite natural.
    “The Canadian Football League you are dealing with world class athletes who train hard and are committed to make sacrifices,” said Wright. “Mixed martial artists are no different. They are world class athletes, hard-working and they train like nobody else. The athletes are very similar.
    “Our fans are really passionate. They are smart, they are engaged (and) they are committed. I have a great team of people I work with here in Canada, and I had a great team in the CFL I worked with as well.”

Back in the Express with more UFC

    I was back in the Saskatoon Express this week writing a column about the UFC making a return to Saskatchewan.
    That column can be found right here.

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