UFC Destinations: More to Russia Than McGregor vs Nurmagomedov

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UFC Destinations: Russia
Credit: Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

The UFC knows what fight they want when they get to Russia, but will their harsh negotiations keep them from reaching the market?

In the early days of MMA, legalization was as difficult a battle as any of the fights inside the cage.  The story is well-known now: MMA was the sport too violent for tv, future Presidential candidate John McCain did interviews calling the sport “human cockfighting” and the list goes on.  Today, the sport in its present form is seemingly everywhere and there is no real new frontier for the sport.  However, that does not mean that there are no new places for the UFC to reach.  As the sport grows, Cageside Press explores the next possible destinations for the Octagon.

It should be noted before examining each city, the matter of holding an event in either market is far more than the UFC simply choosing to go to a particular market.  Economics and competition are also a huge factor in determining how an event makes it’s way to a particular location.

Before discussing the targeted match-up of Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov to headline the first show in Russia, the UFC has another fight they need to overcome: economics.  According to Nurmagomedov, the price of pay-per-view would need to be drastically lowered locally.  In an interview with MMAJunkie:

“If the UFC wants to make money with me, they have to make a pay-per-view for Russian people, because Russian people cannot buy a $60 or $100 pay-per-view.  If they made for Russian people a $10 or $15 pay-per-view, only for Russian people, I think they could get a couple million buys for my fights.  I know almost five or six million people watch my fights live in Russia, but they watch on free TV. If three million people bought (a $15 pay-per-view), it’s going to be big money. They have to make a deal in Russia.”

Outside of the United States and Canada, the UFC does not carry it’s events on pay-per-view due to the events taking place in the early morning in most countries.  In countries like England and Brazil, pay-per-view events are aired live on premium channels such as BT Sport or Combate.  For fights that carry large interest in a market, for example the rematch between Max Holloway and José Aldo for Brazil, individual matches may air on what would be considered “free” or network TV in certain markets.

In Russia, the UFC recently re-negotiated their tv deal and a focal point was to capitalize on the popularity of Nurmagomedov.  According to a report on BloodyElbow.com, the UFC’s sale to WME-IMG led to the organization pursuing more lucrative tv contracts internationally.  After aggressive negotiations, the UFC was able to come to terms and continues to air on Match TV.

If the UFC wishes to be successful in holding live events, the key will be to work well with relations in a market that is not lacking for MMA already.  Locally, Russia has a thriving interest in mixed martial arts and already has several promotions based in the country.  The largest is M-1 Global which is best known for its association with Fedor Emelianenko.  In fact, the reason why Emelianenko never signed with the UFC was due to his prerequisite that his events in the Octagon be branded as a co-promotion with M-1.  Organizations such as Fight Nights Global and Absolute Championship Berkut also carry a large following.  One thing to note is that all organizations follow the Russian MMA Union whose former President is Emelianenko.

Currently, the UFC’s arrival in Russia largely revolves around Khabib Nurmagomedov and a potential fight with Conor McGregor.  The Octagon has never been to the country, but after a super fight with Floyd Mayweather in boxing, being able to lead the way to a new market is one of the few historical benchmarks he can still reach.  In Nurmagomedov, he has the perfect opponent.  “The Eagle” possesses arguably the best ground game in the lighter weight-classes and it is the area where McGregor is believed to be most vulnerable. That said, Nurmagomedov has struggled on the feet and McGregor would undoubtedly be confident of his ability to stop the Russian before he ever ends up on the mat.  Given McGregor’s status as the sports biggest star and the recent hype around Nurmagomedov, a card headlined by the tow is expected a largely successful event worldwide.

The main obstacle is actually getting the two into the Octagon.  Nurmagomedov has an impending fight with Tony Ferguson in April and the winner is expected to fight with McGregor later in the year.  “The Eagle” will need to defeat Ferguson, and it is left to be seen whether the UFC can come to terms with McGregor for less than the $100 million he made to face Floyd Mayweather last year.

Currently, it would appear that the UFC is anticipating putting the super fight together.  It was recently reported by BloodyElbow that the UFC has booked the Olympiyskiy Stadium in Moscow for September 14 & 15.  While that is a preliminary move, it’s obvious that the UFC is expecting a Nurmagomedov victory and to have the time to negotiate with McGregor and allow him enough time to prepare after a year long absence.

This leaves the obvious question, does an event in Russia materialize without McGregor vs Nurmagomedov?  Conventional wisdom would say yes, although it would be much less of a priority than it is now.  The UFC continues to expand it’s reach as it looks to for every foothold possible to reach global mainstream status.  But timing is everything, and if the window passes, then the opportunity to have a breakthrough in Russia may take even longer to arrive.

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