With ten years as a pro, a world title belt and scores of megafights over the years, former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell has probably seen it all when it comes to fan adulation. Well, at least until he arrived in the Philippines with UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta on Sunday and saw 4,000 fans waiting to see his open workout at the Mall of Asia in Pasay City.
“I was really surprised,” said the ‘Iceman’ of the reception he received at the third largest shopping mall in the world. “It was kinda shocking how many people actually showed up to watch me work out for an hour. It’s crazy. I didn’t expect it to be that big here. I thought it was a new market for us.”
You may think the Philippines is a new market for the UFC - and technically it is - but with the organization’s relationship with the ABS-CBN network and nationwide media coverage, it has taken over the country in a way that has even stunned Fertitta.
“We’ve always had high ambitions and high expectations for what we’re doing with growing the UFC, but it’s kind of cool now to see it actually happening and unfolding right before our eyes,” said Fertitta, who is on the last leg of a trip that has seen him spread the UFC gospel in the United Kingdom, Dublin, France, Germany, and now the Philippines, over the last week. “I think to some extent we’ve underestimated ourselves over the past couple of years. If you go to a lot of these countries, we’re very well known.”
Fertitta first got a taste of the UFC’s international potential during a trip with Liddell and UFC President Dana White to Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain, in 2005.
“People knew Chuck when he was walking down the street, and that was before we were on TV,” said Fertitta.
Nothing could have prepared him for Sunday’s reception though, as some fans waited up to three hours to see the mixed martial arts icon.
“Chuck is a rock star over here,” he said. “He walks in the hotel and there are people all over him, and then we ended up doing a public training session and over 4,000 people showed up at the Mall of Asia just to see him. It was very interesting, even at times a little bit scary because there were so many people there.”
“I talked to bunch of people there, but it was really hard because if I got too close to the line, people started piling over security,” added Liddell. “It was an interesting thing, how fanatical the fans are. But it’s great having the fans behind you, and that they understand that this is a sport and not having that negative look at it. It’s always good to have people appreciate you for what you do and the things you’ve done.”
Even a task as mundane as checking into their hotel turned into a big event.
“When we came to the hotel, we checked in about 6:30 in the morning and there were about 20 photographers waiting for us. Then we held a press conference at nine and there were multiple TV stations and reporters. It’s beyond the imagination. They have a full day of press for us tomorrow, and I’ve got to be honest, I knew that we were growing internationally, but I don’t think I really had an appreciation for the amount of momentum we truly have until I came over here and saw it for myself.”
A key part of the UFC’s success in the Philippines can be traced to the aforementioned relationship with the ABS-CBN network.
“This happens to be one of the best partnerships we have, with ABS-CBN, the largest media company in the Philippines,” said Fertitta. “They have really gotten behind us and we’re the number one rated program on their sports network, so it’s carried over very well and the UFC brand is very strong here. We’re talking
to them about the possibility of bringing a live event to Manila as part of our international expansion.”
A show in the Philippines, the home of boxing superstar and national icon Manny Pacquiao, is a no-brainer for the diehard fight fans of the nation, whom Fertitta describes as having “a deep understanding of the sport.” Summer of 2009 is being projected for the UFC’s initial foray into Southeast Asia, with the plan not only to showcase the company’s established stars, but to also give the event a local flavor.
“It will be a combination of bringing over some of our stars and then hopefully having some local Filipino fighters, and maybe bringing in some of the guys from Japan and South Korea,” said Fertitta, who believes the UFC’s success in the country can be boiled down to a couple key elements.
“First of all, based upon our popularity and success in the United States, that helps in a lot of these international markets,” he said. “Entertainment is one of the number one exports that we have in America, and a lot of these countries like to follow what is big and what is happening in the US, and we’ve built a strong brand. But beyond that, I think it has to do with the fact that we have a great partner in ABS-CBN. We’re broadcast in every home, they’re really getting behind it and really promoting it. I think that makes a big difference.”
It also doesn’t hurt that as Fertitta points out, “We’re probably more mainstream in the Philippines than we are in the US.”
The UFC owner says all this at 6pm local time on Sunday, and as he looks to the television, what does he see? UFC programming. It’s a long way from the dark ages of mixed martial arts, and Fertitta only sees bright days ahead – not only in the United States, but around the world.
“The plans are all coming into place,” said Fertitta. “We’re going to be moving the show around the world, and we’re creating the UFC global footprint.”
So you'll be going to the fights then? Anyone in particular you're hoping to see there?