On Sunday morning (AEDT), over 50,000 fight fans will flock into Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, as an Australia vs. New Zealand world title fight headlines a UFC card full of local fighters. It’s yet another indicator of how much the sport has grown globally, especially in Australia.
Rewind the clock to March 2015. Up until this point, the state of Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne, widely recognized as Australia’s sporting capital, had banned the use of the Octagon — a measure introduced in 2008. Fights could be staged, but in a traditional boxing ring. Denis Napthine, Victorian premier at the time, dubbed the sport “thuggery and brutality” and remained a staunch opponent of MMA.
But under the guise of offering increased safety for the fighters, the next government allowed the Octagon to be introduced, and the floodgates in Australia burst open.
No sooner was legislation in place than UFC 193 was announced for Melbourne’s (then) Etihad Stadium. It would become the biggest single UFC event of all time.
Until that point, it had been a relative slow burn for the sport in Australia: local competitions and fighters competing on local cards, with a handful of Aussies in overseas fight nights. But the arrival of the first UFC card to Sydney in 2010 began to change all of that, according to UFC boss Dana White.
“What I really noticed was the fan base and I knew that the type of people that are in Australia, that this sport would work there,” White told ESPN. “I knew that immediately, and I was actually surprised at myself, because I used to talk about the United States, Mexico and the UK, and I kind of overlooked Australia.
“Then the sport started to grow there, and I started to notice that talent was coming out of there, people were training in mixed martial arts and taking jiu-jitsu and doing stuff like that. Then you have UFC 110 selling out, and ever since that day we’ve been full on, pedal to the metal in Australia.”
Rob Whittaker was a young fighter at the time, making his way in the sport. “The scene when I first got into MMA was much different when I started. It wasn’t promoted as much, in some states it was still banned and all the events and shows weren’t anyway as near as professional,” Whittaker told ESPN.
“My first UFC show on the Gold Coast was the first time I went, ‘Wow, this is something else.'”
Six live events in five years had brought good crowds, solid broadcast numbers and lifted the profile of fighters like Mark Hunt, who began to receive greater exposure on cards that were still largely dominated by overseas fighters.
Indeed, early events on Australian shores saw the likes of Cain Velasquez, BJ Penn, Michael Bisping and Stipe Miocic headline, as the local stalwarts of the sport like Hunt and James Te Huna, coupled with the up-and-comers like Whittaker, moved into the UFC and had the chance to perform in front of boisterous home crowds.
UFC 193 followed that well-trodden path of big overseas headliners. In this case Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit was the expected top of the bill clash, before Lawler’s thumb injury put paid to that bout. Instead we had a matchup that ended up being one of the biggest UFC moments of all time: Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm. A record-breaking 56,000-strong sellout crowd poured through the gates to see Holm provide the biggest upset in the sport’s history. UFC in Melbourne was at the centre of the sporting world.
White recalls the enormity of the day.
“It was incredible, you know, obviously the attendance was insane and the fact that we had two women headlining the card, we broke all records there and it was a special night,” he said.
On the card that day was Whittaker, a local fighter who was by now a name for himself in the sport, and who knew this was special.
“The hype leading in was huge, Holly and Ronda were big names. It was a big deal, it was a very big deal.” Whittaker recalls.
“It was ridiculous (in the stadium) that night. Ridiculous, it was so big, and so many people, the atmosphere was electric. It was truly remarkable.”
For Holm, it was a night to remember in more ways than one. “The energy was insane, it was awesome. I do remember it feeling very quiet at one point as well, after the fight. I think they were like, ‘Wow did that just happen?'” Holm told ESPN.
“The vibe in Melbourne was awesome. My whole time there was great, everyone we came across had such a positive vibe for UFC.”
It was a kick-start that made mainstream Australia sit up and take notice. Since the Rousey-Holm fight, interest and participation in MMA has also boomed, with nine UFC Gyms opening in Australia, and the Sport Australia data showing MMA moving ahead of traditional Australian pastimes rugby union and surf lifesaving in junior participation. But it’s at the top of the sport that the impact is most keenly felt as the importance of the region grows.
Four years on and the show rolls into Melbourne once again, with the sport never bigger. Five more fight nights across the country have generated sellout crowds and vast swathes of column inches locally. And the names Whittaker, Adesanya, Cyborg, Nunes, McGregor and Khabib have entered the Aussie sports fan lexicon.
“The sport of MMA in Australia since then, has honestly doubled in popularity and size,” Whittaker said. “Then, it was trying to break into the mainstream industry. Now, it is firmly cemented in there to the point where you can put on a UFC fight card on the same weekend as the rugby league grand final. That sort of confidence in the sport is amazing.”
The importance of Australia and New Zealand to UFC’s future is not lost on White, who has it in the sport’s top tier.
“[For UFC, it’s] number one United States, number two Brazil, number three Australia,” White said.
Unlike 193, this card has a distinctly local flavor with nearly a dozen Australian or New Zealand fighters on the bill. Factor in the likes of Alex Volkanovski, Jim Crute and Kai-Kara France all missing due to recent or upcoming bouts elsewhere, and it’s clear that the sport is in exceptionally rude health down under.
“What an incredible weekend for Melbourne. The main event I think is going to be ridiculous, it should be an unbelievable fight. Right in the city. It’s a destination this weekend,” White told ESPN. “Let me tell you this event is so big that after this event happens (the sport) is just going to explode and spread like wildfire. It’s going to make the sport so much bigger, just like 193 did. It’s something that people want to be a part of, and it’s going to be a weekend that people will remember.”
Whittaker says he understands the significance of a locally focused card. “The fact that the show has sold out with our fighters headlining, says everything about the sports growth in this region. Honestly, it is only getting more popular, more fans are coming and more fighters coming into the sport, and it’s an exciting time to be a mixed martial artist.
“I’m very proud of where it’s going. It was always one of my goals to grow the sport not just for the sport itself but for the athletes getting in and to make it a little bit easier. It’s great to be part of something so big. I don’t see the UFC in Australia stopping.”