The Ultimate Fighting Championship will not return to Chicago in 2009 according to Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs, but it may be coming to Indianapolis in 2010.
The UFC came to Chicago for the first time in October 2008 for UFC 90 at the Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont. The event took place just about three months after mixed martial arts regulation took effect in Illinois.
Some of the cities in which the UFC puts on events, outside of its Las Vegas base, have become fairly regular blips on the MMA radar screen. Columbus, Ohio, has hosted a UFC pay-per-view each March the last three years. Montreal has played host to highly successful cards the last two Aprils. But that apparently won't be the case for Chicago -- at least yet.
"Our schedule is pretty well done for this year," Ratner said, saying Chicago is not on the promotion's calendar for 2009. "But yeah -- we'd like to go back to Chicago. It's a great, great market. Maybe to the United Center this time. But we're also looking at cities like Memphis, (and) we're going to go to Portland (for UFC 102) at the end of August. We're very ambitious."
Ratner said the Midwest has been a market that has worked for the UFC. In the last three years, the world's largest MMA promotion has put on events in Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis and Nashville in an attempt to go into as many new markets as possible.
And with legislation to regulate MMA in Indiana taking effect on July 1, the possibility for a UFC or World Extreme Cagefighting show in the Hoosier State comes into play. (The WEC is owned by Zuffa LLC, the same company that owns the UFC.) Chicago played host to WEC 40 in April.
Ratner said the UFC is interested in putting on a show in Indianapolis at Conseco Fieldhouse -- either a pay-per-view or a "Fight Night" card, which would air live on Spike TV -- and already has begun preliminary discussions to come to Indiana for the first time, but that would not happen until 2010 at the earliest.
"I've been in conversations with the Conseco Fieldhouse. I can say it won't happen this year," Ratner said. "But we are looking at the Conseco Fieldhouse to bring a show to. We think it's a very good market. When I look at the TV ratings -- in Indiana, the Spike TV "Ultimate Fighter" show does very well and the pay-per-view numbers in Indiana, percentage-wise, are also very good. So we think Indianapolis is a prime market, and certainly on our radar. And Conseco Fieldhouse is one of the most beautiful arenas in the world. So we're definitely looking at it."
State Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who authored the new law that regulates MMA under the newly created Indiana Athletic Commission, said regulation was necessary to protect the fighters, but also to bring the major promotions like the UFC and WEC to the state. Without regulation, promoters can still put on fight cards -- but they aren't sanctioned by the state and, therefore, fighters aren't afforded the same levels of protection. The UFC and WEC will only put on fight cards in states that have MMA regulation.
"My main concern was fighter safety," Kruse said. "No. 2, to create an Indiana Athletic Commission to oversee all kinds of fighting. I think 42 other states have an athletic commission, so Indiana was kind of behind the times in that area. I felt it was proper for us to have that. We (now) can have the major cage fighting come into Indiana. They would not come without having the regulation. They wanted it to be regulated, and they were among the people who lobbied for this legislation."
Kruse echoed Ratner's hope to bring the UFC to Indianapolis: "I think we'll get the Ultimate (Fighting) Championship to come ... They claim they'll sell out Conseco Fieldhouse."
Conseco, the home of the Indiana Pacers, opened in 1999 and has a capacity of more than 18,000 for basketball events. Ratner said a city the size of Indianapolis could expect to see revenue in the $5 million range for a one-night UFC event based on economic-impact studies the company had done in similarly sized cities.
The Midwest, including Indiana, has been a hotbed of sorts for churning out high-caliber MMA fighters. Miguel Torres, regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound athletes in the sport, is an East Chicago native and the WEC's bantamweight champion. Stephan Bonnar, a Munster native, is credited with helping the UFC turn the corner toward mainstream status after a 2005 fight against Forrest Griffin that aired live on Spike TV. Jon Fitch, from Fort Wayne, is one of the UFC's top welterweight contenders. And Chris Lytle, an Indianapolis firefighter, has fought 17 times under the Zuffa banner for the UFC and WEC, making him one of the company's most experienced veterans.
Ratner said having many fighters get their starts in the Midwest plays a factor in wanting to put on shows here, but for the UFC in particular, the biggest goal is doing shows in as many new markets as possible -- which has been aided by more states regulating the sport.
"There's a lot of fighters in the Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin areas, so yes, there's a lot of interest there," Ratner said. "But we're going to Philadelphia on Aug. 8. We put tickets on sale last Saturday and with our Fight Club ticket sales and newsletter (sales), we're already at 10,300 sold. That really is incredible. So we're finding that spreading it around and going to different places is very important. There's nothing like the in-venue experience. Once people see it, they really are enthused and the next pay-per-view, they look forward to going to see that, too. It's just a good win-win for everybody. The bottom line is, Indy is definitely on our radar."
Ratner said he would be testifying in Albany, N.Y., next week attempting to get MMA regulation passed in the New York legislature and is "very bullish on New York and Massachusetts getting done soon." New York and Massachusetts are two of seven current states without MMA regulation. Five other states are not regulated because they have no state athletic commissions.
-- Times staff writer Pat Guinane contributed to this report
-- For more mixed martial arts breaking news, features and live coverage, visit The Times' MMA site