Zelaznik on the UFC’s Expansion

By Karl Maple Jan 20, 2010
Zuffa will embark upon the latest leg of its global expansion tour on Feb. 20, as the promotion heads to the Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia, for UFC 110 “Nogueira vs. Velasquez.” The event will feature a heavyweight showdown between Brazilian legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and the unbeaten Cain Velasquez, along with a middleweight bout pitting Wanderlei Silva against Michael Bisping.

In anticipation of this journey Down Under, Sherdog.com spoke exclusively with UFC Managing Director of International Development Marshall Zelaznik about Australia, the United Arab Emirates and the future of the world’s most prominent mixed martial arts company.

Sherdog.com: What were the key factors behind the decision to take an event to Australia?
Zelaznik: We have an overriding desire to spread the gospel with this thing, and that means that we are constantly looking at new territories that we can break. Based on the web traffic in Australia, the strong ratings our TV partners have been getting, the availability of a great venue and the regulations that are coming into effect, which helps, it made sense to us. It’s also easy to communicate over there, and they have such a strong love for contact sports anyway in that country; we knew we could make it work.

Sherdog.com: How has the event been received there since the announcement was made?
Zelaznik: It’s been incredible. You never really know how successful a new territory will be, but we have been blown away by our final analysis. The event sold out in a day. It would have been the fastest-selling event in the companies history, but we held some back from the pre-sale. It’s currently the second fastest-selling event in UFC history. People are travelling from all over to see it. Half of the tickets sold have been to fans outside of the New South Wales area. In fact, the event sold out so quickly that for the first time ever for an international event we are arranging a close-circuit experience for fans without tickets. It will be in the ballroom at the Acer Arena, which holds around 800 people. Tickets will go on sale for around $50, and were looking to have a few significant [fighters] make the trip and hold a Q&A with the fans.

Sherdog.com: Have you experienced, or do you expect to encounter any difficulties with negative media coverage in Australia as we get closer to the show?
Zelaznik: I hope not. Early indication is that there won’t be the knife fight that we saw in Germany. There’s been more openness with the press over there. One article, right at the beginning, raised the usual pejorative argument, but now that same paper features a daily fighter blog. We have a very good deal with a free terrestrial partner to screen the event live, and we hope this event will take us to the next level.

Sherdog.com: How do you think the Flash Entertainment Group acquiring a 10 percent stake in Zuffa LLC will impact upon the growth and expansion of the UFC?
Zelaznik: I think it’s going to be really impacting. I was over in Abu Dhabi last week for about three days and I got to see the operation in person. I met with a few of their key men, and I can see that they really are a top-notch group. Obviously, their relationship with the government is important. We have high hopes that with their involvement we can get the meetings internationally at the right levels.

Sherdog.com: How close are you to confirming a date for the show in Abu Dhabi?
Zelaznik: We’re pretty close, but these things take a lot of time and we don’t like announcing anything until all the papers and fighters have been signed. But, as I said, I was there for three days last week and we are working to deliver the show in April.

Sherdog.com: Are there any foreseeable circumstances in which the card in Abu Dhabi will not go ahead, and if so, are plans in place to change venues at short notice?
Zelaznik: We are always prepared for every event. We are holding a couple of venues in the U.K. and a few in the U.S just in case, but we are always pushing for Plan A. It will take a little time for everything to be figured out, but at the moment, there is certainly more chance of it happening than not.

Sherdog.com: Outside of Australia and Abu Dhabi, do you have any idea where you will take the promotion next?
Zelaznik: I don’t know. We’re kicking around with the possibility of doing a show in Italy. We are working on a few TV deals over there, and the prospect of putting on a Scandinavian show is also a possibility. The sport is really popular in that part of the world, and it is definitely something that we would like to explore.

Sherdog.com: Do you have a timeframe for when you will next return to the UK?
Zelaznik: We had hoped to return in the first quarter of this year, but with the extra show on Versus and a few issues with fighter availability, it is more likely to be in the second quarter now. But rest assured, we will be back with a solid card soon. London is most likely to be the next location for us when we do return.

Sherdog.com: Obviously, with the promotion expanding all over the globe, it is going to be difficult to meet demands for events in different countries. The possibility of bringing UFC Fight Night cards to Europe has been suggested. Is that an avenue that you are interested in?
Zelaznik: That is definitely something that we are working towards, and for that reason, we may be back in England sooner than anticipated. The idea of doing Fight Night shows in Europe is something that [UFC President] Dana White and [UFC CEO] Lorenzo Fertitta really want to do, and conversations are ongoing about it. I am having a meeting with one of our partners in the U.K. on Thursday, and, so, God willing, that is something that we will be doing in the near future.

Sherdog.com: Recently, Dana White expressed his desire to see the UFC rival soccer as the world’s most popular sport. How do you see the global expansion of the UFC continuing over the coming decade?
Zelaznik: Living in England, I know what a bold statement that was to make, but we do aspire to reach that level. It’s like when Muhammad Ali used to fight and the whole world would stop what they were doing and watch; we want to get to that point. Our rudimentary goal at the moment is to grow our TV distribution and increase the number of people who watch. We have a very good deal in China, but we don’t currently reach all regions; there is no TV deal in India. These are things that we can look to achieve. I would also like to bring an event to a new territory every year, and I think that is a realistic goal at this stage.

Sherdog.com: With the expansion set to continue, do you think a time will come in this decade when the number of international events matches those held in North America?
Zelaznik: There will be more international events, but that’s not a strategic plan at the moment. International events are really challenging and not cheap to produce, and with the domestic shows being so healthy at the moment, our main focus will be in America.

Note: This article was updated at 12:04 p.m. ET to change Zelaznik's title to Managing Director of International Development.
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