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A lot of my concentration has been recently dedicated to athletic delegations, a coupling of words I don’t typically think about or write about. Perhaps the more newsworthy delegation is between North and South Korean officials meeting and agreeing to Olympic participation and cooperation. Since I live in Korea, it’s something that obviously occupies my mind. Yet it’s another set of delegations that, while more esoteric and less reported, has me feverishly hitting refresh and eyeing ticket sales: the delegations from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Officials from both camps met recently to discuss the possibility of making UFC Hawaii happen at some point this year. As of now, there’s not much to report. The delegations met and discussed terms, and by all accounts, the meeting went well. Talks will resume as Max Holloway’s title defense against Frankie Edgar at UFC 222 draws nearer.
I won’t beat around the bush here: UFC Hawaii needs to happen. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that it hasn’t happened already. When MMA started to take off as a sport and Pride Fighting Championships and the UFC were battling for preeminence, Hawaii-based promotions like SuperBrawl (later renamed Icon Sport) and Rumble on the Rock -- not to mention the Hawaii event put on by EliteXC -- were among the most sought-after destinations for fighters around the globe; it was a definite step beneath Pride and the UFC but only just below them. A quick accounting of alumni from those promotions is proof of this. Anderson Silva, Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields, Nick Diaz, Murilo Rua, Frank Trigg, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort, Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin, Tim Sylvia, Josh Barnett, Jens Pulver and Gina Carano all fought in Hawaii during its golden era. Takanori Gomi-B.J. Penn, arguably the greatest lightweight fight ever, went down in Hawaii, and I’d be remiss not to link you all to one of the greatest, most MMA moments ever, when Robbie Lawler knocked out Falaniko Vitale and a woman rushed into the ring to throw her slippers at him.
In terms of accomplishment and overall roster talent at the highest levels of the sport, Hawaii has always punched above its weight. Relative to population, more UFC fighters have come from Hawaii than any other state. I explained the historical and cultural reasons why that is the case in an essay last year, and I explained why Holloway specifically is as important to the people of Hawaii as he is in another column before that and in another essay before that.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. I reached out to Rob DeMello and Sam Spangler, veteran Hawaii sports anchors and journalists for KHON2 News in Honolulu. They have been following the potential UFC Hawaii developments closely. Naturally, they had plenty to say about it.
“I view UFC Hawaii almost like a lifetime achievement award,” DeMello said. “There are few places that have the history of mixed martial arts that Hawaii does, and with a beloved Hawaii champion, it would be a shame if it didn’t happen. It would be great for the Hawaii fight fans to see the sport’s biggest show and would be a unique experience for the pay-per-view audience.”
As DeMello noted, the main reason for considering an event in Hawaii right now is Holloway, who is immensely popular in the islands and growing in popularity outside the islands.
“Hawaii doesn’t have any professional sports teams, so right now, the pride of Hawaii is Holloway,” Spangler said. “Max is at a peak locally. From his style of fighting [to] the way he still speaks pidgin, his humility, his desire to uplift Waianae, his quick-witted humor -- almost everything he does is representative of his people. It would be a nice tip of the cap from [UFC President] Dana White to a place that supported the sport when it was still mostly frowned upon by mainstream America. The old magic is still here waiting to erupt.”
At a time when the UFC is in dire need of new stars, Holloway is the perfect candidate. He’s exciting in the cage, entertaining on the mic and on a record-setting win streak at just 26 years of age. He’s both the present and the future of the sport. Putting him in front of a massively supportive hometown crowd will make him look like the star he’s able to become, and that’s a worthwhile investment for the UFC.
“In Hawaii, Holloway has become an ambassador for the sport like none other,” DeMello said. “MMA is still a sport that leaves people cringing, but he’s an athlete that grandma, grandpa, aunty and uncle identify with. He’s genuinely likable. If the UFC comes to Hawaii, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of non-MMA fans show up just to be a part of the experience.”
“MMA is unique in Hawaii. I think it’s residual from the fact that there isn’t a lot of gun violence but there’s a lot of unarmed combat. People view the sport as overwhelmingly positive compared to most other places I’ve lived, even Albuquerque, [New Mexico], which is its own MMA hotbed,” Spangler said. “Holloway got a parade for winning the title that his state representative helped put together. Another state legislator has been fighting hard to bring the UFC here. Politicians wouldn’t get involved if Holloway wasn’t viewed overwhelmingly positive here.”
The ingredients are all present for UFC Hawaii to happen, so what’s taking so long? The venue itself is part of the problem. There are two main places where MMA events have taken place in the past: the Neil S. Blaisdell Arena and Aloha Stadium. The Blaisdell Arena only seats 8,800 people, and the newer Stan Sherriff Center, where the University of Hawaii basketball teams play, only seats an additional 1,500. This leaves the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium, home of the University’s football team and the NFL Pro Bowl, as the most viable option. As White has mentioned, though, putting on an event in an open-roofed arena in a place that rains regularly is risky.
“The outdoor aspect is by far the most difficult obstacle to overcome,” Spangler said. “Rain is very unpredictable at Aloha Stadium, and it doesn’t always come straight down. Any trade wind showers will blow water into the cage, even with a canopy.”
It’s not just the rain, however, that makes UFC Hawaii problematic. “The state of the facility will make it difficult to create the spectator experience that the UFC wants,” Spangler said. “It’s an old venue, and they’re going to have to spend money to make everything fit their standard.” On top of the logistics of actually putting on the event, there are expenses to consider beforehand.
“The UFC has to bring all of the equipment for the event and its production,” Spangler said. “When they host a show on the mainland, this is done by truck and relatively inexpensive. When you take it to Hawaii, everything has to be shipped to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For other overseas events, the UFC can keep the equipment in countries they plan to return to for future events, but I don’t know if that’s the case here.”
“I think the biggest issue is the time difference from the continental United States,” DeMello said. “Being six hours behind the east coast, the prelims would need to start around noon Hawaii time. If the event is held at Aloha Stadium, you’re looking at most of the card taking place under the sun in high temperatures that are humid. Unless the UFC takes measures to create some kind of cooling system, it could be a miserable experience for the fighters.”
These are all valid concerns that need to be addressed. DeMello also noted that the Hawaii Tourism Authority would likely need to pitch in a lot of money on its own to entice the UFC to take the risk, a fact which may be off-putting. In my mind, that’s not a terribly difficult problem to solve. Now that the Pro Bowl will be held in Orlando, Florida, for the next two years, allot the millions of dollars that were previously -- and irresponsibly -- spent on hosting it towards a UFC Hawaii event. Once the money is straight, the rest can be figured out as needed.
“The weather is a gamble,” Spangler said, “but if it pays off, we’re going to have the most visually unique event in UFC history.”
“I don’t have all the answers, nor do I truly know how this will end up, but I will say this: I have followed the UFC Hawaii possibilities for about 15 years now, and without a doubt this is the furthest along it has ever been,” DeMello said. “At the very least, that should make people happy that both sides are truly trying to make this happen.”
As UFC 222 approaches, we will know more about the likelihood of an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Hawaii. Hopefully, this is the year. Everything is aligned to make it happen, and I get the feeling that UFC brass will decide to roll the dice before Holloway stops lobbying for it. On a personal note, for someone currently daydreaming about a UFC Hawaii event in sub-freezing weather: Give me a reason to go home, UFC.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.