Stakes high for Paul Daley, MMA in U.K.
Not quite two months into 2011, Paul Daley is ready to make good on a New Year's resolution.
The English welterweight, who turned 28 on Monday, committed himself to fighting on home soil for the first time in two years. This Saturday, the striker headlines Manchester Evening News Arena in Manchester, England, against Japan's Yuya Shirai.
The stakes are high for Daley, whose challenge of Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz hangs in the balance. The same could be said for mixed martial arts in the United Kingdom.
With UFC middleweight Michael Bisping -- Manchester's best-known mixed martial artist -- fighting on the other side of the world this weekend in Sydney, Australia, the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts (BAMMA), a fledgling promotion with lofty goals, is betting that U.K. fight fans want to fill 17,000-seat venues without the UFC's or Bisping's involvement.
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"There is a very big difference between an MMA fan and a UFC fan in the U.K.," BAMMA vice president Liam Fisher said. "A lot of people don't connect the two. They see the UFC as a [separate] sport. There is an education process going on about what UFC does, what we do [and what other promoters do]. We're all the same sport."
Since Daley's last fight in the U.K., which preceded his controversial three-fight stint in the UFC, the climate for MMA has improved greatly from where it was when he turned professional eight years ago. That, Daley freely admits, is due in large part to the efforts of the UFC, which in 2007 invested millions of dollars toward selling its brand of MMA to British fight fans. However, as UFC's parent company Zuffa continues its international expansion, there has been a noticeable decrease in the frequency of UFC events in the U.K. UFC officials don't anticipate a return to the U.K. until at least June -- an eight-month gap between events in Britain -- leaving room for a contingent of native promoters to fill the void.
Late last year, BAMMA, which opened shop in 2009, promoted a fight between British tabloid celebrity Alex Reid and veteran middleweight Tom Watson that drew nearly a million viewers to television -- the largest audience ever to watch a mixed martial arts bout in the U.K. Piggybacking on that success, BAMMA intends to promote five large arena events in 2011, beginning with the Daley-headlined card in Manchester.
But with no novelty fight on Saturday's card, the first MMA show to be broadcast on a non-subscription channel in the U.K., live in prime time, will the audience tune in? A matchmaker for Cage Warriors, a "for the purists" promotion doing business in London on Saturday, said he isn't so sure.
"I feel some of the U.K. shows before have been a little delusional and aren't very self-aware about where their status is," said Ian Dean, who has been involved in the British fight scene since 2003.
Still, Daley is a known commodity. He was one of the first mixed martial artists to receive attention beyond Britain's niche MMA media, and he garnered plenty of coverage in the wake of his post-bell punch of Josh Koscheck last May in the Octagon -- his last act in the promotion before being released that night by UFC president Dana White. Yet Daley never fought on a UFC event staged in the U.K., and it's difficult to gauge how his presence against an unknown Japanese opponent will drive ticket sales and TV ratings for the English network SyFy.
Fisher described ticket sales as brisk and said BAMMA has increased seating at the MEN Arena from 12,000 to full capacity of 23,000. The promotion's previous attendance high was 7,438 at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, England. Fisher expects to at least double that.
"For us, it's new ground to do something this big," the promoter said. "But we've already gone higher than we've gone with any other arena shows. We're expecting big things on Saturday."
So is Daley.
Shirai, the current DEEP welterweight champion, is a "dangerous guy" with a strong grappling background, Daley said. With a fight looming against Diaz that would draw considerable attention should it happen, Daley said he made sure not to let his gaze slip from the Japanese fighter or the vacant BAMMA welterweight belt, which is on the line. Diaz "will get his time and my attention immediately after I dispose of Shirai," said the provocative British fighter.
Although Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker indicated that Daley requested a tune-up bout before challenging Diaz, Daley says he was fine with fighting Diaz as early as March but didn't want to wait without receiving compensation from Strikeforce. That didn't happen, so when BAMMA came calling, he signed up to fight Shirai. It was then that he learned the result would determine whether or not Diaz came next.
That changed the dynamics of the event, and the attention it received.
"We didn't really know how internationally significant it would be until we signed the contract," said BAMMA's Fisher, whose promotion will charge $10 to stream the card online for the first time at www.bammatv.com.
Bisping and the UFC understand international significance. When "The Count" steps into the Octagon against Jorge Rivera at UFC 127, hard-core British MMA fans will find a way to watch.
Said Daley: "I think the U.K., being a spartan nation, the appeal of mixed martial is what led to success rather than just the UFC coming over. People love to see a good fight, and that's made the sport a success."
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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