Home advantage hardly helpful in U.K.
The UFC's previous event hosted in the U.K., held 11 months ago in Manchester, England, was particularly notable for the success of the locals -- seven out of 10 Englishmen on the card that night had their hand raised.
UFC 120 was its antithesis on Saturday night, an evening in which hometown dreams and aspirations were ripped up and spat out by foreign challengers at the O2 Arena in London. Disappointingly for the hometown fans, only three of the eight English fighters at UFC 120 were successful.
The local side's poor performance means the UFC is facing an uphill battle if it wants to penetrate the lucrative European market. Revenues might be up (UFC 120 broke the UFC's records for U.K. events with a live gate of $1.6 million) and the UFC Fan Expo in London the weekend of the fight drew fans from across the continent, but there is something severely lacking and hampering the promotion's plans.
Simply put, it's a lack of talent and an all-too-shallow pool of fighters from which to draw upon.
The UFC can take its show and host it anywhere in the world, with local fighters on the card or not. As UFC president Dana White pointed out, he sold out shows in Montreal and Los Angeles with two non-English-speaking Brazilians as a main event. If you want proof the UFC transcends borders, there you are.
But to develop a lasting presence in a territory, it is essential that local talent be scouted, recruited and promoted. The UFC's U.K. divisional president, Marshall Zelaznik, has repeatedly told of plans to host UFC Fight Night events in Britain in smaller arenas in 2011. To do so, they'll need a bigger roster of U.K. fighters than they're currently got -- and successful ones at that. Fans will pay for B.J. Penn and Mauricio Rua, but if you want them to fork out for a Fight Night, you need to stack it with capable fighters from the local area.
The danger is that to make up the numbers, recruiting standards will need to be relaxed. In a geographically limited area like the U.K,. there is a finite number of fighters to draw upon.
"We're never gonna bring in a fighter who can't compete; if they can compete in the U.K., they can compete in the US, and that's the way it's got to be," says Zelaznik, who is adamant UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's team will continue to identify the best emerging fighters from around Europe. "The product will stay the same because the fighters will be the best."
Fans can handle it if their favored fighters fall short once in a while. Dan Hardy lost to Georges St. Pierre, but the cheers he drew when he walked out to meet Carlos Condit would make you think he held the world title. But with Hardy getting knocked out and John Hathaway suffering at the hands of a crafty veteran in Mike Pyle, results definitely matter.
Will either of them draw the same level of support in their next outings?
Michael Bisping, loathed in the U.S. but practically revered in the U.K., is the UFC's old faithful. He is a trusted asset and rarely fails to deliver the goods on home turf, but they can't rest their hopes on him forever. A new generation of European fighters need to come through and help support the company's expansion into the Old World.
Zelaznik says last night's losses won't slow them down, pointing to the overall success of the event and the Expo. "Unfortunately, the British fighters didn't win, but they'll bounce back," he says with confidence.
Maybe they will, but it wouldn't hurt for them to foster a new generation of Bispings ready to headline their planned events next year. No matter where they're from, if they're not winning on the world stage, the fans aren't going to bother to watch the events. The UFC needs to carefully foster and develop its talent if it wishes to successfully expand into Europe. How long can it keep flying Americans and Brazilians over to prop up the cards? Sooner or later, these events are going to have to stand up on their own, and it's only with local fighters that they'll be able to.
Hywel Teague is a contributing mixed martial arts writer for ESPN.com. He is a veteran reporter and edited the international MMA magazine Fighters Only for five years.