The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) made its long-awaited debut in Albuquerque, New Mexico last weekend and boy, oh boy was it an event to remember. Whether the memories of UFC Fight Night 42 were negative or positive, the Rustam Khabilov vs. Ben Henderson headlined event was definitely an event to create tremendous amounts of content for MMA sites nationwide. The hometown gym, Jackson’s MMA went 2-2 on the night with hometown heroes Diego Sanchez and John Dodson capturing victories in front of thousands of their supporters. With all that being said, at the peak of the festivities, Tingley Coliseum was not entirely sold out.
When the final count came in, UFC Albuquerque drew 8,775 fans with the paid attendance hovering around 7,000. In a near 10 thousand seat arena, plenty of seats were available and nearly 20% of tickets were actually comped or given out for free. While hardcore fans enjoyed the free show on Fox Sports 1 (1,217,000 viewers tuned in for the 3rd most watched UFC show on the network) being that two number one contenders and a handful of fan favorites were in action, it felt as if the “buzz” in Albuquerque didn’t quite hit its peak. While Albuquerque still delivered a very loud crowd inside the arena, a better showing in the ticket sales department would have assured Albuquerque a second go-round from MMA’s premier promotion.
While I won’t dive into the argument of whether the UFC will return or not, I will offer my uneducated analysis as to how the UFC could sellout any of the city’s premier venues should they return to the “Duke City”.
It all starts with your featured local. For the UFC’s first go-round in Albuquerque, there was definitive confusion as to who that was. Was it #1 ranked Flyweight John Dodson, MMA pioneer Diego Sanchez or up-and-coming top prospect Rustam Khabilov? While Khabilov was the main event fighter representing Albuquerque, Khabilov is not a local and most fight fans cannot connect with him in emotional fandom in a way they could with an actual local fighter. Carlos Condit would have been the logical fighter to feature but unfortunately we know that Condit is still on the healing track from a serious knee injury.
Should the UFC return, Condit has to be atop the list to headline the event as he is a premier star throughout the MMA world and beloved in New Mexico. If Condit is unavailable, the recent success of John Dodson has to be considered as he may be the World Champion by the time a second event returns or still amongst the top contenders in the division. Regardless, a true local will definitely generate more buzz around town.
The marketing has to be marginally better as well. A lot of people had little clue as to the details of the event and that can start seeing improvement through our own local media. Unfortunately in this instance, the UFC failed to recognize some of the hardest workers in local media and failed to receive that boost to the locals who read their New Mexico MMA sites and publications.
As for the rest of the local featured fighters, the UFC will have to really dig deep into research and find out who is truly fan favorites in the area. While Diego Sanchez is definitely a star in MMA, his luster may have taken a toll in recent outings and a fighter on the winning track like Donald Cerrone might have been a better sell. While Cerrone isn’t a born New Mexican, his ties to Albuquerque are as deep as anyone and his “Meet & Greet” brought out several hundred people at the Metro PCS shop on Central the day of the fight.
The UFC also failed to tap into the flip side of the spectrum in New Mexico’s MMA culture. While Jackson’s MMA is the most well-known gym in the state and arguably worldwide, the other gyms from the area bring in tremendously sizeable fan bases. Ignoring the politics that are included behind the scenes, on Albuquerque gym would have benefitted ticket sales in a big way. FIT NHB has two extremely talented UFC fighters on their roster that would be great additions to a second UFC show in Albuquerque. Tim Means has a cult following in the MMA world and Ray Borg is considered by many who have seen him fight in and out of New Mexico as the future of the Flyweight division. Means of Moriarity and Borg of Tucumcari could tap into two new areas that weren’t really included for this past event.
Including the state of New Mexico’s top regional draws could be an interesting idea going forward as well. When it comes to ticket sales, nobody sells like Holly Holm and while negotiations prevented her from this past event, the UFC has to know that Holm could definitely make up for the two thousand tickets that went unsold. Another name that is synonymous with ticket sales is Judgement MMA’s Adrian Cruz who is coming off of a draw with newly announced “The Ultimate Fighter” participant Henry Briones. A dark horse for this discussion, Joseph Benavidez from Las Cruces should get consideration as well as he would appeal to the Southern audience in New Mexico and has national popularity as one of the sports best fighters, one of the Flyweight Division’s premier fighters and an extremely popular fighter training out of California’s Alpha Male fight team.
The options and scenarios are limitless. Who knows how different the landscape will be by time a potential second show rolls into town. Young up-and-coming fighters like Andres Quintana, Steve Garcia and Kevin Croom are all gaining steam as they rise through the ranks from prospects to premier talents.
While the UFC tapped heavily into the Jackson’s MMA roster for four fighters to highlight, there are several more fighters from within that gym that could be logical choices to be featured in a second UFC show. Damacio Page with a win this weekend in the Legacy promotion could get the nod for his UFC return, Isaac Vallie-Flagg hot off of a great performance against an MMA icon would bring in a northern Santa Fe crowd, Donald Sanchez owns one of the largest fan bases in the area, and Leonard Garcia, like Page is coming up on a Legacy FC bout that could propel him back into the UFC ranks.
There was a rumor floating around prior to the UFC being officially announced for Albuquerque that Keith Jardine was a name tossed into discussion of being featured on the fight card. While many will recall, Jardine has been inactive for two years on the heels of a 2-7-1 record in his last five years of competition. Despite the record, Jardine was always competitive in his bouts and fought some of the best fighters MMA had to offer in that span. Jardine remains one of the most recognizable fighters in the sport and it definitely had to be somewhat considered in the area’s first UFC event being that Jardine was one of the original successful fighters to put Albuquerque on the map. It makes you wonder who else would be considered for UFC action? Who knows, maybe someone would try and get “OX” Wheeler out of retirement to make one more run in the spotlight, or how about “Smokin’ Joe” Joey Villasenor?
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, this is all personal opinion and an uneducated one to add. I have very little marketing experience and absolutely no MMA promotion experience. With that being said, what do all of you all think? Share in the comments or on our social media pages as to what you’d like to see in a second UFC event in Albuquerque. If any of you decided not to attend, what would make you change that decision in a second go-round?