The last time I saw Marc Ratner, the UFC vice president was in Columbus, Ohio, talking about the record-setting live gate UFC 68 had drawn at Nationwide Arena.
It was March 2007. The economy was good. Money was still being stuffed in people’s pockets. No one was paying attention to a 4.4 percent unemployment rate.
Saturday night, I saw Ratner, the former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, at UFC 101. People’s pockets were empty. The unemployment rate in this country was 9.4 percent - more than double what it was when we met in Columbus.
But just like then, Ratner was talking about the record-setting live gate for Pennsylvania - $3.55 million from a sold-out crowd at Wachovia Center.
“Jack Dempsey did fight [in Philadelphia] and had close to 100,000 people come out to see him,” Ratner said. “But the dollars were obviously not what they are today.”
Good times, bad times - the dollars seem to be the same for UFC, the mixed martial arts juggernaut that made its Philadelphia debut as 45,000 people were across the street at Citizens Bank Park watching the Phillies.
The show - coming about a year after the state’s athletic commission approved the licensing of mixed martial arts - is the closest UFC has gotten to the District. Ratner said UFC will bring an event to the Baltimore-Washington area next year.
“I have had discussions with people at the Verizon Center, the Patriot Center, and had several inquiries from the people at the Baltimore Arena,” Ratner said. “What it comes down to is economics for us also. Is the tax structure good? Is it more expensive to be in one place than another. What are the pay-per-view numbers there? Those all factor in.
“I feel very strongly we will be in that area sometime in 2010.”
My bet is on Patriot Center, which has hosted a number of mixed martial arts events from the local Ultimate Warrior Challenge promotion. That group is putting on a show at the arena Oct. 3.
They will have to get in line, though. Most arenas are fighting for a chance to get a UFC date so they can get a shot at setting a record live gate.
“We are also going abroad,” Ratner said. “We are going to Australia in February. We are going back to Manchester, England, in November. We are going to the Pacific Northwest in a few weeks. We are talking to the British Columbia people for Vancouver sometime next year. We are talking to Toronto and trying to get the sport approved there. And obviously Boston and New York are still on our radar.”
There still are places mixed martial arts is not welcome as a spectator sport. The holy grail for UFC remains Madison Square Garden, but the New York State Athletic Commission has refused to license the sport.
This, of course, is the same group that in 1983 allowed Luis Resto to get into the Garden ring with the padding removed from his gloves and give Billy Collins a brutal beating - see “Assault in the Ring,” the documentary airing on HBO about the fight and the conscience of the athletic commission.
After UFC 101, Pennsylvania officials must be wondering why they waited so long to embrace the sport. It was a rousing success, with two great co-main events - Anderson Silva’s dramatic first-round knockout of Forrest Griffin in a light heavyweight bout and B.J. Penn’s methodical fourth-round submission victory over Kenny Florian.
“Philly has always been a big fight town,” UFC boss Dana White said. “I would love to bring big fights here. I can’t wait to come back.”
The presence of UFC, though, almost had the feel of a wake for boxing in the city that was home to great fighters like Joe Frazier and Joey Giardello.
White was asked about the notion of having Silva - perhaps the greatest fighter in UFC - facing former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. in a boxing match. As if White, whose product brought in eight of the top 10 pay-per-view buys in 2008, would have one of his stars fight an over-the-hill boxer.
“I respect the sport of boxing,” White said. “I don’t see the point.”
One of the rising stars in Philadelphia boxing, undefeated welterweight Mike Jones, fought Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J. There was barely a mention of it last week, but the Philadelphia Daily News did a 12-page section on UFC 101.
Boxing promoter Don King is fond of saying he “goes where the wild goose goes” - meaning he goes where the money is.
These days, the money is in the octagon - not the ring. Expect the money train to pull into the District sometime next year.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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