June 28th brings the first ever UFC event to the shores of New Zealand. Most of the world may be comically unaware that Australia and New Zealand are two completely different countries, but neither can deny that the fate of their MMA scenes are unequivocally linked. So it’s understandable that Australians are perhaps even more excited than their neighbors that the UFC is back on their side of the world, because it sets up a potential rivalry for the future. Think Wallabies vs the All Blacks, minus the boots and add the Octagon.
So why else are Aussie coaches, fighters, and fans so excited for a show that isn’t even in their own country?
Riding on the back of TUF Nations
TUF Nations concluded earlier this year and created some much needed buzz in the Australian MMA scene. Although the Australian fighters didn’t succeed in securing the six figure contracts, they did show the world that they belong; with two of their fighters defeating their Canadian adversaries, and the rest showing the tenacity Aussie sporting teams are known for. The New Zealand card is arriving just in time to keep that momentum going, with many of the show’s contestants getting a second chance in the UFC. After the initial launch of the UFC in Australia in 2010, the dreaded curse of fan apathy has seemed to set in, a mistake they appear to not be making on their re-entry into the market.
Australian (and Kiwi) fighters tend to suffer from one major career issue; they are thrown in the deep end before they are ready. Anthony Perosh versus Mirco Cro-Cop instantly comes to mind. Although Australian fighters are known for their toughness, the unfortunate truth is that their lack of wrestling culture is still a major weakness. From the get go their fighters scramble to catch up, but it takes time and when the UFC calls, you can’t say no. Often this means that fighters, regardless of their experience in local shows, will have little to no experience against wrestling centric fighters before they hit the big show. Couple this with the lack of local shows in Australia and fighters are simply lacking experience overall.
The New Zealand card has pitted largely local and non-American fighters against Australian mid-level competitors, which provides a little bit of breathing room. It is also a good sign that they are beginning to focus on building the talent from this side of the world. Soa Palelei, one of Australia’s rising stars, is getting a second run in the UFC and his opponents seem to be well matched to his experience level. Other exciting Australian fighters like Robert Whittaker and Richy Vaculik, although coming off losses, have shown great potential but again are relatively inexperienced compared to their American counterparts. They are hungry for wins and their NZ card matchups, although still tough, appear to be an indicator that the UFC has their future in mind; a good sign for things to come.
Photo via Soa Palelei
The Saturday Night Fights—for free!
Aussies are also die-hard “free-to-air” sports fans, mainly those involving some kind of ball. The concept of PPV is not deeply ingrained in our culture. Sure they would tune in to watch Jeff Fenech clobber his competition and the pubs were often full cheering for their adopted son Kostya Tszyu, but Australian’s are not accustomed to money leaving their wallets to watch a sporting event on TV. It’s un-Australian! The New Zealand show is not only playing for free, but also it’s on a Saturday night.
One problem the UFC has always faced in trying to conquer the down-under mainstream market, are the obscure show-times. Even die-hard fans struggle to wake up at 2 am to watch a smaller event, and the matinee PPV times eat into Sunday lunch, a traditionally family day for Australians. The New Zealand card is a throw back to the old days of the big Saturday night fights, and although it may seem insignificant to American fans, it’s really something special for us.
Money, Money, Money
Another reason Aussies and Kiwis are excited is because it is going to hopefully bring more money and sponsorships. One of the developmental issues that plagues Aussie MMA is the lack of financial support for the fighters. Although it slightly improves once they are signed to the UFC, the fact of the matter remains, MMA is largely an American sport. For a fighter to gain sponsorship they often have to use international sponsors that would benefit from the TV exposure. These are few and far between for these athletes. The New Zealand show is a huge step for the local talent as the local sponsors can see an actual return for their investment; exposure to a local crowd.
The second benefit is that struggling local fighters can see an endgame. Previously there was no clear path into a career in MMA for Aussie and New Zealand fighters. The lucky ones were snapped up into the TUF show and the occasional standout, like Hector Lombard, would make it via sheer show of force. Other than the exceptions, it is hard for locals to justify a career in a sport that has no obvious entry level positions, further reducing the talent pool. With the New Zealand card utilizing some local fighters, hopefully a domino effect will occur and the young talent will be inspired to keep at it.
The Fight to Stay—Fans and Fighters
Fans need a reason to get excited or they simply stop caring. One of the most underutilized tools in the war against fan apathy is the Loser Leaves Town Match. Professional wrestling has utilized this concept for decades to hook fans into cards. The UFC has been on a tirade lately, cutting fighters left and right and the New Zealand show boasts two matches of this ilk. Te Huna versus Marquardt is one such match. Despite both fighters boasting lethal finishing potential, they are on a two-fight losing streak that has left fans wondering about their future. A win will undoubtedly propel one fighter back into contention, while the future of the loser is just as easy to read. Although I’d hesitate to call either a colossus loser in person, the fact is that there is little chance this fight will go the distance; so while the victor may exit on cloud 9, there is a fair chance the other competitor will need some assistance.
The second one on this card is Indich v Grujic. Although their names may be largely unfamiliar to international crowds, they are well liked on the local scene and fans don’t want to see either cut. Unfortunately, the UFC is a shark tank and there is only room for winners. Although Indich and Grujic are both coming off losing streaks, they are well known for their never-say-die attitudes. This is something that earned Indich the fight of the season in the TUF Nations season and is the key to the hearts of Aussie fans. The matchup is electric for locals, as they will be witnessing the rebirth of one career and perhaps the fatality of another.
Return of the Demolition Man
Lastly, lets face it, who isn’t excited about the return of the Demolition Man, James Te Huna? That may not be his official nickname, but that’s what Aussies have come to expect whenever we see his name on the poster. Claimed by both Aussies and New Zealanders as their own, he is attempting to make his comeback. Expectations are high and one thing is for sure, there will be a lot of sore throats on Sunday. Win or lose, the down-under fan favorite always comes out swinging, so fans will be dragging their friends into the pub to cheer for their local hero.
There are no losers on this side of the pond, only winners!
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