How UFC London was created

In March the UFC descends on London for an event that will be watched by millions of people around the world. We examine what it takes to put on the biggest show in town

Sometime during the evening of Saturday 18 March 2017, as UFC London approaches a raucous climax, Brad ‘One Punch’ Pickett will embark on his last walk to the Octagon. These will be the final few steps of a long journey that began when Pickett won his first Cage Rage fight in 2004, and converged into the UFC’s own blazing trail with a 2011 loss to Renan Barão at UFC 138.

Despite taking 38 such strolls in mixed martial arts, Pickett is keenly anticipating number 39. “When I’m making that walk with all the fans around me – that’s when I come to life. I switch on completely. When I walk out there’s nothing better in the world.”

But what of those who enabled the retiring fighter to bask in the acclaim of more than 16,000 spectators at the O2 Arena? We’re not talking pioneers but logistics: how is a massive event such as UFC London created?

“London is one of the markets that we get locked in relatively early,” says James Elliott. ‘Relatively early’ means pretty much as soon as the 2016 London event ended: “We’ve known we were coming for ten or 11 months now because we have to book the O2 Arena.”

Elliott is the UFC’s vice president and general manager of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Quite the title, but then it’s quite the job: dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of the UFC’s numerous business streams – not only the events but also content production, broadcast and sponsorship deals, and athlete management – across 147 territories in the EMEA region.

Although determined to extend the UFC’s spread as widely as possible, Elliott knows the importance of London to the organisation’s dreams of world domination. “It’s a massive market for mixed martial arts, it’s a massive market for the UFC, and it has been for a long time. A lot like New York, what’s important in London is important globally.”

The UFC has been here since 2002, when 3,800 hardy souls flocked to the Royal Albert Hall for UFC 38. (Inevitably monikered Brawl at the Hall.) In 2007 the circus migrated east to the O2 Arena and has returned there ever since. The familiarity with the O2 makes the event production team’s life a little easier. “People know where they’re going and what they’re doing,” says Elliott.

Three or four months ahead of the event, the team start conducting site visits to the O2, scoping out any changes and checking, in the words of Elliott, “everything is still where we left it.” Efficient planning is absolutely vital: the team won’t get access to the arena until a couple of days before the fight.

Sean Shelby is one of the most powerful men in combat sports. You probably haven’t heard of him. As a UFC matchmaker, Shelby has been responsible for arranging many of the organisation’s signature fights. Ronda Rousey vs Miesha Tate – “it’s where a true icon began to be realised” – Rousey vs Holly Holm, Conor McGregor vs anybody. If you want a world title, you must go through the champion. But you go through Shelby first.

“The job title is a bit of a misnomer,” insists Shelby. “It sounds cool, but the matching up of two athletes and getting them to commit to a bout is the smallest aspect of the job. It’s managing 500-plus contracts. It’s negotiating the contracts, signing and releasing the athletes. It’s scouting the new talent. It’s putting out fires, and lots of problem solving.”

Even by the low standard of combat sports, UFC events are notoriously capricious: fighters are dropped from the bill almost as often as they are dropped in the Octagon.

Take UFC 200, intended to be the Great Statement of 2016. Its first headliner, Conor McGregor, rebelled over media commitments and temporarily retired; then light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was pulled out by USADA three days before the event due to a failed drugs test. No wonder Shelby’s mindset is: “Plan A went up in flames. Plan B went over a cliff. I’m always on Plan C.”

Like all great strategists, Shelby has the happy knack of turning adversity into advantage. After lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos broke his foot 11 days before a title fight with McGregor, Shelby called up welterweight Nate Diaz as a late replacement. Diaz beat the Irishman, who promptly demanded a rematch (scheduled for UFC 200, rescheduled for UFC 202 after McGregor went AWOL), and the UFC found itself with a classic rivalry and more publicity than ever. To quote Shelby: “One of the most amazing things about this sport is its unpredictability.”

I want to go out a bit like the old me, go out in a guns blazing, ball of flames sort of thing.

Of course, late rearrangements affect more than just the fighters in the ring. UFC Fight Night 76 in Dublin was James Elliott’s first as General Manager of EMEA. It proved a baptism of fire, as first the co-main event, then the headline bout itself were cancelled due to late injuries. With two days’ notice, the team reprinted all the marketing collateral, all the posters, and changed all the broadcast graphics for the amended card.

“The team were up until two in the morning rolling 800 posters,” recalls Elliott. “It was an interesting night, and everyone put in a hell of a shift. I was buying the Guinness that night!”

Meticulous preparation being undone by late cancellations is something UFC analyst Dan Hardy knows about all too well. The first British fighter to challenge for a UFC world title, Hardy took up the microphone after a heart condition forced a sabbatical from the Octagon. His exhaustive fight previews alone have marked Hardy as one of the sport’s best pundits.

Hardy’s preparation involves “a lot of research, a lot of watching fights”, scrutinizing the style of each fighter on the card. “I like to make sure that I start as early on in their career as I can, and then work through to the present day, so I’ve got a good picture of how they’ve developed as a fighter. It gives me an idea of what to expect on the night.

“So if I see someone’s fighting a very good striker, and I assume they’re going to try to take them down, I’ll look into their career for their submission victories, their wrestling ability, their takedown skills.”

He’ll spend more than 50 hours researching the main event. “Every individual fighter has something that excites me about their style.”

The frequency of injuries has gradually seen a movement to more sophisticated training regimes; John Kavanagh, coach of McGregor, goes by the mantra ‘upgrade the software without damaging the hardware.’ Hardy has witnessed this evolution firsthand.

“When I first started, I was travelling around some of the best gyms in the world, and these guys were literally fighting in the gym. They were getting to the fights at 50- 60% of their actual ability, because they were so beaten up from training camp. That’s not happening anymore. We’ve got nutritionists and doctors getting involved to ensure these people are peaking at the right time.”

Yet some fighters prefer the old ways. “There’s no point changing things now,” says Pickett, after a media workout at his north London gym. “I want to go out a bit like the old me, go out in a guns blazing, ball of flames sort of thing. I haven’t changed much in my camp.

“I like training hard. I like sparring as well… For me, it’s the most realistic thing to a fight. I’m a bit old-school there.”

For his final dance, Pickett will face the young Ecuadorian Marlon Vera as part of a typically cosmopolitan card – devised, of course, by Sean Shelby. “We wanted to bring the countries of the world to London so it’s got a very international appeal. Vera is a late replacement for Pickett's scheduled opponent Enrique Briones, who dropped out due to a late injury. 

Fight week. “We’ll all be in the host hotel in the week leading up to the fight,” says Elliott. “We’ll have all the fighters checked in, we provide training facilities for them at the hotel, and provide gyms for them as well.” At this late stage, the focus is on making the weight rather than recreating the Octagon in camp.

As the sparring winds down, the media intensity ramps up. Hardy will be a visible presence. “A lot of work is done during fight week at the hotel, where I get to chat to all the fighters. They fill me in on their most recent training camp, how they’re feeling, and who’s in their corner – all that kind of stuff.”

We’ll regroup back in the office and immediately start getting onto the next thing. It’s a 24-7, 365 days a year operation

On the morning of the event, Elliott’s team must work fast. “We’ll bring in all the rigging, all the lighting, all the TV production facilities.” The first job is to locate the centre of the arena, where the Octagon will be built. “Sounds obvious but it’s the first place to start. We build out from there, putting all the rigging, all the lighting, and all the facilities around it. It’s a big operation, it happens very, very quickly, and thankfully we’ve got a great team.”

Elliott spends most of the night by the Octagon with Marc Ratner, vice president of regulatory affairs at UFC, the man in charge of the refereeing. “On a good night I don’t have anything to do because the team have everything locked down. I get pulled into situations when things go wrong, which thankfully happens very, very rarely.”

If things are going right, Elliott is more host than firefighter. “I spend a lot of time dealing with commercial partners and sponsors, talking to our guests and our clients, making sure everybody is having a good time, and the arena experience for our fans is working as well as it possibly can do.”

What of those fans? UFC is a global organisation, and each event is defined largely by the culture of its crowd. Hardy, who experienced most of them, cites Japan as the strangest environment in which to fight.

“You fight in Vegas and it’s wild, everyone’s screaming and having a great time… In Japan it’s silent. They sit and watch and discuss what’s going on. They clap. You don’t get cheers and screams, you get rounds of applause.”

And London?

“They’re always very, very aggressively patriotic towards the UK fighters. But win or lose, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, as long as you give it everything you’ve got.”

He experienced this loyalty first-hand when, despite his knockout by Carlos Condit in 2010, the O2 crowd gave Hardy a warm reception. “Even in my post-fight interview they were cheering and applauding me, because they knew I came out and gave it everything.”

Waiting backstage, it’s unlikely Brad Pickett will entertain any thoughts of glorious defeat. He’ll be focused on the battle to come, swallowing down the nerves.

“When I’m backstage I’m like, what am I doing? There’s got to be better ways of earning a living. That’s always been the most nerve-wracking and annoying thing for me.

I just want to get out there and get on with it. When you’re backstage it’s horrible.”

“I’ve done this many, many times: it’s not my first rodeo. But I know this one’s going to be a really emotional one. I’m just hoping that I can hold it all together.”

Any tears anticipated?

“There might be some on the way out, but not tears on the way in,” he says.

Whatever the outcome, the cheers should certainly shake the dome itself.

After the event, Elliott and his team make a swift exit. “We’ll start taking the infrastructure down as soon as the last person has left the arena. By the time we’ve finished all the press conferences the Octagon is usually packed away, and we tend to get out that night.”

There is little time to celebrate a job well done. “We’ll regroup back in the office and immediately start getting onto the next thing. It’s a 24-7, 365 days a year operation.”

Both Hardy and Shelby will spend a little longer reflecting on the London card; the former analysing the fights in the studio, the latter calculating the next move for the night’s winners and losers. For the first ever time in more than five years, Brad Pickett won’t be a factor. He’ll wake on Sunday, battered and bruised, a UFC fighter no more.

On Monday 20 March, the O2 Arena hosts the Canadian rapper Drake as part of his Boy Meets World tour. Virtually no trace will remain of the UFC’s occupation 48 hours earlier – yet glance beneath the right seat and you might spot the stub of a ticket or a crumpled programme, the last remnants of a circus that has long since left town.

Watch UFC Fight Night: Manuwa vs Anderson (featuring Brad Pickett’s fight) live on BT Sport on Saturday 18 March 2017.