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After UFC 100, now comes the hard part

Following the success of Saturday’s event, what’s next for Dana White’s business?

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Sam Morris

As past UFC battles play on a screen overhead, fans wait in line to get autographs at the UFC Fan Expo Friday.

UFC 100-Making History

Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir meet just before their heavyweight title fight at UFC 100 at Mandalay Bay. Lesnar won with stoppage in the second round. Launch slideshow »

And It Is All Over

UFC President Dana White recaps the week that was leading up to UFC 100.

Wrapped Up in Wrestling

After his antics following his TKO of Frank Mir in the heavyweight title fight in Saturday night's UFC 100, many wonder whether Brock Lesnar has completely left his old WWE ways behind.

Tearing It Up

Despite a torn abductor, George St-Pierre tore it up inside the Octagon Saturday night defending his welterweight belt with a unanimous decision over Thiago Alves in the co-main event of UFC 100.

St. Pierre-Alves UFC 100

Georges St. Pierre has his arm raised after defeating Thiago Alves in their welterweight title fight at UFC 100. St. Pierre won by decision to retain his title. Launch slideshow »

Belcher-Akiyama UFC 100

Alan Belcher hits Yoshihiro Akiyama with a shot to the head during their fight at UFC 100. Launch slideshow »

Colman-Bonnar UFC 100

Mark Coleman gets Stephan Bonnar up against the fence during their fight at UFC 100. Coleman won by unanimous decision. Launch slideshow »

Dana White will always be the first to say that his press conferences are a little different. But even he had to admit that the one following UFC 100 on Saturday night was especially awkward.

For the final 15 minutes of the news conference after the milestone event, only White and Dan Henderson graced the stage. Empty seats lined up on either side of the two.

“Here it is, the press conference after what’s supposed to be the biggest fight in UFC history and it’s me and [expletive] Dan Henderson sitting up here,” laughed White. “I’m used to it being 17 fighters up here and no media. Now it's all media and two guys sitting up here."

Usually, fighters getting up and leaving in the middle of a press conference is enough to receive a verbal lashing from White. But this time when Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre stood up to make an early retreat, they had a good excuse.

SportsCenter was calling.

As much as White hated to see Lesnar behave the way he did after his heavyweight title defense over Frank Mir, seeing his star invited to the premier sports network in the country probably helped him get over it.

UFC 100 was as much a celebration of the UFC as it was an actual event. Everything from the pay-per-view numbers to the fan expo to seeing Lesnar’s smile behind the ESPN booth were testaments to how far this once-struggling organization has come.

And yet, promotions on the event were built on the final catchphrase: “And we’re just getting started.”

“This week, doing all the press and everything, everybody’s trying to get me nostalgic,” White said. “But I’m one of these guys that don’t look back, I look forward. As big as this thing is, there’s so much more work to do.”

The goals that lie ahead of White and his company, which Forbes has estimated has a value of about $1 billion, are both similar and different than they were when Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the organization for $2 million in 2001.

Continuing to educate the public and ridding itself of the negative perception that was so infamously branded at one point by Sen. John McCain as “human cockfighting” is still toward the top of the list.

“It’s a little frustrating the perception is still out there that we’re crazy and it’s still ‘no-holds-barred’ fighting,” said lightweight and ESPN MMA Live analyst Kenny Florian. “You have all these other sports like NASCAR and boxing where death is a reality and yet the perception is different. It comes down to changing that perception.”

It sounds like a simple enough task. However, when an organization comes from a history that once announced anything goes but eye gouging and biting, shedding the ‘blood-sport’ image has been an uphill battle.

One of the first things White looked to do after taking control of the company was to get mixed martial arts sanctioned in Nevada. Now the goal is to get it sanctioned across the United States and the world so fighters are playing under universal rules.

Currently, MMA is sanctioned in 40 U.S. states.

“All of the states we would want to put on a big event at are either sanctioned or will be by next year,” White said. “But there are some states where we wouldn’t hold an event there but where people are putting on unsanctioned fights. We want to make sure they’re fighting with the same rules as we do so nobody gets hurt.”

Getting the United States to accept the sport does more than just protect the safety of its fighters. As acceptance has grown of MMA and the UFC, their presence in mainstream media has grown with it.

As longtime UFC commentator Mike Goldberg said during a Q&A session at UFC 100, it only takes one or two networks showing more MMA before everyone follows.

After years of downplayed coverage, ESPN has taken the initiative to produce MMA Live, featuring Florian as a frequent anchor.

“I’m definitely very flattered to be a part of the show, I love this sport and anything I can do to further it I want to be a part of,” Florian said. “It’s important to reach out and attract new fans and what better way to bring in more fans than on the worldwide leader of sports.

“We still have some work to do to get it more mainstream. I don’t know how close we are, but hopefully each time we get closer and closer to that goal.”

Regardless of whether MMA clips become standard additions to SportsCenter, the UFC won’t sit back and rely on that to drive its brand. The organization has already extended its partnership with Spike TV through 2011, which includes airing seasons nine through 12 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” "UFC Fight Nights" and 39 episodes of "UFC Unleashed."

As far a pay-per-view buys go, the UFC overtook all other events as the leading seller in 2006. As the UFC finds its way into international markets -- it's already set up deals in China and Mexico -- the expectation for each fight will continue to grow.

“Right now we’re the largest pay-per-view provider in the world,” White said. “Most of our fights do anywhere from 600,000 buys to over 1 million. Once we go global and have this platform and distribution, what’s the number we’re doing then? Is it 4 million, 8 million, 10 million? I don’t know, but it’s the fun part of growing this business and ultimately growing this sport.”

It’s for this reason those who scoffed when White said the UFC will someday rival the size of the NFL might become believers. Worldwide markets have already shown more of an interest in White’s brand than in the NFL.

At UFC 99, the first UFC event in Germany, longtime voice of the Octagon Bruce Buffer couldn’t believe that when he announced his catchphrase of, “It’s time,” the entire German audience not only knew it was coming but yelled it in unison with him.

“Concentrating on worldwide awareness and the marketability of the UFC is opening up opportunities in other countries,” Buffer said. “I can’t even walk around in the United Kingdom anymore without being recognized. It took one show in Germany to make them appreciate the athleticism of this event. What you saw in Germany, you’re going to see in other countries as we continue to move forward.”

And when it comes down to it, that’s where the future of the UFC lies.

The ongoing efforts to sanction the sport and redefine it in the public’s eye are still important and will continue to be dealt with by White and the fighters themselves.

But after the enormous success of UFC 100, the questions are: How big can this thing really get? How many countries can it consume? Can an event like UFC 200 be an international Super Bowl?

“I think by UFC 200, we could certainly be the biggest sport in the world,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “Who knows where it could be? We’re currently broadcast to over 400 million homes around the world. UFC 100 went live to 50 countries around the globe and another 20 or 30 took it on a delayed basis due to time change.

“As this sport continues to grow, you’re going to see us doing events all over the world in a big way. The whole goal is to build a global brand for fighting: the UFC.”

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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