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UFC becomes a heavyweight in sports

The MGM Grand Garden Arena was still quivering with excitement shortly after two of the most popular fighters in mixed martial arts wrapped up a riveting spectacle that had lived up to its considerable buildup.

And already Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was facing the inevitable question.

After the biggest night in UFC history, before yet another packed house, this time on New Year's weekend on the Strip, what will he do for an encore?

"We keep saying that after every fight we have," White said. "Wow, this was the biggest fight yet. Where do we go from here? And we just keep setting 'em up and knocking 'em down.

"I'm telling you, we're going to have nothing but megafights in 2007 and 2008."

In Saturday night's main event at the MGM, Chuck Liddell cemented his status as the UFC's biggest star with a third-round technical knockout of former champ Tito Ortiz to retain his light heavyweight title.

"Chuck is the man," White said. "He's the most dominant 205-pounder in mixed martial arts, and maybe ever."

Driven by the star power of the two headliners, UFC 66 attracted a sellout crowd of 14,607 and a live gate exceeding $5.9 million, a record for the Las Vegas-based mixed martial arts organization.

Pay-per-view sales were also strong, White said. Those figures might leak out but won't be officially announced, as per the policy of the privately held UFC. "If we do the (projected) 1.2 million (pay-per-view buys), you guys will never know it anyhow!" White cackled.

By any account it was the most successful promotion the UFC has had, furthering the remarkable rise into the mainstream of a sport that just a few years ago could have been charitably described as a niche endeavor.

White said he saw the UFC's potential, even if few others did, in 2001 when he was named president by Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, owners of the promotional group Zuffa LLC.

"Everyone always hears, the guys at Zuffa, 'Oh, you guys are geniuses, you did this, you did that,' " White said. "What we did was stumble onto a sport that's incredible. The athletes that compete in this sport are the most amazing athletes in the world.

"We looked at it and said, 'Imagine if we presented this to the mainstream in the right way, if we packaged it and presented it right.' But nights like (Saturday), I can do all the bells and whistles, but when these guys come out there and do that, (it shows) why MMA is the greatest combat sport in the world."

Liddell (20-3), a 2-1 betting favorite in Saturday's bout, a rematch of his 2004 knockout of Ortiz, caught Ortiz with a stinging left hook in the third round that sent the challenger to the floor of the octagon. Liddell pounced, followed up with a flurry of punches, and referee Mario Yamasaki stopped the fight at 3:59 in the third.

Ortiz (16-5) vowed to work his way back to earn another title shot.

"I plan to be here for a long time," Ortiz said. "The sport is getting so damn big. I don't want to let down the fans. I want to continue fighting, entertaining, kicking people's (behinds), or trying to at least.

"I'm only 31 years old, and there's no quit in me at all. Liddell's 37, and look what he does. He devastates people. When I'm 37, I want to be doing the same thing."

UFC 67, a card scheduled for Feb. 3 at Mandalay Bay, will feature the UFC debuts, in separate bouts, of established mixed martial artists Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic.

The UFC's hit reality show ("The Ultimate Fighter," Spike TV, Cox cable channel 29) has been renewed for a fifth season, and White is also laying the groundwork for shows in Europe, Mexico and Canada as the UFC continues to expand.

"We're not in the fight-for-our-life stage anymore," he said.

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