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August 20, 2019

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Fight Central: UFC puts Las Vegas in the center of the MMA world

UFC 207 Fight Night

L.E. Baskow

Women’s bantamweight champion fighter Amanda Nunes continues to celebrate her quick win over Ronda Rousey in the octagon following their UFC 207 fight at the T-Mobile Arena on Friday, Dec. 30, 2016. L.E. Baskow.

International Fight Week 2017 schedule highlights

• Women of the UFC panel: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Park Theater

• UFC Hall of Fame Class of 2017 Induction: 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Park Theater

• UFC Fan Experience: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday at Toshiba Plaza

• UFC 213: 3:30 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena

Over the past few decades, the NFL has turned fan festivities around the Super Bowl into as big an attraction as the game itself. The NBA followed a similar path when it turned its all-star game into an all-star weekend.

With the success of those ventures sticking in executives’ minds, the UFC felt it needed its own annual staple combining one of the most significant events of the year with unparalleled fan experience. That was the impetus for International Fight Week in 2012.

“We put together something that was customized for our fans and the UFC,” said Lawrence Epstein, UFC senior vice president and chief operating officer. “But the inspiration really came from what other sports were doing, and seeing the fun and excitement that was generated as a result.”

The weeklong UFC carnival of sorts, which includes pool parties, panel discussions and autograph signings, returns to Southern Nevada this week for the sixth consecutive year. UFC 213, scheduled for July 8 at T-Mobile Arena, caps the celebration with a women’s bantamweight championship fight between rivals Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchencko.

A second card, “The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption” finale, is set for the night before in what amounts to a fight-fan takeover of the Strip.

“It’s been so successful for us because the fans — not just around the United States, but the world — have sort of marked it off on their calendar every year,” Epstein said.

With mixed martial arts still a relatively nascent sport — UFC 1 took place less than 24 years ago — everything about it is fluid. None of the 10 current UFC champions, for example, held titles when the first International Fight Week was staged.

From a scheduling perspective, Super Bowl weekend and Memorial Day weekend were once as entrenched as Fourth of July weekend on the UFC’s local slate. But both of the former dates passed this year without Las Vegas on the fight calendar.

Some couldn’t help but wonder if the UFC’s $4 billion sale from Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to WME-IMG last year meant a diminished local presence. Perhaps International Fight Week would even take to the road and try out a new market.

Epstein said there wasn’t a chance.

“One of the tenets of the deal when the Ferttitas decided to sell the company was that the business was going to stay here in Las Vegas,” he said. “Our roots started here in Las Vegas, and they continue to grow in Las Vegas. ... When events take place in Las Vegas, they are bigger, and frankly better. We’ve done our fan expos around the world, but when it comes to International Fight Week, there’s just no place that would be more appropriate than the fight capital.”

The UFC is also an anchor tenant of T-Mobile Arena, where perhaps no athlete has experienced more success than Nunes. She came into UFC 200 at International Fight Week last year as an accomplished but somewhat unknown Brazilian striker before upsetting Miesha Tate in three minutes to win the title.

Nunes followed by knocking out Ronda Rousey in less than a minute last December, giving her victories in two of the top eight best-selling pay-per-views of all time. Now she has the chance to prove she can carry a major fight card on her own.

“I will show you guys I’m the best champion here,” Nunes said at a news conference announcing UFC 213.

Epstein said Nunes embodied much of what the UFC hoped to feature during International Fight Week. She’s risen swiftly over the past few years, while also representing the LGBTQ community and forging a strong bond with the UFC’s fan base.

If Nunes isn’t fighting at International Fight Week next year, it’s a safe assumption that she’ll be among the most popular fighters mingling at other events.

“That’s one of the things we originally looked at when we looked at the Super Bowl fan experience: People were having a blast so, to me, that’s the most important metric we need to look at,” Epstein said.

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