LAS VEGAS — Dana White had plenty of problems when he and high school friends turned business partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta closed on a $2 million deal on Jan. 12, 2001, to purchase the UFC. For starters, an extraordinarily tiny percentage of people knew what mixed martial arts was.
The problems cascaded from there.
But one of the issues White did not anticipate as he tried to rebuild the UFC in his image was attracting fans in Mexico. Mexico had a long-time love affair with boxing, and passion for the sport was deeply embedded within the culture.
Reality, though, did not match expectations.
When White began the arduous task of rebuilding the UFC, he was shocked by the lack of interest from Mexico.
And even when Mexican fighters began to pop up in the UFC a decade or so ago, interest was slow to build.
That's all changed now, though, and is evidenced by the fact that the big combat sports event Saturday in Las Vegas is a UFC card and not a boxing match. Top Rank made both Mexican Independence Day weekend and Cinco de Mayo as big dates on the annual boxing calendar. It was a clever way to exploit the popularity of Oscar De La Hoya, a Mexican American who in the late 1990s became arguably the biggest star in boxing.
The plan grew to feature superstars such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Canelo Alvarez, and has been a boxing staple for years.
On Saturday, the UFC will stage a fight night card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that it's dubbed Noche UFC, that will be topped by women's flyweight title fight between champion Alexa Grasso and former champion Valentina Shevchenko. Alvarez, arguably boxing's biggest draw, will fight on Sept. 30 in Las Vegas against Jermell Charlo rather than on his traditional slot on Mexican Independence Day weekend.
"Dana has long had a reverence for the spirit of the Mexican boxer, and for as long as I can remember, he's been talking about ways to figure out how to engage both the Mexican market and the Mexican American market," Lawrence Epstein, the senior vice president and chief operating officer of the UFC, told Yahoo Sports. "The idea of putting this event on Mexican Independence Day is 100 percent him. This has traditionally been a date, along with Cinco de Mayo, that boxing put its biggest events.
" ... We've made incredible strides with Hispanic fans, and it's a big group of Hispanic fans and not just Mexico. The reality is that the younger generation, much like in the U.S., has connected with our brand, with our athletes and we're very excited about the future with respect to how Hispanic fans are going to be engaging with the UFC brand moving forward."
The UFC provided statistics that it gathered from a variety of places that back its point. YouGov and MRI-Simmons found that in the U.S., there are 10.1 million UFC fans of Hispanic origin, and they represent 21 percent of all UFC fans in the U.S. It found that the UFC has more Hispanic U.S. fans percentage-wise than any sport besides boxing and Major League Soccer. That includes the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
It's similar in Mexico. Research from YouGov, social media analytics and internal UFC research discovered there are 18.6 million UFC fans in Mexico. A whopping 49 percent of those are adults between the ages of 18 and 34, the prime demographic advertisers are seeking to reach.
That is a higher percentage of young fans than Formula 1, the NFL, the NBA and several major soccer leagues, including the English Premier League.
UFC research shows that most of the fans who will attend Saturday will come from nearby California, which is great for the tourism industry in Southern Nevada. And it's a reason why officials at MGM Resorts, which runs T-Mobile, were eager to put on a UFC event this weekend.
At one point, there were three Mexican UFC champions this year. Brandon Moreno won the flyweight title in January, though he lost it to Alexandre Pantoja in July. Yair Rodriguez held the interim featherweight title, but he lost it to Alexander Volkanovski in July.
So Grasso is the UFC's sole surviving Mexican champion, though it's looking bright for the future in terms of more Mexican stars. Epstein noted that a lot of young athletes in Mexico are choosing MMA to start rather than boxing, so their development will only enhance the UFC's efforts not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America.
Grasso could barely contain her glee at headlining the card. In a conversation with Yahoo Sports, she called it "an opportunity of a lifetime," to headline in Las Vegas on Mexican Independence Day weekend.
But Shevchenko, who was born in Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union, is equally excited about it.
"The Mexican fans love the fights and they help make an incredible atmosphere, so it's an honor to fight in front of them," Shevchenko said. "I know Alexa is very popular, but I know I have many, many Mexican fans, too. It's going to be a great night to have this kind of a celebration and for two women to be headlining a show like this."