JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Don’t worry mixed martial arts fans on the First Coast, the UFC will be back in town in the future, with fans in the seats.
And maybe, just maybe, it will lead to more opportunities for the River City to become a more prominent player in the game of combat sports.
Not since 1996 has a combat sports event of this magnitude been held on the First Coast.
That’s when boxer Roy Jones Jr. pulled off an unusual and history-making day, playing in a basketball game for the Jacksonville Barracudas of the United States Basketball League that afternoon and then fighting Eric Lucas for the super middleweight championship that night.
Jones’ daily double was international news and brought quite a bit of attention to Jacksonville. And while boxing cards and combat sporting events have been held on the First Coast in the years since Jones’ bout in 1996, none rival the visibility of the UFC coming to Jacksonville on Saturday for the first of three events this month. UFC president Dana White said on Tuesday that the promotion doesn’t view the area as just a one-time stop.
The UFC has held 13 events since its inception in Florida, but none north of Orlando.
“Not only for this weekend but we’re doing three fights in a week there. I’m just looking forward to the entire experience,” White told News4Jax on Tuesday. “It’s times like these where an [area of the] state like Jacksonville steps up. They’re smart in how they do this thing and how we’re going to pull this off.
“And doing it with us, we’re actually a company that’s going to spend the money to make sure that this thing is going to be as safe as it can possibly be. And for that, we will come back when everything opens up and we’ll bring a big event there. You guys are going to get a lot of attention and you’re doing it the right way.”
Combat sports in town during the modern era prior to that Jones championship fight in 1996 was essentially a monthly occurrence for close to two decades.
Former promoter Phil Myers was responsible for putting on a steady stream of those cards, starting small in 1978 or ’79 and eventually signing a contract with the Sunshine Network to broadcast those on a semi-regular basis. Myers usually put on eight cards a year in town, often at the Marina at St. Johns Place or the Morocco Shrine.
Boxing had a small, but visible contingent over those years, locals like Alphonso Walker, Dorcy Gaymon and Tommy Richardson. Former heavyweight champion Ray Mercer has Jacksonville ties. Nate Campbell came along in in the 2000s and won multiple championships.
Myers said the luxury he had when his promotion was thriving was threefold.
• Unwavering support from sponsors.
• No NFL.
• Local recognition. If the card didn’t include a headlining fighter — like a Larry Holmes or Riddick Bowe or Tommy Morrison — then a fighter with strong local following was essential.
When all that lined up, it gave area fight fans continuous matches that they could attend locally. And there were some good ones that Myers brought to town. Former Olympians who would go on to earn championships fought here. Holmes fought an exhibition on a Myers card at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in 1990.
Myers said what made it challenging to keep the fight game thriving locally was keeping fans paying and attending if the bouts weren’t of some type of significance. That meant if it wasn’t a major name boxer or a local fighter with name recognition, the cards wouldn’t get traction.
“The problem with Jacksonville is that it’s still a $10 town,” Myers said. “Not to sound bad, but how do you package it and keep them coming in? The key thing is sponsors. If I didn’t sell any tickets, the fight was paid for that night. And we had some good ones. Coca Cola. Pepsi. They were great sponsors.”
Myers said things changed when the Jaguars arrived in town and sponsorships became more difficult to nail down.
“Why did I quit doing boxing? ‘Hey Phil, what’s coming to Jacksonville? Oh, the NFL,’” Myers said. “People and sponsors wanted to get their dollars into the Jaguars, spend their money on the football team. Doing eight shows a year in Jacksonville, it was a tough game to make money in. It gets to be a point where it’s a lot of money.”
There have still been combat sports on the First Coast over the years.
Promoter Josh Rutgers brought mixed martial arts’ first St. Johns County card to St. Augustine back in 2010 and kept those events going for several years. ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights” had a 2013 boxing card in Jacksonville, the first time in 16 years that pro boxing from the area been televised nationally.
But it was Jones’ middleweight championship in 1996 and the Gold to Glory card in 1989 that remain two of the most recognizable combat sporting events in the market of the past 40 years.
UFC 249 will turn attention to Jacksonville likely more than the Jones fight did since it is the first major sporting event to be held as pandemic restrictions ease.
Lightweights Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson, who fight in Saturday’s main event, both said that it doesn’t matter that fans won’t be in attendance due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place. Gaethje said that both fighters come from a wrestling background and grew up in matches where they grappled in front of few spectators.
With the UFC’s stop in town, does Myers see a door opening back up for combat sports to return on a regular basis like they were in the past? Probably not ones along the magnitude of the UFC or even world championship boxing.
Myers said that White and the UFC have everything needed for a thriving promotion, including major backing from sponsors, television and casinos.
“Dana White has all the things we talk about, sponsors, television,” Myers said. “He could give away every seat in the house and make money. If the casinos [were] open in Vegas and other places, I doubt we would be seeing these fights here cause the casinos pay for the fights to be in their hotels … but he’s cornered the market. He’s the man.”