June 23, 2024

A familiar sight will unfold in Las Vegas this Saturday: Mexicans descending on the city for a fight card headlined by a Mexican star on Mexican Independence Day weekend. It’s become a raucous annual pilgrimage going on 30 years, since Julio César Chávez stopped Meldrick Taylor at the MGM Grand in 1994.

But this year comes with a twist. An octagon, not a boxing ring, will be center stage when the UFC hosts an event on the Mexican holiday for the first time in its history. The main event will have Mexican Alexa Grasso, the UFC’s No. 1 pound-for-pound women’s fighter, put her flyweight title on the line in a rematch against Valentina Shevchenko at T-Mobile Arena.

Boxing, for at least one year, has been boxed out from staging the biggest fight card in Las Vegas that night, allowing for a significant milestone for Dana White and his booming mixed martial arts promotion.

Dana White‘s been saying for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, how important having Mexican fighters in the UFC, how important the Mexican and Mexican American markets are to the combat sports space,” UFC COO Lawrence Epstein said. “And so what we’re doing this weekend is simply a manifestation of that goal and that strategy that he’s laid out.”

Boxing wasn’t supposed to surrender this weekend. Canelo Álvarez has been the preeminent choice to fight in Las Vegas on the two most important Mexican fight weekends — Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo — since ascending to stardom over a decade ago, winning world titles in four different weight classes. He grabbed the baton from Floyd Mayweather Jr. who took it from Oscar De La Hoya who snatched it from Chávez. This year, however, he’s fighting Jermell Charlo in Las Vegas two weeks after Mexican Independence Day.

So, what happened?

“Well, it was sort of a strange combination of factors,” Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said.

Canelo Álvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout.

Canelo Álvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout in November 2019.

(John Locher)

Álvarez, 33, has fought on Mexican Independence Day weekend nine times since 2009. The last eight times have been in the United States. Five of the last six have happened in Las Vegas. According to Espinoza, the plan was for Álvarez to fight in Las Vegas on the weekend again this year, but that fell apart when Álvarez’s previous promoter, Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, failed to hold the date at T-Mobile Arena with the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Álvarez officially cut ties with Matchroom in June to sign a three-fight deal worth more than $100 million with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions. A week later, the bout with Charlo was announced for Sept. 30 at T-Mobile Arena.

“Canelo’s former promoter had the traditional date, the 16th, on hold with the Nevada commission,” Espinoza said. “As is customary, other promoters can get a second position. In this case, UFC asked for a second position. At some point, the Nevada commission contacted Canelo’s former promoter and said, ‘We just want to confirm if this is happening.’

“Unfortunately, that promoter didn’t respond in time so the commission gave the date to…the second position promoter, which was UFC.”

A Matchroom spokesperson said “it would be for PBC to hold the date” and referred to Álvarez’s camp for comment. A PBC spokesman said he “had no idea” what happened.

A Showtime spokesperson said another venue in Las Vegas wasn’t considered because the T-Mobile Arena “is the only place that can handle a fight of this level.” Golden Boy Promotions president Eric Gomez, whose company previously worked with Álvarez, said not holding the event in another building in Las Vegas comes down to money.

“You want to try to sell as many tickets as possible,” Gomez said. “The T-Mobile Arena is the biggest arena there. It seats right around 20,000 people. So whenever it’s a big fight you want to go to the T-Mobile Arena. You can give yourself the best shot to the biggest gate.”

Canelo Álvarez, left, jabs John Ryder in the head during their super middleweight title fight on May 6.

Canelo Álvarez, left, jabs John Ryder in the head during their super middleweight title fight on May 6.

(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Whatever happened, the UFC pounced to stage what it’s calling “Noche UFC” on Saturday, a milestone in its push to penetrate the Mexican and Mexican American markets.

The company estimates there are 18.6 million UFC fans in Mexico and 49% of UFC fans in the country are 18 to 34 years old. Its roster includes 27 fighters from Mexico. Brandon Moreno, from Tijuana, became the first Mexican-born UFC champion in June 2021. Grasso, who won her title in March, hails from Guadalajara and will be one of six fighters of Mexican descent on Saturday’s card.

“I don’t necessarily see it like an us vs. boxing thing,” Epstein said. “I think the natural evolution we’ve seen all over the world is younger people being more interested in the sport of mixed martial arts because of different attributes that it brings; the excitement, the unexpected outcomes and just the overall quality of our production.”

To spur further growth in Mexico, the UFC plans on opening a 32,000-square-foot performance center in Mexico City by the end of the year — six years after opening its original site in Las Vegas and four years after one opened in Shanghai.

Epstein explained the facility will serve as the hub for the UFC in Mexico. “The next generation of up-and-coming fighters” will train there. Athletes will be helped with injury prevention, injury recovery, nutrition, and strength and conditioning. Talent will be developed.

More Mexican talent means more opportunities to steal the show on the two most important Mexican fight weekends in the future. But boxing still has history and Canelo — for now — on its side.

“I don’t see it as a threat,” Gomez said. “They have their fans and we have ours. When we put our best against their best, boxing is going to win out every time.”

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