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ULTIMATE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP

TV show is geared for Latino audience

May 05, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Inside a warehouse that sits in a rugged area near the border between Los Angeles and Glendale, filming was underway in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's most vigorous effort yet to tap a wider Spanish-speaking audience.

"El Octagono," an hourlong Saturday night series set to debut Saturday on the cable network Galavision, will include fighter interviews, highlights and mixed martial arts education for Latino fight fans who traditionally have flocked to boxing.

"It's important to get those fans," UFC lightweight Kenny Florian said. "They're so passionate about boxing, and this is very much in line with what they like about combat. We know they support Latino fighters in boxing, and now it's just about giving them more awareness about our sport, and showing them how exciting our fights are. Awareness has been the main obstacle."

Florian, 31, is a fluent Spanish speaker from Boston whose parents are from Peru. He's preparing for an August fight at UFC 87 in Minneapolis against Roger Huerta, 24, a Latino best known for being the first UFC fighter featured on a Sports Illustrated cover.

"Once Hispanics see there's plenty of fighters they can relate to, guys who speak the same language, that'll be a big plus," Huerta (22-1-1) said. "It's like a brotherhood, they can relate to us."

The Florian-Huerta winner will earn a lightweight title shot against the winner of next month's B.J. Penn-Sean Sherk title fight, and the UFC already claims a Spanish-speaking champion in Brazilian heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

"I love boxing for what it is, but you see so many different things, and a higher pace, in UFC fights," Huerta said. "You can see punching, wrestling, submissions. If boxing is like shooting a 9-millimeter, imagine adding in a bazooka and machine gun. With the more weapons we have, the interest will come around. The key thing is just to educate."

Until now, the UFC has devoted most of its energy attracting the 18-to-34-year-old (usually white) males, who routinely pack arenas and purchase monthly pay-per-view cards headlined in recent years by Mohawk-wearing Chuck Liddell and veteran fighter Randy Couture, both white.

Meanwhile, veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum is making a bundle of cash on his pay-per-view "Latin Fury" cards, featuring popular Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Jorge Arce.

Arum stages the fights in Mexico, pocketing live gate and Mexican television rights revenue. He had 80,000 pay-per-view buys in the U.S. on his most recent "Latin Fury" card, Top Rank spokesman Bill Caplan said, netting more than $17 per purchase.

"The reason Hispanic fans buy into it is the Hispanic fighters," Arum said. "Brazilian is not Hispanic. Hispanic means Mexican, and how many good Mexicans, or Mexican Americans, do they have? Without that, there's no interest. None.

"If you develop the Mexican stars, you can attract the younger Latino audience, but it seems as if that's a long way from happening, and you don't want to spend so much time on it that you lose your core audience: white, male, tattooed. . . ."

Arum said an endeavor like "El Octagono" fuels speculation that interest in UFC has reached a plateau.

The company doesn't release revenue figures, such as pay-per-view buys.

"If this sport was so booming, this wouldn't be happening," Arum said.

Yet, UFC officials say they are only seeking to widen the mixed martial arts audience by pointing Latino viewers to "El Octagono" and its profiles of welterweight contender Diego Sanchez of San Diego and heavyweights Eddie Sanchez and Gabriel Gonzaga.

"I believe boxing fans will enjoy MMA more," said Gonzaga, who after stunning respected heavyweight Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic with a vicious head kick last year, was defeated by Couture in a heavyweight title fight in August. "It's a more interesting fight, and the underdog wins more often. You don't go in knowing what's going to happen.

"The Latin fighter, as boxing has shown, has a lot of heart. And sometimes in MMA, heart can beat a better fighter."

Eddie Sanchez, who resides in Encinitas, said his manager has talked to UFC President Dana White about making a promotional trip to Mexico City, or Tijuana, to hype a yet unscheduled UFC card in Mexico.

"The fiery blood, the never-give-up-till-I-die attitude you see in Mexican fighters is the way I fight," Sanchez said. "We'll get a UFC show into Mexico, and it'll be huge. It's long overdue."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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