The UFC has taken notice of the rising mixed martial arts scene in New Zealand, with plans to return to Kiwi shores early in 2020.
The Herald understands Auckland will play host to the world's biggest MMA promotion for the third time, with a fight night planned for the first quarter of their schedule for the New Year.
The UFC are yet to officially confirm the date of the event, but multiple sources told the Herald an announcement was expected to be made in the coming weeks as more and more of the 2020 schedule is revealed.
The Herald understands the UFC matchmakers have been in touch with local fighters in regards to their availability around February and March, while Kiwi-born Robert Whittaker recently cancelled a speaking tour scheduled for late November and early December to get straight into training camp for an "exciting opportunity" – the training camp would have him primed for a fight early in the new year.
Sources told the Herald while Whittaker would likely be ready to go for the Auckland card, he was more interested in fighting in London.
It's been more than two years since the UFC visited New Zealand, however with the rise of local fighters such as UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, and top 10 ranked Dan Hooker (lightweight) and Kai Kara-France (flyweight) interest in the sport is rapidly rising in New Zealand.
The last time the UFC was in New Zealand, only four Kiwis were signed to the promotion – Hooker, Mark Hunt, Luke Jumeau and Robert Whittaker.
In 2019, eight Kiwis were on the books with the UFC – with Adesanya, Hooker, Kara-France and Whittaker among the best in their respective divisions.
While Kiwi Adesanya holds the middleweight title, it is believed he will not fight on the Auckland card with the UFC working on scheduling his next bout as part of a pay-per-view event in the United States, also in the opening quarter of the UFC calendar.
However, Hooker – currently ranked at No 7 in the UFC lightweight rankings – has asked to headline an event in New Zealand and, given his stature in the deepest division the promotion has to offer, would be a popular choice at the top of the card.
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Having another event in New Zealand could open the door for more local fighters to make the step up to the UFC. Hooker made his debut when the UFC came to Auckland in 2014, while Jumeau made his debut on the 2017 card.
The UFC has confirmed three events on their 2020 calendar so far: a pay-per-view in Las Vegas on January 19, and two fight nights - one in January in North Carolina, and the other in Brazil in March.