Kiwi UFC star Israel Adesanya won't fight in New Zealand any time soon, but the promotion are open to rolling the middleweight champion out on home soil down the track.
The UFC returns to New Zealand for the first time in three years this weekend, with Adesanya's City Kickboxing teammate Dan Hooker in the main event against lightweight counterpart Paul Felder at Spark Arena on Sunday.
With limited events available to be hosted in Australasia, it could be another three years before the UFC returns to Kiwi shores – as has been the trend with events in 2014, '17 and now '20. But while that might be the case, UFC senior vice president of international and content David Shaw said Adesanya could very well fight at home, even if he still has a title belt around his waist.
• Premium - UFC Auckland: Joshua Culibao booked as replacement to fight Jalin Turner at UFC Fight Night 168
• UFC Auckland: Dan Hooker and Paul Felder drop hostilities to honour Māori customs ahead of main event bout
• 'Worst ever seen': Illegal blow stuns UFC
• Premium - MMA: Eternal brings UFC-broadcast fight night to Auckland the night before UFC Fight Night 168 at Spark Arena
"Do we rule it out? Absolutely not," Shaw told the Herald. "It's certainly something that's on our radar.
Being a titleholder and one of the UFC's most marketable stars, Adesanya is expected to fight solely on pay-per-view cards for the foreseeable future. The UFC hosts 12 pay-per-view events a year, with nine in the States, one in Brazil, one in Canada and one in Australasia, meaning it could be some wait before New Zealand gets a look at hosting one.
Adesanya returns to the octagon on March 8 (NZT) to defend his middleweight crown against perennial contender Yoel Romero. The fight is the main event at UFC 248 – a pay-per-view event held in Las Vegas – after winning the title against Kiwi-born Robert Whittaker in the main event of the UFC 243 pay-per-view in Melbourne last October.
Shaw said there was a very real opportunity for New Zealand to host a fight of that magnitude.
"Number one, because from a market perspective, the market can support ticket sales and the average ticket price necessary for a pay-per-view. Number two, we're not dealing with any conflicts in terms of changing the time of the pay-per-view.
"There's a reason why we've been able to grow the sport and the pay-per-view business here, because from a content consumption standpoint it works. Like in the US with the NFL – Sunday afternoon you get together with your buddies, you go to the bar or you cook and hang out and watch football all afternoon. That's kind of the culture here and in Australia for mixed martial arts – at least for UFC."
In the past couple of years, subscriptions to the company's streaming service – UFC Fight Pass – have soared, while the ability to capitalise on the online space has had plenty of positive effects. Shaw said it's clear the interest in the sport has been growing in New Zealand as, on Facebook, the reach for Conor McGregor's comeback fight in January was four times the number of his fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov less than two years prior.
The successes of Kiwi fighters such as Adesanya, Hooker and Kai Kara-France undoubtedly played a role in raising the interest levels in the sport at home.
"The right conditions are here and have been here for a while. I think you needed guys like Mark Hunt, James te Huna and, to a significant extent Robert Whittaker … to lead the way and develop this community that if you're in you love it a lot. Now all of a sudden the general population is starting to understand how exciting a sport MMA can be as a view and how important MMA can be for people who are interested in a health regiment."
The UFC will hope to capitalise on the rising interest in the sport further on Sunday, with the fight night at Spark Arena being broadcast free-to-air on Prime – a first for the UFC in New Zealand.
"Now, all of a sudden, you've got the ability to show your sport and showcase your athletes to the entire country for free. There are no barriers – everyone can watch it and everyone can enjoy it."