Tuesday 22 May 2018

Former City chief Cook hails McGregor impact

Garry Cook is now driving the UFC brand
Garry Cook is now driving the UFC brand

Joe Callaghan in Las Vegas

Ali. Jordan. Charlton. To the hordes who swarmed the MGM Grand yesterday to watch Conor McGregor's public work-out, you'd wonder if the three vaunted names would mean anything.

Such is their cultish devotion to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its leading man, there would seem to be no room for the glorious of the past. Their only concern is the Notorious of the present.

But for Garry Cook, the names mean something. They mean a lot. The former Manchester City chairman is now one of the key executives and powerbrokers at the UFC, the mixed martial arts organisation that loves to be known as overseers of the fastest growing sport in the world.

As its chief global brand officer, Cook is responsible for continuing the spreading of the gospel.

Upwards of 3,000 Irish disciples are descending on Las Vegas for Saturday night's reshuffled UFC 189 show, where McGregor will fight Chad Mendes for the interim featherweight title. Gate records and pay-per-view numbers will likely fall in the Dubliner's wake.

The frenzied seven-day carnival of cage-fighting has been billed as the organisation's international fight week but Cook explained why one nation, more than the rest, is guiding the UFC's way forward.

"When it comes to Ireland, it's almost built into the culture," Cook told the Irish Independent.

"They're historically renowned for it in boxing, go back to McGuigan, or wherever you go along the landscape of combat. The irony of what has happened is that we are seeing this dynamic that a lot of people here didn't understand, and that is that the Irish are everywhere.


"The diaspora is 80-90 million. So when our sport comes along and the communities connect, what we've seen is that it has gathered the momentum of a nation, dare I say it, a little like Jack Charlton did.

"So when you think about going all the way back to the culture and spirit of Ireland, it actually ended up being the driver and the dynamic for us in growing and driving UFC," adds the executive, who sees McGregor's ability to win over the still significant number of sceptics as perhaps his most potent skill.

"We're seeing more and more people who are just generic sports fans who have just come across and said 'okay, what's going on here, what is this?'

"You can't just talk about 'Conor McGregor is going to knock someone's head off'. It's not what it's about. It's actually about his background, his life, his family, his home, what's in his lifestyle that makes him who he is.

"People often say he's like the Muhammad Ali of the UFC. But Muhammad Ali was never just about his boxing, it was about the man and how he lived his life.

"Every day we open the book and there's something new and Conor delivers something new and he surprises us all. He's bringing not only the nation of Ireland with him, he's bringing a cross-pollination of sports fans from across the spectrum over to us."

If McGregor is the poster boy, then Ronda Rousey is the poster girl. The all-dominating women's champion is just as potent a phenomenon as the Dubliner, if not more so. To have both leading the line at the same time is an enviable position.

"In life we often see a perfect storm," says Cook. "Having worked with Michael Jordan at Nike, there was a point in time where we sponsored him and all of a sudden he goes on and wins five NBA Championship rings and you can't predict any of that but you just feel with hindsight, 'you know what, that was just a perfect storm'. And that's what we feel here.

"Something's happening. The wind is blowing. Conor has taken things to a whole new level and then you've got Ronda Rousey who is now not only a great fighter but she is a great ambassador for women. This has gone beyond the barriers of MMA and sport."

Rapid, near explosive, expansion is, however, fraught with dangers. Too many leaps too soon can lead to unsteady ground. Manchester City's transformation proved as much.

While Cook was responsible for some of the shrewdest moves in the club's rebirth, there were also major missteps. He recruited Vincent Kompany for just £6m but then spent £32.5m on Robinho. He was forced to apologise for offending Richard Dunne when he said that the Ireland defender's name "didn't exactly roll off the tongue in Beijing".

Yet these problems seem like small fry compared to the image issues the UFC still faces. Doping and discipline are the chief concerns. "It's catching fire but you have to be careful. There are challenges. You have to make it sustainable and do the right thing," says Cook.

"Safety of our athletes is at the very top of our goals.

"You cannot afford to have athletes that are competitively disadvantaged by one thing or another.

"The challenges are commercially it impacts us to lose a fighter (to a drug ban), but those guys have to realise that they are setting the example.

"If we do the right thing (in banning them) we then hope that everyone else will do the right thing.

"We certainly carry a lot of baggage from our history, some of it good and some of it no so good. We changed the way people looked at the sport and we need to continue to do that."

Irish Independent

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