Dana White walked confidently to the podium that rested dead center on stage at the historic Radio City Music Hall. Flanked and seated at each side were seven of his warriors that will wage battle May 5 at the IZOD Center when Fox airs its third national telecast of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
White has swag. Nearly everything he’s touched has become gold; just study the attendance records his organization shattered in Toronto, Canada, and Sydney, Australia. Fans rested in seats reserved for the beautiful people who attend various red-carpet events were MMA fans bringing a ravenous appetite. Forty-five of this land’s 50 United States have been blessed by its lawmakers to present live events that display the beauty of not just one martial art, but a collection of time-honored combat techniques.
Citizens of the New York metropolitan area know all too well that the Empire State isn’t one of the 45. New York City is home to Madison Square Garden and a new Yankee Stadium that hosted Metallica in concert, and this summer will welcome Roger Waters and Madonna. A UFC event in either "The Mecca" or the "House that (George) Steinbrenner Built" means adrenaline infused into a hurting economy via tourism and nightlife, a concept all but a few knucklehead politicians standing on their personal moral ground seem to understand.
That’s why a reporter inquiring about an update on White’s efforts to get MMA sanctioned in New York earned major applause. Few times have White’s swag been tested. Every year the precious few and stubborn power players have gotten their way. White’s famous motto is "Never let it get in the hands of the judges." To win this campaign, however, the UFC president doesn’t have a choice.
"We're going to keep grinding and grinding and grinding until we get this done," White said. "And we will get this done. It's ridiculous we're not in New York. It's inevitable. It's going to happen."
White wished sorting the UFC lightweight title picture was just as cut and dry. On May 5 he’s turning to a Jersey boy named Jim Miller to carry the mantle that will be the main event of UFC on Fox 3. Miller recently won 15 of 16 fights, a run that ended last August when he was defeated by Benson Henderson, the man who’d become UFC lightweight champion. A little less than 15 months after losing the WEC strap, Henderson ended the two-year reign of another kid from Jersey named Frankie Edgar. The victory was razor-thin, which prompted cries for an immediate rematch and created a problem.
Anthony Pettis, the man who took Henderson’s WEC title the night of the UFC’s sister company’s swan song, has recovered from a loss to Clay Guida that cost him the No. 1 contender’s slot with two straight wins. The only reason why Pettis fought Guida instead of the champion was due to a New Year’s Day 2011 draw between Edgar and Gray Maynard that forced a third fight, which Edgar decisively won via fourth-round knockout. Then there’s Miller, who lost to Henderson, but endured a kidney infection and mononucleosis, and is still a very impressive 21-3 (12-2 UFC) off his first-round submission of Melvin Guillard. Lastly, Nate Diaz (21-3 MMA, 12-2 UFC), Miller’s main event opponent, is 4-2 in his last six but an owner of magnificent victories over Takanori Gomi and Donald Cerrone in his previous two.
Get all that?
Naturally, Miller and Diaz believe their bout deserves the anointing of No. 1 contender’s match.
"I personally don't feel that Pettis' [split-decision] win over [Jeremy] Stephens and the [first-round] knockout of [Joe] Lauzon is a title run, but I don't make those decisions," Miller said. "Other than the possible rematch, I think Nate is the only guy you could put in right away. But we're scheduled to fight in May, so I'm sure either of us hopes that a win will put us in that top position."
Diaz actually assumed more was at stake than a mere W. "I thought the winner of this fight was getting a title shot, but whatever. We'll see what happens." he said. Seconds later, White replied. "We said the winner of this fight would get the shot."
Based on a turn of events early Tuesday evening, the winner of Miller-Diaz will be fighting the victor of Henderson vs. Edgar II. White dangled Edgar the karat of an immediate title shot against featherweight champion Jose Aldo during an afternoon meeting. Hours later, Edgar and White Tweeted that "The Answer" will receive his coveted rematch this summer.
During his long road to title contention, Miller had a lot to figure out. He began his career with 12 fights on the independent circuit, including one in 2006 against Edgar in Atlantic City, before he made his UFC debut in England with a third-round submission of David Baron at UFC 89. Two of his UFC wins came in Newark. During the promotion’s Jersey return for UFC 111, Miller defeated Mark Bocek by unanimous decision. Last March at UFC 128, Miller took out Kamal Shalorus via third-round TKO. Come May 5, another homecoming win may be an elevation to a cherished level.
"It's really cool to be back and to have opportunity to fight here," Miller said. "It's great to have the fans I had earlier in my career still cheering me on. Nate and I match up very well together. It should be an exciting fight. I'm pretty amped up already. I gotta calm down. I've got two months to wait for it."
Never was Miller more vulnerable than when he faced Henderson last August. A victory may have secured a title shot back then, which is perhaps why he went through with the fight despite not being close to 100 percent.
"I kicked myself, but I should have known something was wrong," Miller said. "I'm a big boy. I still signed the waiver and stepped into the Octagon. I made mistakes and (Henderson) capitalized. He was the better man."
If he can solve Diaz, like his brother Nick a deadly striking marksman, Miller may earn his chance at redemption. How impressive he looks may finally be enough to convince Albany to release its stranglehold. The UFC is hell-bent on getting sanctioned in New York. It may take another big night in New Jersey led by one of its native sons to actually get it done.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC