The chaotic story of how UFC 38 almost never happened

The Brawl at the Hall; the UFC’s first trip across the pond was set for 13th July 2002. Having never visited Europe before, a voyage to the uncharted territory of London, England was something very new to the evolving Ultimate Fighting Championship.

With Mark Weir scoring the fastest knockout in UFC history at the time and Ian Freeman stamping his authority with a first round knockout of then-undefeated Frank Mir, the event became an instant classic. The people came to see Freeman topple Mir – so much so that a UFC welterweight championship headliner between Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton, a bout that ended in a double knockout, seldom receives a mention in reminiscing on a proud night for UK MMA.

The venture was big and the British audience were relishing at the prospect of a UFC event landing on their doorstep. This was an audience that still found the majority of their events on VHS weeks after the events had taken place, but the die-hard 3,800 packed fight fans attending were all ready to witness history. The sport had only been legalised five years prior. The outlook from many on this infant sport was largely negative, brandished as ‘cage fighting.’

The Albert Hall in London had been an intimate home to many festivities over two centuries; the finest of musicians and the most classical tones of opera, as well as the much more accepted sport of boxing at this time. No matter your viewing pleasure, you were right on top of it in the Hall. For the ‘barbaric and brutal’ UFC to hold its very first UK event to take over the Hall amongst the sophisticated history in one venue was unheard of. The UFC wanted to impress in an upstanding venue – all whilst taking a jab at boxing, depending on who you ask.

The event was sparked by a quickly developing MMA scene in the UK. Fighters such as Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman, the infamous Lee Murray and Mark Weir were all making their names known against American fighters who had fought previously in the UFC, getting big victories in the process. Eventually, interest from the UFC became undeniable. Britain had always produced stellar talent in both combat sports. The UFC’s first trip to Britain managed to take place that summer night without a hitch to the ticket holder, igniting a fire that would eventually explode into a barrage of UK combatants putting Great Britain on the MMA map. It was clear to Dana White and co that the UK was an untapped market. The UFC may have wanted to capitalise on the British ground, however the show almost collapsed days before. A blow which would have likely left the UK scene an afterthought, thus changing the course of British MMA’s history on the world’s biggest stage.

Having planned an event in uncharted territory like the Big Smoke, a multitude of problems began to arise. Configuring the capital’s transport two decades ago was no easy task for foreign fighters. With connections promising to ease the logistical strain on travelling competitors from countries like Japan and America, in combat sports, some promises are only worth as much as the character of the person vowing to help. When the promoter of a regional UK show was unable to deliver on their word, chaos ensued. To step in and save the day, one of the UK’s first and most notable promoters in Andy Jardine played a critical role in holding the show together. “Fighters were turning up at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead and some in Birmingham all week,” Jardine said. “The ones in London were told to find their way to their hotels, but none had ever visited London before and didn’t understand the Underground. It was madness.”

Having plenty of experience flying fighters in from all over the world, Jardine’s Millenium Brawl team were tasked to work out the geographical logistics for combatants. With his expertise of promoting and as the first man to host mixed martial arts in the UK inside of an eight-sided cage instead of boxing rings, Jardine’s assistance was instrumental. “We figured out who was landing where by their flight numbers,” Jardine told. “We also had to find doctors and paramedics for the event. We assisted with the venue setup and marketing beforehand. I was also able to give opportunities to fighters like James Zikic, Leigh Remedios, Mark Weir and Ian Freeman to have a place up the card. That worked out well, didn’t it?”

Jardine et al received letters of commendation from the UFC for their saving the show. Lessons were learned both inside the cage and outside, promotionally. Post-UFC 38, the UK began to flourish. The UFC’s eventual return years later saw four more debuts, including eventual middleweight champion Michael Bisping, at the much larger Manchester Arena with 17,000 fans looking on and more ever since in 2022. As the twentieth anniversary approaches, the modern age owes a lot to the to the brawling British trailblazers of 2002 in the Hall. Had they not sparkled in such essence, the birthing of British MMA stars under the brightest lights would have been rapidly delayed.