Lorenzo Fertitta walked through Toronto's Rogers Centre this week, scanning the 55,000 seats his Ultimate Fighting Championship company will fill Saturday for a welterweight title fight between Canada's beloved native son Georges St-Pierre and challenger Jake Shields.
Fertitta, UFC's chairman, couldn't help but remember his start in the mixed martial arts business 10 years ago, when 2,500 people showed up and "everyone in boxing was laughing at us … saying we were stupid and losing oodles of money."
Well, Saturday's card, which includes a compelling light-heavyweight fight between decorated former champion Randy Couture and former champion Lyoto Machida of Brazil, is sold out, and the live gate tally is expected to surpass $11 million — more than double the UFC's previous best, for a 2006 card featuring Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
Fertitta said he is "in awe" of the support.
The St-Pierre-Shields bout has powerful ramifications that could produce even more epic revenue for the UFC, because company President Dana White has said he intends to match St-Pierre, if victorious, against middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Silva is coming off a resounding victory over Vitor Belfort in February, in which he landed a devastating kick to the challenger's head. He's never lost in the UFC.
"It's a priority for us to make that fight, but we need to work some things out [catch weight, etc.]," Fertitta said in a text message Friday.
Shields' effort to spoil the plan will rely on his wrestling strength. The former Strikeforce champion is wading into dangerous territory, however, because St-Pierre has defined his title reign by dominating foes on the canvas.
"Fighting GSP is something I wanted for years," Shields said in a conference call. "I've been asking for it for about four years. It's something I definitely wanted. I want to test myself against the best, and I think he certainly is the best."
St-Pierre, who has previously drawn nearly 25,000 people for a bout in Montreal, said he will do his best to avoid getting caught up in the effect of the massive crowd.
"I need to be focused on the main thing, and the main thing is to win the fight," he said.