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Exclusive: UFC looking to return to Chicago after 3-year absence

UFC 90 Allstate ArenOct. 25 2008 was big hit with fans mixed martial arts.  |  Tasos Katopodis~Getty Images

UFC 90 at Allstate Arena on Oct. 25, 2008, was a big hit with fans of mixed martial arts. | Tasos Katopodis~Getty Images

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After an absence of almost three years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is targeting a return to Chicago.

“We’re looking at dates for this summer,” UFC president Dana White told the Sun-Times.

The UFC was last in the Chicago area on Oct. 25, 2008, when Allstate Arena in Rosemont played host to UFC 90. UFC officials have said they’re looking at the United Center for their next event. Currently, the UC appears available for most Saturdays in July and August, when the UFC would likely visit.

White said nothing is set in stone, but his remarks were the strongest indication for Chicago fight fans who are hungry for the UFC’s return.

“It’s tentative, but it’s lightly penciled in,” White said.

White spoke to the Sun-Times in an exclusive interview last week at UFC Live 3 in Louisville, Ky.

In the main event that night, welterweight Diego Sanchez won a narrow unanimous decision against Martin Kampmann. The match marked the third UFC main event of the year with a close, controversial outcome — two pay-per-views have ended in draws — not pleasing results to the outspoken UFC boss.

“It’s a good time. We love draws,” White said. “No, I’m kidding. It sucks; I hate draws. Listen, we put on all the bells and whistles, but when that door shuts, it’s up to those guys; it’s not up to us.”

White said the sport has plenty of problems with close decisions. More education for judges and referees is needed to ensure a fair outcome, regardless of venue.

“What people have to understand is that the sport that’s been created since we’ve owned the UFC is only 10 years old,’’ White said. ‘‘There are going to be some hiccups. I just hope the athletic commissions are paying attention and work on it.”

One of those hang-ups for the worldwide UFC juggernaut has been New York. Mixed martial arts is regulated in 44 of 48 states that have athletic commissions, but the Empire State is the last major U.S. market for MMA to gain approval.

But it’s not for lack of trying by the UFC. Much lobbying and campaign contributions — $74,600 by the UFC parent company, Zuffa, to newly elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo — have been directed at efforts to legalize MMA. White tweeted Thursday that he’s headed to Albany, N.Y., next week to make his case to lawmakers.

“We’ve gone into other countries faster than we’ve gotten to New York,” White said. “It’s ridiculous that we’re not in New York. It’s nothing that I’m obsessed with or our business depends on it, but it’s the last [major] state. We’d like to get it done.

“When you look at how successful this has been and how much of an economic impact we have on a city when we roll in — not only on a city, but on a state — it makes no sense,” White said. “I don’t think anybody’s not in favor of it. It’s just how the political system works.”

Next week, the UFC will be on New York’s doorstep — only 10 miles away — in Newark N.J., for UFC 128 on March 19. Headlining the event will be a light-heavyweight title bout between champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Jon Jones, a rising top prospect and a native of Rochester, N.Y.

To help keep the UFC in the New York media’s spotlight, they will have the prefight news conference Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall, among other planned NYC events.

While the New York market is coveted, White said he’s not worried about it; he’s otherwise pleased with the progress of the sport.

“Look at what we’ve done in this business without New York — and a lot of other places,” he said. “We’re a big part of pop culture right now.

“Obviously, we’re one of the top sports out there. To be honest with you — and I’m going to piss a bunch of Canadians off — but you’ve got football, baseball, basketball, then the UFC and then hockey.”

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