When Garry Cook and the UFC roll into town, they don’t just set up or stay anywhere.
The Gibson Hotel is a pure new-world hotel, glassy, swanky, hip, high-ceilinged, the kind you’d imagine Cook in his Manchester City days would have frequented with members of the Abu Dhabi royal family and plotted world football domination.
Here on a fantastic sunny morning, the high-rise hotel seems to overlook, even overlord everything: the O2 next door which is sold out for tonight’s UFC event, the riverside, Dublin itself. Conor McGregor has gone so far to say that the entire country will come to a standstill tonight, with his oyster the world to follow next. While those claims might seem a tad hyperbolic, they are in keeping with McGregor’s vision and personality and in many ways with Cook’s too.
Cook mightn’t look a rock star the way McGregor does, but what you might not know is that in a previous life, he kind of was. His boss, UFC owner and president Dana White, has described him as a “stud” and an “animal” in how he’s expanded the sport since he was appointed managing director of the UFC’s Europe, Middle East and Africa regions nearly two years ago. And the other thing McGregor and Cook have in common is that they both talk big and think big. No wonder Cook likes the Dubliner.
“We’ve now got this raging fan base in Ireland,” he explains, “and a big reason for that is because people here realise that one of their fighters, especially Conor, could be carrying the Irish flag around the world and representing the nation in what it’s famous for — fighting.
“The thing that impresses me about Conor is he’s a very clear thinker, very determined. He creates a vision of what he wants and where he’s going to get to and nothing distracts him from that. Now, is he a little bit quirky? Of course. But that’s what makes him appealing.”
What makes McGregor particularly endearing to Cook is that the kid gets both the game and the business. While you’re fighting, you’ve to be all business, part of the business is promoting it and yourself.
“You kind of have two sides: the combat mentality and the promoter’s mentality. And what Conor’s able to do is combine both. Even in a week like this, while he’s getting ready for the fight he’s able to educate a new audience about himself and the sport. Who is Conor McGregor? Where is his family from? What are his roots? Why does he think the way he does? How can he possible think he can take on the world? Conor is able to sit down and communicate these things to the media.”
The question is though: can Garry Cook? Who is he? What are his roots? How has he possibly thought he could take on the world? As it turns out, Cook can talk about all those things.
His roots are in Birmingham. That’s where he grew up but it’s not where he’d really grow. The ceiling, he found, was set a lot lower there than the ones he’d find in America or even here in the Gibson.
“I was like everybody as a kid: you’re always a bit lost, you don’t quite know what to do. I always remember a careers advisor at school telling me you’ve got to be either a doctor, a dentist, an accountant or a lawyer; if you were to go down that path, you’d be fine. No one ever told me about the sport business. No one ever told me what Arnold Palmer used to say and find a job that you loved and you’d never work another day in your life.”
So he became an accountant. Worked in Birmingham for a firm called Thornton Baker, sitting in an office. Then one morning a light bulb went off. “I was sitting in my office eating my sandwiches at 10am and I thought to myself, ‘This is not what I want to be doing. I’m forcing myself to go through a routine, an existence, here, and it’s not fair’.” The next week he went on holidays in California where his brother was living and decided he’d only return home to tell his parents that he was returning to the States. He just liked the vibe, the energy, the people. Didn’t matter that he started out only doing odd jobs, like driving limousines. In the land of opportunity, he’d get his.
It’s quite a tale how it came about. A couple of guys he drank with mentioned they’d a Sunday soccer team called the LA Exiles and did he want to join in with them? So he did, playing centre half. Playing alongside him at right full was a lean-looking figure with spiky blond hair who looked like someone familiar but couldn’t place. Later they got talking in the bar. What do you do for a living? Cook enquired. “I’m in the music business,” his team-mate modestly replied, in his Scottish brogue. And that’s how Garry Cook befriended Rod Stewart.
It’s a friendship that endures to this day and one that has brought Cook to places he could only have dreamed while wasting away in that accountancy office in Birmingham. One of those unlikely places has been the recording studio: though Cook doesn’t mention it in interview — either out of embarrassment or modesty — the inlay card of Stewart’s 1991 album Vagabond Heart credits the future football chief executive as a backing singer. You know that rousing, drunken Celtic anthem? ‘Oh the rhythm of my heart is beating like a drum/with the words ‘I love you’ rolling off my tongue/No never will I roam, for I know my place is home/where the ocean meets the sky/I’ll be sailing’ Well, Cook is in there belting it along with Rod; Conor McGregor might just have his homecoming entrance song.
Stewart would open all kinds of other doors, like that of his limousine, and more importantly to the sports business world. Rod’s football team attracted some sponsors and Cook started working for Mitre who produced sports gear, specialising in footballs. Soon he was their national director of sales, operating out of Nashville. Later he and his family would move to San Francisco working for Patrick sportswear before in 1996 being hired by Nike. A dozen years later he was president of their most famous brand, Jordan.
That meant getting to know and hang out with the man himself. Ask Cook about the Michael Jordan he knew and he’ll tell you that everything Jordan does is hard: work, party, play.
“One time we brought Michael over to Paris for about 10 days. I had a very heavy schedule for him but Michael also enjoyed the finer things in life so we were out one night rather late and I said, ‘Michael, are you sure you’re going to be able to make the bell in the morning?’ He said ‘Don’t worry about me.’ I came down at 7.45am and there he was the paper open, already had his breakfast, looking the hundreds of millions he’s worth. He had his coffee and then went right through for 12 hours. Now by this time he was long retired but he understood his responsibility. He still knew what he was there to do.
“The other remarkable thing about him was that he could get inside the head of anybody. One time we were playing golf and he began by questioning my handicap. I hit a good drive off the first, then a good iron shot into the green but between that shot and the time I walked onto the green he had convinced me that I couldn’t putt. I three-putted. After about five or six holes of that it really grinds you down, to the point where I just threw my putter to the ground and said, ‘Will you just be quiet?!’”
Not long after that though, Cook became rather loud himself. In the summer of 2008, he was head-hunted by Manchester City to become chief executive. After helping make Nike such a global brand, he wanted to make City one. Fergie and United now had a noisy neighbour and it was Cook that created most of the racket that originated from Eastlands.
But it could have been so different. Less than a fortnight into the job and Cook realised Man City was looking like it would be more Mansfield than Man U.
“It was a business that was broken and heading for a car crash. I had to call upon former directors like John Wardle to lend us money to pay the wages for a week. And so within 10 days of being in the job, I had to find a way to sell the football club.”
He would eventually find just the people to help with that. He secured a meeting with people who worked for Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi royal family and sold them a brand and a dream.
The brand was instantly marketable: it had Manchester in the title which would allow them unashamedly to use the global recognition of their fiercest rivals. ‘City’ was another label that could stick. They had a fine new stadium surrounded by 200 acres of land ripe for development.
Why shouldn’t City challenge United, even Barcelona? In his old job back in the States, Nike would look more to Disney than Adidas. While it was all a bit too much and new for some diehard supporters, the Sheikh was so sold on it he bought.
Cook would make some enemies and gaffes in his three years there. He would hire and later fire Mark Hughes; declare that Uwe Rosler was being honoured into the Man United rather than Man City hall of fame, and infamously and erroneously send an email which would ultimately prompt him to resign only months after the club won the FA Cup in 2011.
But factor everything in and Garry Cook was so good for Man City. On so many things he was proven right. He sold the club to mega-rich owners. If they bought a superstar, others would follow. They would beat United, win leagues and cups. Revolution, not evolution, was what City needed and he was the man who brought it, or at least brought in those who did. He also brought in money, lots of it, like securing a 10-year, €505 million sponsorship deal with Etihad.
That wasn’t forgotten by the owners, who invited him to their box for the immortal title-winning game against QPR only eight months after his resignation. Even on the day of his resignation they thanked him in a statement for his “remarkable contribution” in transforming the club.
It was still a hugely embarrassing and devastating time though. A Dr Anthonia Onuoha had sent a message to Cook and Brian Marwood, the football director at City, explaining that while she was “ravaged with cancer”, it would not prevent her negotiating on behalf of her son, Nedum.
Later she would receive an email from Cook’s account addressed ‘Brian’: “Ravaged with it!!... I don’t know how you sleep at night. You used to be such a nice man when I worked with you at Nike. G.”
Onuoha claimed reading that mail was “the worst day of my life”, and while Cook would initially claim his account had been hacked, he would resign shortly after. “I didn’t want to embarrass the club,” he would say later “but I was heartbroken, emotionally wrecked. I did make mistakes and one huge error of judgment cost me my job.”
His time at City also cost him his marriage. His wife was from America and she and the kids would return there because it wasn’t like they really saw Cook in Manchester, even though the kids would sometimes be bullied in school there because of the identity of their dad. “I worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he has since reflected. “I breathed it, ate it, slept it. My experience at Manchester City was both personally and professionally gratifying and hurtful.”
Being a big boy though, he would dust himself off. And an even bigger boy would help him with that too. In 2012, Dana White met him through some mutual acquaintances with shares in both City and the UFC and White was suitably impressed.
It was actually through his time with MCFC that Cook first came across UFC. The squad were on preseason tour in Los Angeles and Roberto Mancini wanted some activity to bond the group together.
“Most players just want to sit in their room and play Xbox or listen to music,” says Cook. “If you put on a museum trip they don’t want to go. So we found some guys who were working with the UFC that were actually contracted to the Abu Dhabi Group so they said why don’t you bring the players to a UFC gym? We had to lay on extra transport because every member of the club wanted to go. Mario Balotelli has said in an interview that if he wasn’t a footballer, he’d be a UFC fighter. We had a bit of fun with Micah Richards sparring with Tito Ortiz in an Octagon and he was amazed by the strength and power of a 205lb athlete. So I could see ‘Something’s going on here’. I began to realise the world’s great athletes especially revere fighters because of their courage and commitment.
“The reason it continues to grow is for one very good reason I think — since time immemorial, whenever somebody punched somebody, people stopped to watch it. So people say is this thing just a fad? Maybe we were the first sport, we’ve just now created some structure and safety around it.”
In a way it’s a perfect fit: Cook and this job. UFC is to sport what City were to football; bold, brash, a bit nouveau riche, here to shake up and take on the world and conquer it.
As big as it has already grown, Cook is thinking a whole lot bigger.
“If you look at the UFC, it’s the next generation that will make the difference. They’re looking for personal identity and they can connect with this sport through fitness. They understand it’s not boxing.
“It’s not a team sport where you need 11 guys to play football. You can train whenever you want, wherever you want and thanks to things like our UFC Fight Pass network you can watch it whenever you want.”
He has loads more ideas and goals. To have a chain of UFC gyms throughout Europe. Wouldn’t it be cool if you had a UFC fitness challenge? Or the day before a UFC event like the one in Dublin today, you could play the UFC video game for a virtual world title? Ultimately he sees UFC having and becoming a channel like Discovery: 24/7 around the globe.
You can be sceptical, of course, but bear in mind something Cook said upon his appointment at Eastlands just as City were coming off finishing ninth in the Premier League.
“We’ll be as big as Manchester United. If I didn’t have that goal, I wouldn’t be here. Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Can we win the Champions League? Will we? It might take a bit longer. Growing up at Nike, you don’t sit around saying, ‘Can we?’ You say, ‘We will’.”
Can you really say so he and the UFC won’t?
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