Being There

Screaming with glee and armed to the teeth with determination and sharpies, the fans rush by me after their next target. You might think the scene is a flock of pre-teen girls in pursuit of Justin Timberlake, but no… It’s friday afternoon and I’m being stampeded by grown men chasing down Joe Rogan. I think to myself “Where AM I???” UFC 69 in

Houston, that’s where. My first experience attending a live UFC event and wow, I really wasn’t expecting this.

The excitement was more contagious than the 24 hour flu I carried with me on the trip and I couldn’t help joining the crowd on tip toes to catch a glimpse of the fighters leaving the weigh ins. Having seen plenty of ads for fighter “gear” from Team Punishment, Sinister, and others, I’d always thought to myself “who actually buys that stuff besides fighters?” Apparently, f**kin’ everyone. The fans packing the barriers were 10 deep and almost all of them were sporting UFC gear, or shirts repping their favorite fighter or camp. 15 years old or 50, it didn’t matter, signature filled ball caps, shirts, and programs were the bling of choice and flaunted as such.

It wasn’t until I saw the ravenous crowds that it struck me just how big the sport is really getting. You talk to your buddies all the time saying stuff like “dudes, MMA is blowing up” but its not until you see B level fighters getting swarmed by fans that you think to yourself “wow.. MMA is seriously blowing up”.

Of course no one knows that better than the man running the show that weekend, UFC president Dana White. Despite his brash demeanor in interviews, It was interesting to see that out of all the personalities exiting the weigh ins, Dana spent the most time talking to, signing autographs for, and taking pictures with, the fans. Not only that, but he seemed genuinely happy to do it. Love him or hate him, that’s the kind of enthusiasm that breeds success; success that has catapulted MMA into mainstream consciousness and given fame, fortune and dreams, to guys who were duking it out for competitions sake and a few bucks only a few years earlier.

Fast forward 24 hours. I’m struggling around the hotel with a fever, killing dayquils, water, and whatever witches brew anyone thinks will help. There’s no way I’m missing tonight’s event. The lobby is buzzing with excitement as fans linger about looking for opportunities to see or meet the guys they have come to recognize so well. I almost walk right past Matt Serra in the middle of the lobby. At 5’6” his entourage of students and the flock of fans surrounding him make him difficult to spot. Serra is all smiles and seems to be enjoying his renewed fame immensely, making time to talk and take photos with as many fans as he can. In the periphery, there are fighters from past episodes of The Ultimate Fighter doing the same. I see Shoni Carter near the check-in desk sporting a purple zoot suit and a “pimp” belt buckle, posing for some pictures. It occurs me that there’s a tremendous amount of general access to the fighters and I have to wonder how long this unique period will last before they’re no longer able to stroll through hotel lobbies without an entourage of bodyguards.

Evening creeps up slowly and after a rejuvenating medicine induced nap I’m feeling ready to go. Not really, but I meet the rest of the FIGHT! crew at the lobby bar, slam down a few drinks and we head over to the Toyota Center to find our seats. There are some promising fights on the card tonight, Roger Huerta and Leonard Garcia, Mike Swick and Yushin Okami. The much lauded Diego Sanchez and wrestling powerhouse Josh Koscheck, and of course, Matt Serra is there to challenge Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight title. Hell yes… I’m buzzed on dayquil and whiskey but I don’t feel sick anymore (or at least my head is numb). This is gonna kick ass.

As we enter the Toyota Center the expansiveness of the arena and the excitement of the crowd is palpable and immediate. Walking through the complex I can’t help but notice how many women are there; more than I expected and they seem as anxious as the guys to get the fights under way. We find our seats, 2 rows up on the floor bleachers, about 30 feet from the cage. Close enough to hear leather landing… Sweet. The stadium is slowly filling and Diego Sanchez is in the ring, arms stretched skyward, meditating. Pre-fight videos are playing on the giant screens above the octagon. The atmosphere is surreal and I’m half expecting a UFO to appear above the cage and beam Diego up.

As the lights dim an undulating roar drifts up from the crowd. The first untelevised dark fight of the night is about to begin. Rogan’s rabid commentary is absent but in its place the “tale of the tape” music booms ominously through the open air and it’s an awesome sound. The fighters’ stats fl ash across the big screens as the camera cranes swoop down from overhead. The arena is loud and as the fighters enter to their chosen music it only gets louder, but it isn’t until a later fight, when Bruce Buffer proclaims “WE…ARE… LIIIIIIVE” that the place truly explodes.

By the time you read this, UFC 69 will be old news so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that overall, it was a great night of fights. The Diego / Koscheck bout disappoints

many, but Huerta / Garcia put up a show stealing performance in its place. That is of course until 9:1 underdog Matt Serra stuns us all, upsetting St. Pierre and sending the crowd into a frenzy.

After the fights, we begrudgingly leave the arena, the crowd, and the atmosphere behind. My fever is gone (or forgotten), cured by the tesla-like electricity of the fans and the adrenalin that has everyone talking a mile a minute. I’m never going to get to sleep now, and I don’t really care.

So was it worth it? Soldiering through the 24 hour fl u? Standing in line for an eternity for drinks, and often times, still having to look to the screens to see what was going on? Hell yes it was worth it. Watching at a buddies house on a 60” Hi-Def is fun, but it’s no comparison to the intoxication of 16,000 roaring fans and being able to say that I was there to watch Matt Serra shock the world.

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