It’s brisk. The breeze funneling through the buildings on either side of the street make it just cool enough to be uncomfortable despite a long sleeve shirt. But this cooler than usual April day is a fi ne fi t for the hockey town of Montreal. “It’s like a slice of Europe dropped in North America” people say, and they’re right. Old architecture is prevalent, sidewalk cafe’s line the streets, and there are French accents everywhere. As I walk down the sidewalk towards the Bell Center, I notice a line across the street at a local sports bar. Not yet 6pm and already the Canadian fans, many of them wearing karateka style headbands, are amped up and ready to go. And they should be, their hometown prodigy, Georges St. Pierre, is fi ghting tonight in an attempt to unify the title and erase all doubts that he is the undisputed welterweight champion of the world. Montreal may be a hockey town, but not tonight. Tonight Montreal is all UFC.
As I draw closer to the Bell center the numbers of fans hustling down the sidewalks and packing the local bars grows. Clusters of ticket holders break out into sporadic chants of GSP! GSP! I round the corner to the arena, looking for the media entrance and I’m confounded. There is a massive line stretching from the arena entrance, down the block, and all the way around the building. UFC 83 is the biggest UFC to date with over 21,000 tickets sold and I’m pretty sure every one of those tickets is on the sidewalk in front of me. I heard through the grapevine that there were over 50,000 ticket requests on top of the sell out. Apparently, Canadians love MMA.
FIGHT!’s managing editor and I make our way through the crowd looking for someone to point us in the right direction and after a chat with security and a small journey though some back hallways and garages we end up in the press room. Its surprisingly empty and for good reason, the fi ghts are just about to start. I grab my camera and we split up. Our staff photographer was unavailable for the event so I’ve been blessed with the good fortune of a ringside photo credential. I fi nd my seat, just as the fi rst fi ght is getting started and say hello to Ken from MMA Weekly. My greeting is cut short by the roar of the crowd as a punch lands inside the cage and it’s then that I realize; this crowd is different than ones I’ve been around in the past. The arena hasn’t even fi lled up yet and I can already tell… it’s gonna be a loud one.
The undercard is promising and the fi ghts don’t disappoint, they deliver 100%. (It’s unfortunate that there was only time for the UFC to broadcast one of them, but they are defi nitely worth checking out on UFC.com). I watch intently through the lens as Jason MacDonald weathers one of the nastiest Kimura attempts I’ve seen, Demian Maia’s Jiu-Jitsu comes through against a game Ed Herman, and Sam Stout and Rich Clementi put on a fantastic 3 round stand up battle. The crowd is dynamic throughout and unlike some of the UFC’s I’d attended in the past, the arena never gets quiet. The volume is varied of course, but there are really only 3 levels, loud, really loud, and GSP loud.
The brief intermissions between fi ghts are interspersed with teasers for the main event. Serra’s New York wit on the jumbotrons is met with the expected booing and contrasts wildly with the cheers as GSP comes on screen. Shortly thereafter the arena dims, a signal that the last dark match of the night is over and we are about to go live on Pay-Per-View. Before Bruce Buffer comes out to announce famously “WE ARE LIVE!”, the screens in the arena light up for one of the greatest things about attending a live UFC. As The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” begins playing, still shots from past events grace the screens. The music starts to kick in as the video cuts to fi ghters entering the arena and you realize just how many of the names and faces have become familiar over the years. It then continues into an incredibly well crafted high-light video of some of the UFC’s best moments. The crowd eats it up and the arena is fi lled with OOOOhs and AAAAhhs as punches land fl ush and bodies slam. The video ends with a frenzied montage of the seminal Griffi n / Bonnar fi ght before the production moves on to the start of the night’s main card. Trust me when I say that watching this video is one of the best parts of attending a live event. Combined with the atmosphere of 21,000 fi ght hungry fans, it will make your hair stand on end.
The intro video for the main card isn’t unique to the venue here in Montreal, but the crowd is. As the night progresses I’m in awe of the constant volume inside the arena. The crowd is awesome, and the cheers constantly ebb and fl ow with the action. Chants of “Ole Ole!” fi ll the air like a European football match. The boos are loud as Starnes evades contact and the fans roar with approval as Quarry wins them over. The place continues to get louder with each fi ght as the main event looms. Almost a year has passed since Serra upset St. Pierre and the fans are as eager as he is to fi nd redemption. There is rabid anticipation in the air as the intro music for St. Pierre kicks in, always much louder in the arena than it seems on TV and when Georges fi nally emerges from the locker room the arena explodes. The roar is deafening as he enters the cage. It’s almost as loud, although not as friendly, when Serra makes his entrance. I have to hand it to him, he looks calm in the face of adversity. He knows he’s the underdog and it’s right where he likes to be. As Bruce Buffer calls St. Pierre’s name, the place is so loud he may as well not even be talking. One thing about a live event: there is no commentary, and the crowd noise and Bruce Buffer’s voice aren’t equalized like they are for broadcast. When the volume level swells, you can’t hear a word he’s saying. St. Pierre and Serra touch gloves and the arena is like a shark tank at feeding time as the main event gets underway. The Canadian fans make the fi ght even greater than it already is, their enthusiasm is outstanding.
By now you know how the fi ght went. Serra fought the brave fi ght but St. Pierre gave the crowd the victory they were there for. All in all, it was an incredible experience and a glimpse of things to come as events in the US continue to grow larger with each fi ght. Late that night, after the buzz from the arena has worn off, I’m having diffi culty winding down. It’s 3am and I’m exhausted, but outside there are still shouts from the Hockey town’s frenzied fans. As I refl ect on my new admiration for Montreal, I fi nally drift off to sleep as chants of “GSP!” echo off the streets below.