Mixed martial arts is surging in popularity and could be the salvation of sports.
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008
(continued from page 1)
White's point is brought to life on the Friday night prior to Saturday's UFC 81. Hundreds of members of UFC's Fight Club—a community of fight fans, hailed as the nucleus of UFC, who pay $74.99 for everything from fighter chats and blogs to discounted tickets and merchandise—have gathered for an exclusive question-and-answer session preceding the public weigh-in.
Among the fighters getting attention from fans are Frank Mir, the 2004 UFC heavyweight champion who grew up in a martial arts family and learned to fight as a child after he was bullied for being overweight; Tim "The Maine-iac" Sylvia, another past champion who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall; and Brazilian Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who is slated to fight Sylvia for the interim heavyweight title in UFC 81's main attraction.
Also on hand is welterweight champion Georges "Rush" St-Pierre. Although he isn't fighting in UFC 81, Fight Club members rise to their feet and applaud when he is introduced. In gratitude, St-Pierre, who is leaner than a doorpost and particularly proud of his abs, reveals them to the adoring crowd with the pride of a fashion model revealing her gams.
Of all the fighters at the session, White wants fans to really pay attention to Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, who is making his UFC fight debut against Mir. After stints in the world of professional wrestling—at 25 he was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment—and the NFL, Lesnar joined the UFC in 2007, and the 6-foot 3-inch, 265-pounder with massive biceps and multiple tattoos is the personification of a cartoon-like hulk brought to life. If White could, he would anoint Lesnar for bringing with him the crossover credibility—and the crossover fame—that comes from his prior affiliation with Vince McMahon's WWE. But, as Lesnar points out, professional wrestling "was all fake. This, this is real."
Meanwhile, in the concourse just outside the Events Center, Fight Club members and other attendees awaiting the weigh-in snap up UFC merchandise—$25 for a red or black hat, $70 for a hooded sweatshirt. Others play demonstration versions of video games such as "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." This, after all, is a time of war for America, a blunt reality quite visible as the games showcase mock imagery of scenes from what looks like the Middle East and bad guys who faintly resemble that definitively detestable rogue, Saddam Hussein. "The threat level," screams an ad for official UFC motorcycle Harley-Davidson that airs on the large screens inside the Events Center, "has been raised to black." There is also a commensurate degree of female flesh being flashed, especially when the girls from Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor, the official beer of UFC, enter. (In March 2008, Anheuser-Busch replaced Mickey's as the official beer, a deal that White believes will draw more sponsors and enhance UFC's TV ratings.) Dozens parade around the concourse in four-inch high heels, short skirts and midriff-revealing tops. The star is green-eyed brunette Anne Rivera, a 2005 graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Asked in the magazine Fight if she dates any fighters, Rivera says, "I don't shit where I eat, ya' know?" Speaking more seriously about UFC, Rivera notes that she herself is not a fan of violence, but "whether you like UFC or not you'll appreciate the discipline."
When the weigh-in begins, the crowd cheers for each fighter. They are less a rowdy rabble than a happy bunch, clapping during the videos that air on the large screens, duly complying with host Joe Rogan's requests for applause, silence and awe.
Monitoring the weigh-in is Marc Ratner, former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who was hired by UFC in 2006 as vice president of government and regulatory affairs. A slim man who resembles a kindly pediatrician, Ratner helped create the rules that govern UFC and is quick to back the legitimacy of UFC, noting that, like boxing, it's regulated by the government and has strict drug-testing policies. He also states that UFC fighters suffer fewer long-term injuries than boxers, the reason being that in boxing, to surrender is seen as a sign of weakness, while in UFC "you can tap out with honor."
The weigh-in rolls along in its customary manner. You'd have to have been raised in an igloo not to know the rituals. Fighters bounce up to the podium, peel off their sweats, step on the scale and gaze into one another's eyes. When it's time for Lesnar and Mir to weigh in, extensive videos appear on the screens, including one highlighting Lesnar's loss in the '99 NCAA wrestling finals while enrolled at Minnesota, his commitment to "get back on the horse" and his championship the next year. There's attitude and intimidation, and the standard pre-fight comments reminiscent of such famous pugilists as Ali and Tyson. "I'll pull his head off," says Lesnar. "I can cut the blood off to your brain permanently," replies Mir. Staring down Lesnar, Rogan says, "You're dealing with a very dangerous guy, a ripped heavyweight with a fire hydrant head." It's a stirring image, arousing cheers from the crowd and a chorus of boos from the two dozen friends of Mir seated to the right of the stage. "Show's over," cries Lesnar. "It's time to go. Let's get in the octagon and get it on."
After the weigh-in, White troops through the Events Center, striding in a slightly crouched, battle-ready manner that's the sign of a life spent in boxing. Yet love, not combat, is the prevailing sentiment. White is an entrepreneur-promoter in full bloom. With his bald head, soft facial features, inquisitive eyes and compact build, the 38-year-old White bears a striking resemblance to another Las Vegas sports icon, tennis star Andre Agassi.
"My man," says White as he hugs one fighter. Handshakes and meaningful taps of the knuckles with more fighters follow, then a series of soul shakes, shorthand comments, sly asides and semi-intimate nods to UFC roadies, TV production folks, photographers, journalists, UFC staff—on and on and on. "Dana," yells someone who could be a UFC roadie or just a long-standing fan, "what is up?" White smiles, but isn't sure where this familiar, but unidentifiable face comes from. As UFC continues to grow, perhaps these will be the days White will most cherish: when he had his hands wrapped around his child, a youth big enough to walk but far from ready to escape a paternal embrace.
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