UFC delivers an uppercut to boring old boxing
Is the UFC brutal or brilliant? Or both? Finn Bradshaw attended his first UFC event on Saturday. This is his account of the experience.
FIRST up, I have to admit I’m not the most knowledgeable fighting fan, whatever the discipline. But when you get the offer of front row seats to the UFC, well, it’s worth a trip from Melbourne to Sydney. Here’s a running diary of the cultural experience that occurred at Allphones Arena on Saturday.
10.30am: Traffic was a nightmare from the airport, so I’m running late. This event is beamed live into the USA, so it starts at the ridiculously early time of 9.30am but it appears I’m about the last person to arrive. The only people not in their seats are the Ed Hardy-clad fans crammed into the smoking cages outside the stadium. Clearly the early bouts haven’t got the fans’ full attention.
10.45am: Making our way through the crowd, some stereotypes are upheld, others demolished. The dress code is what I’d expected: lots of hoodies, tight T-shirts covered in scrawled writing and A LOT of UFC merch. But more women than I expected. Still probably only 10 per cent of the audience, but enough to make it not a total sausage fest.
11am: Get to our seats, and they are incredible. Front row - the only thing between us and the octagon where the fights are held is the walkway for the fighters. Fair to say this might spoil me for all future events.
11.05am: The first Aussie fighter of the night, Kyle Noke, walks out to “I Come From A Land Downunder”. Then the crowd chants “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”. Way to smash the stereotypes for the US TV audience, guys.
11.10am: Each bout is three five-minute rounds. Fighters can do just about anything (though the rules forbid certain moves such as gouging, a heel to the kidneys and timidity. Seriously. I guess that explains the lack of French fighters.). But they tend to specialise in certain disciplines such as jiu-jitsu or Muay Thai.
11.15am: One round in and Kyle, who was the favorite, is in trouble. He’s clearly favoring one of his knees. UFC supremo Dana White, who hands out bonuses on top of the prizemoney to those he thinks most deserving, later says he thought Kyle was dogging it. But it turns out he sprained his knee in the first round. Then fights through the next two rounds. And this is the most physically grueling sport I’ve witnessed. You wouldnt get that on a soccer field.
11.20am: With the local boy under the kosh, the crowd gets restless. Through the event, there’s a lot more “funny” exclamations from the crowd than I expected. We get our first Karate Kid reference, with some wag calling for Kyle’s opponent to “sweep the leg”. That’s probably the high point in terms of audience interaction for the night. The rest of the calls will be of the “punch him in the vagina” variety. You wouldn’t say everyone in the crowd is helping make the environment female-friendly.
11.45am: The next fight is the dullest of the night - two blokes circling each other for 15 minutes. Crowd not happy.
11.50am: After each bout, the fighters are escorted from the ring by two cops and four security guards who could pass for members of the Comancheros in the next Underbelly. Not sure if they’re there to protect the fighters from the crowd or vice versa.
11.55am: Another Sydney fighter is up next, the 39 year old Anthony Perosh. I met him at a dinner last year and he is an articulate, considered, humble guy. Not your spoilt athlete by any means, a statement which could be applied to just about all the UFC athletes.
The organisation signs all their fighters to contracts that some have said are too weighted to the UFC. It creates a slightly odd dynamic because the UFC holds almost complete control over the fighters’ future earning capacity. But it does make the athletes extraordinarily media friendly. That that seems to be a clearly understood part of the deal. If only our cricketers were so approachable.
12.00pm: Perosh enters the ring to “Kick Start Your Heart”. Best fight song of the night by far. Later in the afternoon, Thiago Alves, one of the headliners, comes out singing along to T-Pain. It is a weird sight.
12.01pm: Perosh is fighting a Canadian. I hope he chooses a Bryan Adams or Celine Dion song. Unfortunately it’s some pseudo-punk number.
12.10pm: The local hero destroys Canadian boy quicker than you can say oot and aboot. Despite the fact Perosh was sitting on him and whaling into him until his face was covered in a river of claret, the Canadian seems legitimately surprised when the ref ends the fight. That is the most confronting moment of the night. The UFC appears to want the fighters to decide when the fight ends. The refs don’t intervene as early as they do in boxing.
And we see later how a fighter can turn the tables when all seems lost, but the Candian seemed incapable of defending himself and Perosh was allowed to keep pummeling him. Maybe I’m just a wuss, but it felt a little too like the Roman Emperor watching the gladiators.
12.30pm: After the cleaners mop up blood from the canvas, it’s New Zealand-born rising star Jamie Te Huna. He’s chosen a Boyz 2 Men style ballad as his song. As my mate says, the only explanation could be that his girlfriend said “If you love me, you’ll play ‘our song’ before your fights”. Jamie is now living in Sydney, so gets lots of support from the crowd.
12.31pm: Jamie is fighting a Texan who looks very chunky in his highlights. The local kid quickly makes the Texan look like chopped liver, ending the fight in a little more than two minutes. A brutal package of speed, strength and athleticism, Jamie later gets singled out by White as one to watch. I couldn’t agree more - I’d definitely pay to see him again.
1.00pm: The next bout is between Court McGee and Costa Phillipou, who both look like they’re straight from central casting’s evil henchman file. A cagey cage match, with each sizing each other up. Naturally, the crowd boos. Costa wins, but neither of them will be getting a bonus for their aggression.
1.40pm: The first of the night’s two flyweight bouts. This is a new weight division for the UFC, and their staff impress upon me how quick the guys are.
1.45pm: Two great nicknames here: Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall against Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. McCall plays up to his nickname by sporting facial hair that wouldn’t have been out of place on Steve Buscemi’s character in Con Air.
1.50pm: Uncle Creepy is great value - offering profuse apologies after kicking Mighty Mouse in the groin, giving the crowd the finger when they boo him and generally playing the role of villain to a tee.
2.00pm: After two even rounds, Uncle Creepy dominates the back end of the bout, at one stage almost theatrically pounding on Mighty Mouse’s back and neck while straddling him.
2.02pm: There’s high drama at Allphones Arena! The judges have awarded the fight to Mighty Mouse, and the fans are livid. The chorus of “bulls**t” drowns out the post-match interview, while Uncle Creepy storms out to a raucous reception. You cannot script drama like this.
This fight turns out to be hugely controversial. The judges actually called it a draw, which would have sent it into a sudden-death fourth round. But the head of the NSW Combat Authority, Craig Waller - who looks like he should be playing a baffled father on a sit com - misread their cards. He fronted the press to apologise, but the quote of the night went to White. Asked what his response was to the revelation this there had been a mistake, he bluntly put it: “You’re f***ing s***ting me!”.
He then announces both fighters would be given the winner’s prize purse, plus a fight of the night bonus. White is the most charasmatic head honcho of a sporting body in the world. Can you imagine Andrew Demetriou or David Gallop dealing with a scandal so quickly and perfectly?
2.30pm: A second flyweight fight is stopped after Joe Benavidez lands a huge right on Yasuhiro Urushitami. Benavidez then does the post-fight interview in Birkenstocks. You can tell him he looks ridiculous.
2.45pm: And now, more than five hours after the first bout, we’ve reached the headline event. You can’t accuse the UFC of not giving value for money. Showing how global the sport now is, it’s between a Brazllian (Thiago ‘Pitbull’ Alves, he of the T-Pain song) and a Dane (Martin ‘the Hitman’ Kampman).
2.50pm: A ripping opening two rounds. At its best UFC is an extraordinarily tense spectacle. The sense that anything could happen, and will likely occur in a split second, really focuses your attention. The fact that this bout is captivating after we’ve seen 10 other fights is testament to how compelling this sport is compared to, say, 90 per cent of boxing events.
3.00pm: Kampman shows how quickly a fight can change. Alves had taken control of the final round and was heading to victory, but overreached just once. Kampman pounced, got him in a headlock, forcing Alves to tap out (call an end to the fight). Even the pro-Alves crowd had to applaud that.
3.05pm: As the post-fight interview continues, the 14,000 strong crowd begins to file out. UFC is not a sport that encourages long analysis or contemplation.
Throughout the night, between bouts there is no MC or commentary, just really freaking loud music (quite good rock/hip-hop mashups often, but really loud). It makes you wonder how it will build the sense of history and continuity that turns people from spectators into life-long fans. But it could not be better designed for this age of the 24-hour news cycle and quick grab highlights.
Weirdly for a sport which can sell 14,000 tickets for a Saturday morning event, it still feels like it is searching for mainstream approval. Perhaps that is because it’s illegal in some states, such as Victoria, and struggles for coverage in traditional media.
The UFC’s cunning use of social media and the online medium in general has built it a devoted fan base, but with greater popularity will come greater scrutiny. How it copes with that, especially around the issues of when fights are halted and the tight control the organisation has over the fighters, will determine its legacy.
A quick credit to my traveling companions, fellow News Ltd journos Patrick Horan (for the better jokes) and Ben Harvy (for his limitless knowledge of all thing UFC). Anything good is probably due to them, anything incorrect no doubt my fault. And please note all times are approximate.
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