The Ultimate Fighting Championship has come a long way from staging bare-knuckle fights between sumo wrestlers and karate experts on Indian reservations. Over the past few years, the organization — and the sport of mixed martial arts in general — has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon that regularly draws millions of pay-per-view buys and sells out arenas across the country. They have enjoyed unprecedented success and have broken a handful of stars (including Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture). It will probably never be as mainstream as the owners and supporters believe it will be, but it has definitely replaced boxing (and professional wrestling) as the spectator fight sport of choice.
After a few years of interest and several pay-per-view parties, I finally got the opportunity to experience UFC in a live setting on Saturday night (March 19) when they came to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It was an appropriate show for MTV to attend, as it not only represented the UFC debut of wildly popular California-based fighter Urijah Faber (he won a close decision) but also a coronation of sorts for Jon "Bones" Jones, who became the youngest champion in the history of UFC when he took the light heavyweight title away from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Since many of the first generation stars in the promotion are aging, it's time for the new wave to come up, and Jones is the superstar among them.
It was an eye-opening experience for me, and here are the five things I learned.
These Guys Hit Each Other Hard
It seems like it should be obvious, but these guys really hit each other hard. There is a certain amount of detachment involved in watching fights on television, but on Saturday night I sat only two rows away from the cage. It became clear that the fighters don't actually connect as often as I thought, but when they do, they mean business. As Luiz Cane pounded on Eliot Marshall right in front of me, I felt truly bad for a fighter for the first time (which filled me with an incredible level of guilt).
UFC Works Better As A TV Event
I became a fan of MMA because I had been a professional wrestling fan and was curious about the crossover (for some reason, the two worlds are often associated, mostly because UFC president Dana White reminds a lot of people of WWE chairman Vince McMahon). I've been a fan of wrestling since I was a kid, but I never really got much of a thrill out of seeing the shows live. While the visceral quality of UFC helps it out a bit, it was still something that I enjoy more on TV. Since all UFC fights are inside a cage, it's physically difficult to see everything that is going on (and when fights go to the ground, it's impossible to tell what's up).
These Crowds Are Committed
UFC has a smaller audience than most of the major sports, but the people who are devoted are really devoted. The fans in the arena recognized fight styles, cheered for technical mastery and not only knew the names of the fighters but also of their trainers, corner men and medical specialists. The referees even got huge pops from the crowd. It was an audience who is clearly into the product, and whose investment is as impressive as I've seen at a sporting event.
Ian Loveland Is My New Favorite Fighter
Most of the undercard fights were a little underwhelming (too many of them went to decisions), but one of those fights (which was only seen by people live in the building) was wildly entertaining because of a fighter named Ian Loveland. Though he lost his fight, he's my new favorite athlete in the universe, mostly because his nickname is "The Barn Owl" and because he has a giant trout tattooed on his back (he's an avid fisherman in his home state of Oregon). He lost a tough decision to the fantastically entertaining Joseph Benavidez, but I hope he gets another shot at making some noise in the UFC's relatively new bantamweight division.
Jon Jones Is The Truth
There was a lot of hype leading up to the main event of the show, but Jones absolutely lived up to it. Part of it is genetic, as he is an incredibly long fighter (he has the longest reach in the history of the UFC, which is insane considering there is a weight division above him). But it's also because of an incredible skill set, as he is a remarkably gifted wrestler and an unorthodox but disciplined striker. There isn't anybody in the light heavyweight division who can handle his combination of skills (including number one contender Rashad Evans), and he'll be on top of the UFC for a generation.