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Weekend Warriors: A UFC 101 Experience

(Disclaimer: The following is a long narrative with no analysis or fight commentary whatsoever. It’s generally a short story detailing my personal experience from this past weekend. No hard feelings to those who’d rather skip the read.)

There’s no denying it. Fedor Emelianenko, Josh Barnett, Dana White, Scott Coker and many, many more have made these past few weeks some of the most newsworthy in recent MMA history. And yet, yours truly neglected to comment on any of it. Not a word. So what’s my excuse? You see, the UFC was finally coming to Philadelphia, my Philadelphia, and honestly, I couldn’t focus on much else while cloaked in such thick layers of anticipation and anxiousness. I even declined to write up my standard predictions this time around and I’ll tell you why: No expectations.

Though I have covered most every promotion from Atlantic City to San Jose, I had never before attended a live UFC event. Now, one would be taking place in my own backyard. So I decided I was going to do the most simple and logical thing heading into the big fight weekend: Enjoy it like a fan. Get the full experience. Gone were my notebook and tape recorder, in their place were clicky pens and scratch paper in hopes of attacking a wandering fighter for an autograph.

I didn’t know what to expect when the UFC finally rolled into my town, but finding out would surely be worth the wait. I paid no mind to predicting who would walk away the victor or the loser on Saturday night, I just wanted the quintessential UFC fan experience, whatever it may be. Like a burnt out food critic at a fancy seven course joint, I took off my reporting hat, picked up a fork, and let the servers impress me with their finest offerings. After all, I had paid a hefty 300 bucks for this; dessert should really be on the house.

Well that worked out nicely

Luckily, and I mean that in every sense of the word, Justin (better known around these parts as moderator fr702) had flown in all the way from northern California and was staying at the Loews Hotel on Market Street. This just happened to be the same hotel where most of the fighters and other personnel were holding up. Upon meeting Justin in the Loews lobby on Friday the first thing I notice is that he is a giant (at least 6’6″) who towered over me and looked a bit like Gan McGee (remember him?) Frenzy posters beware, Justin is massive and apparently pretty good with the muay thai. Keyboard warriors might want to keep that in mind next time a comment war erupts.

Before we head off for the day I manage to shake hands with Mark Coleman who was rocking a very grizzly gray beard. The camera isn’t adding any wrinkles, Coleman really does look that old in person. Nice guy though. Justin being the foreigner in a foreign land I take him over to South Street for the classic Philly lunch experience: Cheesesteaks and Water Ice. After Jim’s and Rita’s we stroll through humid Olde City past some of the more historic sights and ultimately back to my car which I had left parked in Chinatown.

So that’s what it feels like

Rolling into the Wachovia Center parking lot I already can’t believe how many people showed up just for the weigh-ins. I guess this town really was itching for a real dose of MMA. Since the doors haven’t opened yet there are thousands of us standing in a makeshift line which BJ Penn’s family takes full advantage of by handing out some Penn-brand swag. Never underestimate the power of free water bottles and car decals.

Once the gate finally opens the line immediately collapses with fans rabidly rushing to form a thick funnel of sweaty bodies squeezing through the all too slim Wachovia Center doors. Justin and I fnagle our way to some of the better seats in the house and Dana White is doing overtime Q&A with the fans, draped in a Shane Victorino jersey. Well played, sir. Some of the questions slung at Dana were actually pretty entertaining. One classy gent asked if he could personally fight Frank Trigg at Virginia Tech’s football stadium, another asked if he and his fiance could get married in the octagon. How do you spell romance? U-F-C.

After showing some of the countdown to UFC 101 footage the weigh-ins kicked off and the only notable thing I recall was how ripped Forrest Griffin looked and how light Amir Sadollah came in (166lbs.) To be honest, I spent a large chunk of time staring about the Wachovia Center’s interior, which I had seen time and time again piled high with Sixers or Flyers fans, but never anyone I considered to be my kind of people.

In case it isn’t obvious, I am very much that kind of MMA aficionado, the one who only follows MMA and could care less about the classic big four American sports. Admittedly, a warm, childlike giddyness came over me as I gazed into the UFC plastered arena; scanning across endless packs of devoted followers sporting their very best fight related t-shirts. Though I was in my own beloved city, it was only then that I felt truly at home in the crowds of a major sporting event. I must have stared at that Octagon for 10 straight minutes. I imagine others did as well. And it felt good.

Enter The Spider

Returning to Justin’s hotel it doesn’t take long to spot a famous face or two. At first we see the other Spyder, Kendall Grove. But before we even get a few steps closer to Grove someone shouted that the real Spider, you know, the one people actually care about, was just outside the lobby. So we immediately ran toward the action and sure enough, Silva was doing his best to appease the swarming mob with autographs, photos, the works. After futilely working to get closer for a signature or decent picture I just about gave up on hounding the middleweight champion, that is until he proceeded to board the elevator where I finally ask him to employ the blue sharpie attached to his hand and sign my shirt sleeve.

Ideally, I would have obtained Silva’s John Hancock on some other type of material, like, I don’t know, paper perhaps, but I was caught off guard and forced to act quickly. So now one of the nicer shirts in my already limited wardrobe has Anderson Silva’s signature on it. Guess its back to Target for me.

I also told this story to my girlfriend later that night who then yelled at me for ruining a perfectly good shirt that she had given me as a present (oops.) I half jokingly explained that I had just exponentially increased the value of said shirt, to which she seemed even less enthused. She’ll come around.

Coincidentally enough Justin and I ended up sharing an elevator with Ed Soares shortly after the Silva run-in and had a brief chat with the manager/translator to the stars. I asked Soares his thoughts on Dan Henderson re-matching Silva at MW, and Soares was surprisingly vocal about being none too happy about it. Seriously, the man does not think Hendo should get another crack at Silva any time soon. Apparently he preferred the Maia/Marquardt winner as Silva’s next MW opponent. I laughed and alleged “Well you gotta talk to Dana, right?” Soares sighed, slightly grimaced, and in a defeated tone said “I have…”

Buffer and Beer…Lots of beer

It’s about 7 o’clock Friday night and Justin and I are in the Loews bar/lounge getting to know some Yuenglings, the finest lager in the world if you ask me. Justin eventually points out a passing by Bruce Buffer and I mark out big time. A short conversation later and I can tell you that Buffer is one of the coolest mofo’s you will ever meet. We talked for a minute about what else but the epic Buffer 360, which sadly will never happen again. Buffer then made his way to a table full of exotic women who fed him only the finest caviar and Remy Martin all night long.

Returning UFC veteran Frank Trigg also passed us by during our tenure at the Loews bar and he seemed less than thrilled to talk to fans, but he still shook my hand with a quick nod to show he wasn’t a total bastard.

A few more beers down the hatch and we decide it’s finally time to hit the town. Hard. Knowing it would be too late to enjoy the nightlife after the show on Saturday (PA bars kick you out at 2am) Justin and I took hold of the precious opportunity and proceeded to get thoroughly inebriated via a haphazard bar tour which ended in Olde City.

Highlights include Justin almost getting into two scraps (though nothing came of it, see everyone, Philadelphians can be civil), a friend of mine asking an Asian couple where the Asian nightclub is located, Justin fending off the advances of a blonde chick nearly as big as he is, seeing Pat Miletich back at the hotel shitfaced with some random floozy on his arm, and of course late night cheesesteaks to soak up some of the lager and liquor. Whiz-with: the only way to go IMO.

Gonna Fly Now

At the crack of noon the next day (a night of hard drinking will do that to ya) I ring Justin up to meet for breakfast/lunch. I’ve got the standard morning after headache and craving comfort food so I took us to Sabrina’s (one of the best spots in the city) for the proper medicine. After gorging some huevos rancheros while Justin attempted to polish off an entire cow (the John Hughes burger, I didn’t even know he had died) it’s a quick tour of the Rodin Musuem and of course, the standard Art Museum run (you might call it the Rocky steps). And then, before we knew it, it was time to head to our first ever live UFC show.

I’ll say this about the Zuffa crew, when they put on a show you know that you’re at a UFC event. About half a dozen massive screens were strategically placed around the top of the Wachovia Center and the graphics, music, and overall production value were absolutely top notch. It was actually difficult to keep focused on the octagon action with those giant monitors distracting you at every angle.

Youth of the Nation

Waiting in various lines throughout the concourse I struck up conversations with folks who traveled from Ohio, Maryland, New York, Virginia, even Toronto just to see a live UFC show. Many for the first time. A 14 year old kid from Delaware told me the story of how he had to sell almost all of his dvd’s and video games to pay for his 101 ticket, not to mention begging his parents for months just to score a ride up to Philadelphia. That’s dedication.

I asked the kid how he got into MMA to which he replied “I used to like WWE a lot but then it got kinda gay, and you know its fake, but in UFC people are really gettin’ knocked out or choked out or beat up or whatever, it’s like the only thing I watch now.”

Strength in numbers

I wish I could say I didn’t catch any of the customary MMA d-bags at UFC 101, however the usual suspects were out in full force. I don’t know why I expected any different, I guess it was just wishful thinking. Some were harmless and reserved in their skin tight Affliction tee’s, and some were more obnoxious than Gilbert Godfrey. Some shouted “Tito Sucks” every five minutes for no apparent reason, some hollered “kick his ass seabass!” as often as they could, and some were just plain racist (Justin has more info on the “wannabe skinheads” for anyone interested).  More importantly however, for every uninformed, brawling, loudmouth, homophobic jackass in attendance, I found many more intelligent, passionate fans who, like me, were just happy to take it all in and soak up the memories.

If I could explain it, I would

For me, the most satisfying morsel offered from the live UFC animal isn’t anything you can really put a finger on. Moreover, what will drive at least this MMA enthusiast back to the Ultimate Fighting Championship are the intangible qualities. The unexplainable enjoyment of uttering the introductions along with Bruce Buffer; looking around only to see everyone else doing the same. That funny feeling of oozing anticipation as the crowd lights dim and the fighters stare each other down from their respective corners. The unbridled shock and excitement when a fighter miraculously escapes a dead to rights arm bar or pops their head out of an air tight guillotine.

And perhaps the best part, when a combatant falls to the canvas and you can already tell he isn’t going to get up. When a truly defeated and broken warrior taps the others arm in utter submission, at that exact moment when the battle ends, you and fifteen thousand strangers simultaneously jump up, scream at the top of your lungs, momentarily collide, and for a brief window in time all revel in the same finite glory.

The live UFC experience sells just that, an experience. One you’ll likely never forget. One that makes you feel like you’re a part of something, where you can smell the camaraderie among the ravenous crowd. Yes, my vocal chords still rasp. My nostrils still smell the smell of stale beer. My shoes still wreak of public bathroom urine and my back still aches from the unforgiving Wachovia Center seats. But I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. You’d be crazy not to.

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