Full disclosure: UFC 159, which came to Newark, N.J. on April 27, wasn’t the first UFC I’ve ever covered live. I’ve actually been credentialed and cageside for 19 of them. But the last edition of Octagon lovin’ I’d seen up close like that – close enough to taste the buffet in the press room and see all-too-clearly the pain etched in the faces of the fighters exiting the cage – was UFC 53 in 2005, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the era of Jon Jones and women in the UFC is much different than the era ruled by champs Andrei Arlovski and Rich Franklin. So here it is then, my diary of what the week was like leading up to UFC 159, an event headlined by the aforementioned Jones defending his belt against Chael Sonnen, but an event that really began days before, in a build-up calculated to make the most of the traveling circus that is the Superbowl of Mixed Martial Arts.
Because what you see on a pay-per-view broadcast is just the tip of the iceberg, the finished product of something violent and chaotic and well-organized. Of course, the machinations of a particular UFC begin months in advance, but this diary is just about fight week, when anticipation builds to a crescendo and the payoff comprises thrilling wins, crushing defeats, knockouts, disfigured toes and the severing of contracts. Just remember that what a member of the press sees is largely controlled by the Powers That Be. Sure, it’s more than what you’re privy to when you watch the prelims on Facebook and FX and the main card on pay-per-view, but it’s not everything.
It’s something, though. Boy is it something.
Monday, April 22 – Jim and Dan Miller Open Workout
Usually, for an event scheduled for Saturday, Mondays are when the UFC’s pieces are moved across the chessboard and put into position. But Jim and Dan Miller are lifelong New Jersey residents, and with Jim scheduled to take on Strikeforce refugee Pat Healy, it was nothing for the rugged lightweight star to trek to Manhattan for an open workout and meet and greet session.
When I entered the Modell’s Sporting Goods store in Times Square the security guard didn’t waste any time directing me toward the crowd in the back, the crowd of 40 or so gathered around a cordoned-off mat. Some had cameras, most had iPhones at the ready, all had looks of anticipation on their faces. There were a handful of media there – like Matt Kaplowitz, Mike Stets and Mike Straka – but mostly it was fans eager to get close to the Miller brothers and see badass fighters with their own eyes. And when the Millers arrived, and did some light grappling and pad work, those fans who had gathered got their money’s worth.
It wasn’t a real workout. The real workouts are done far from the pedestrian gaze of the plebs and the press. It was, however, just violent enough to be tantalizing, and afterwards, when Jim took center stage for a question and answer session full of the kind of queries only civilians would ask (“When are you going to fight for the belt?” “What do you like to eat?” “Boxers or briefs?”), the free MMA meal was nearly complete. All that remained was dessert: fans waiting in line for a handshake, autograph and a photo op.
Tuesday, April 23 – UFC MMA Exhibition in Albany
It was – inexplicably – one of the best kept secrets of the week, and yet for the sake of getting the sport sanctioned in New York, it was perhaps the most important event. I’m talking about the UFC’s MMA exhibition, which was held in the Times Union Center in Albany, an arena not far from the State Assembly, where the battle to get the sport sanctioned has been fought and lost year after year. In terms of the significance of an MMA exhibition at the Times Union Center, well, that’s where UFCs will undoubtedly be held once the state gets its act together.
Only vaguely did I know what to expect as I took the two-and-half-hour train ride north from New York City to the state’s capital. There was to be some sort of wrestling clinic, hosted by Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, and top UFC brass would be there, but that was it. It was, however, enough for me to make the trek, and enough for 50 or so fans to slowly line up outside the venue in the late afternoon for a chance to stargaze.
Within, about 60 kids were assembled on the mats. They ranged in age, from grade schoolers to middle schoolers, and they were dressed for a wrestling practice – which is essentially what the event was, with Hughes joined by the likes of UFC fighters Ryan LaFlare, Dennis Bermudez and Uriah Hall. As the wrestling techniques drilled over and over again slowly became submission moves drilled over and over again, UFC honcho Lorenzo Fertitta and regulatory guru Marc Ratner schmoozed with elected officials.
It was all, at the very least, a valiant gesture, a show of commitment to the cause. But to the kids on the mats, and the fans waiting patiently in the stands, it was a taste of something special – and just how special it was became evident when all lined up for a chance to shake the fighters’ hands and get autographs.
Wednesday, April 24 – UFC’s Herald Square Takeover
Times Square may be the center of the tourist universe when it comes to wandering around the Big Apple, but Herald Square – which sees Broadway, Sixth Avenue and 34th Street intersect – is definitely a close second in terms of foot traffic. And so it was that the UFC, in conjunction with sponsor MetroPCS, encamped on the busy thoroughfare, spreading the gospel to the UFC fandom and innocent passersby alike.
Present throughout were Fuel TV talking heads Kenny Florian and Ariel Helwani, the masters of ceremony who kept the conversation going in between the guests – the star attractions – who included Hughes…
Urijah Faber, Anthony Pettis and Ronda Rousey…
… and Chris Weidman and Dana White himself. There were volleys of Q and A’s, lines for autographs, and the crowds shrank and swelled.
The Herald Square takeover lasted until 7pm. However, as is usually the case when the circus comes to town, the festivities didn’t end after the sun went down, they only went indoors. In this instance, that meant the party hosted by VICE magazine, which was supposed to celebrate their MMA-centric website Fightland, but was really just an excuse to cram a thousand hipsters into the top floor of a Lower East Side club, dole out free booze, and have a rapper (Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang Clan fame) perform. As expected, there were industry insiders there – journalists mostly, although allegedly Faber, Pettis and Rousey made an appearance as well. Unfortunately, it was – as these things often are – too dark, too loud, and too packed to hold any sort of meaningful conversation. But hey, it was a party. What’d you expect?
Thursday, April 25 – Media Day
For a member of the press, the first real day of work is the media day, which is the day before the weigh-ins and the only time (other than the post-fight presser) when interviews are practically presented on a platter for mass consumption. These shindigs aren’t open to the public, and the access is nearly unfettered. For UFC 159, the media day took place in the Theater Lobby within the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden (and yes, the irony that this was the closest the UFC has ever gotten to holding an event in MSG was lost on no one).
The fighters on tap were champ Jon Jones…
…and Cheick Kongo.
(Chael Sonnen was there too, of course.)
As interviewees go, all were accessible, accommodating and extremely cordial, gamely giving their best to every camera, microphone, iPhone, digital voice recorder and tablet stuck in their faces. Still, it was madhouse.
Only when White showed up did the sea of media part. Why? Because it was time for the infamous Dana White media scrum, an orgy of questions and answers that for the next few days would birth countless articles across the World Wide Web.
Although it was scheduled to end at 2pm, it went on a bit after that, with White doing one-on-ones until all were satiated.
A lot of MMA coverage is what you make it, and since I’m considered “old school” and from an era pre-dating orchestrated media days, I wanted more. So I took the PATH train out to Jersey City, to the fighters’ hotel. There, in the lobby, a small band of true believers were staked out for nearly the entire week, pouncing on anyone of relevance who passed by (like Miesha Tate or Phil Davis), coming away with an autograph, pic, or sometimes just a handshake. But I wasn’t there for that. No, I was there to sit in on Alan Belcher cutting weight, catching a peek at the first two hours of his own personal hell that night. It was, shall we say, draining?
Friday, April 26 – Weigh-Ins
If you’ve seen them on Fuel TV, then you have a strong grasp of what the official weigh-ins for a UFC are like. For UFC 159, the venue was the Prudential Center itself, with a massive curtain separating the scale and the Friday crowd from the cage being erected for the Saturday crowd. Prior to the weigh-ins, Weidman held a Q and A session for the members of the UFC “elite” fan club…
…and then it was all about the pounds…
Saturday, April 27 – Game Day
You know what happened in the Octagon. Jones pounded Sonnen mercilessly, and got the first-round stoppage despite a toe so badly mangled the fight would’ve surely been called if Sonnen had made it to the bell. Bisping, meanwhile, out-pointed Belcher, but accidentally eye-gouged him and that was all she wrote. Nelson scored a KO, Jim Miller fell prey to Healy’s relentlessness, and Sarah McMann notched another win for female MMA. What you don’t know, though, is what it was like for the press, sitting crammed into press row and able to escape to the media center tucked away in the Pru Center’s bowels. Well, I’m here to tell you that isn’t anything special, yet at the same time is one of the most thrilling things a true fan of MMA can ever be a part of.
The UFC is a well-oiled machine, and never is this more apparent then on game day. From the moment you enter the side entrance and collect your press credential (which must be worn around your neck the entire night), you’re ushered into a behind-the-scenes realm where it’s not hard to get distracted by the sounds of the gears turning, or get caught up in the disappointed expression Kongo wears or the pain etched on Jones’ face as a doctor guides him backstage. But distracted or not, the view is incredible, with only a small percentage of the majestic vista encompassing what goes on in the cage.
There were rows of press sitting Octagonside, and a contingent set up in the media center, cameras at the ready to interview any fighter who wandered back there.
When it was all over, there was the slow but steady shuffle to the post-fight presser.
And there you have it, my diary of the week of UFC 159. Was it exhausting? Hells yeah. But it was insightful and rewarding, and just as fun as the first one I ever covered (which was UFC 34 in Las Vegas). It takes a special breed of fan to like fighting, and a special breed of journalist to want to cover it.
Hopefully, the twain shall forever meet.
Photo credit: Jim Genia – Rebellion Media