Wednesday, November 26, 2008

UFC Comes to Chicago

This was the true beginning of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Dana White was hanging out in the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. Next to White stood his close friend Frank Fertitta III, a casino magnate. Across the room they recognized a UFC fighter named John Lewis. At the time White was a diehard boxing fan; he had boxed his whole life and was then a boxing trainer who “lived for boxing.” On a lark, White and Fertitta began talking to Lewis and asking him about how he uses jiu-jitsu to fight on the ground. Intrigued, White invited Lewis to his gym for jiu-jitsu lessons a couple days later. Fertitta brought his brother Lorenzo to this jiu-jitsu training session as well.

Anderson Silva (left) and Patrick Cote (right) bow to each other while UFC President Dana White looks on. This photo is at the UFC 90 weigh-ins on the stage inside the Chicago Theatre.

As White recalls his introduction to jiu-jitsu a decade ago, “We were fucking blown away. Oh, blown away by it. And it actually scared me. I said, ‘How have I walked around for 30 years and not known this? This is scary.’”

White and the Fertitta brothers then trained jiu-jitsu three or four days a week. They soon saw their first live UFC fight at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena. Leaving the arena White wanted the masses to know about this sport, mixed martial arts, which had “literally changed my whole life and the way I looked at fighting.” A few years later, in 2001, White did just that. He convinced the Fertitta brothers to purchase the UFC for $2 million. As the new president, White added many rules to the sport while attracting world-class athletes who were experts in different martial arts rather than one-dimensional fighters of the past UFC. In doing so, the UFC lifted its barbaric reputation while becoming the fastest growing sport in America.

At around the same time White began taking jiu-jitsu classes, a young man named Anderson Silva quit his job working at McDonald’s in Brazil so he could be a pro mixed martial arts fighter. Silva had begun working at McDonald’s at age 17. He worked there for six years before fighting professionally.

“I feel the experience I had working at McDonald’s was an excellent one,” Silva said. “I feel that the discipline, the responsibility, and dealing with various situations in my life and as a professional fighter, McDonald’s was a big part in helping me get there.”

Since Silva joined the UFC in April 2006, he has won respect from fans and the fighting community thanks to his humble personality and devastating fighting style that earned him the UFC middleweight title. A lethal striker with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Silva has been called the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, most emphatically by White. Silva, however, deflects this notion, saying there is no best fighter and that he is beatable.

Wins and losses aside, people are getting to know Silva and other fighters thanks to the dramatic popular rise in mixed martial arts with its pay-per-view events, replays on Spike TV, and the reality show The Ultimate Fighter. On the internet you can watch a documentary where Silva is playing paintball with his friends or soccer with his family in his backyard in Curitiba, Brazil.

“One of the cool things of the UFC is that everyone has their own personality, everybody has a different background,” White says. “The old thing they always say about boxing was, ‘Listen, if it wasn’t for boxing I’d be dead or in jail. I came from the mean streets of such and such. That was every guy’s story. All these (UFC) guys have completely different stories…. This thing is so multi-national. We got Georges St.-Pierre from Canada. He’ll come down here, and the Americans will cheer him over the American he’s fighting. Nogueira comes from Brazil fighting Tim Sylvia. They’re cheering Nogueira and not Tim Sylvia, the American. You don’t see that in any other sport. It’s because people invest in character, who they are, their personality, or their fighting style.”

Despite its popularity, no UFC event had been held in Illinois until last month. A few months prior, on July 1 to be exact, the state of Illinois officially lifted its ban on mixed martial arts, opening White’s promotion for UFC 90, held on October 25 at All State Arena in Rosemont, IL (near O’Hare Airport). Mixed martial arts is now viewed as a sanctioned event that has cleaned up its act with its 31 fighting rules as well as huge draw for Chicago fight fans. The near sell-out crowd of 15,359 at All State Arena last month set a record live gate of $2.85 million with tickets ranging from $50 to $600.

The fans had paid top dollar to see 10 fights, but the final fight and main event of the evening, Anderson Silva versus Patrick Cote, was the real draw. Unfortunately, the fight wasn’t what the fans hoped for. Silva danced around the ring for round 1 and 2, while Cote hardly grazed him. Other than a routine head kick and flying knee that didn’t faze Cote, it was a lackluster fight. Silva didn’t seem to be the same fighter who attacked opponents with ruthless efficiency. At one point he offered to help Cote off the ground, a gesture Cote refused. In the beginning of round 3, Cote fell to the ground in pain due to a freakish injury, a torn meniscus that didn’t seem to be caused by Silva. After the fight Silva apologized to the fans and told them not to boo Cote.

“You never want to walk out of an arena like that,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “But strange things happen sometimes. We have a pretty good track record of putting on big fights and delivering. Sometimes weird stuff happens. Tonight was a weird night.”


Anonymous said...

Great coverage on UFC coming to Chicago.

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