I have long believed that there comes a time in every man’s life where he must momentarily set aside the more passive values that have domesticated him over time and seek out an experience that satisfies the most primal parts of his nature. This past weekend I had the opportunity to do just that by attending the adrenaline-pumping spectacle that was the Ultimate Fighting Championship 133.
Going into this, I had limited to no prior knowledge about the UFC’s history as an organization, its rules or its current superstars. All I knew is what I had already gleaned from the few fights I had seen on TV, which was basically the simple realization that I had stumbled across a sport where competitors are allowed to kick their opponent in the face. Needless to say HD wasn’t enough, I had to see it for myself.
Another reason to go was that the UFC, now in its 18th year of operation and easily holding the title of the world’s most recognizable professional mixed martial arts brand, has only recently found its way to Philly. The UFC made its one and only other appearance in the City of Brotherly Love in August of 2009, when more than 17,000 fans paid to see UFC 101.
Still it is hard not to see a good match between this sport and a city who has a hard-nosed reputation of its own, not to mention a rich history of turning out world-class boxers. MMA is the culmination of many disciplines of martial arts. The end result is a fighter trained to take and exact punishment that would leave most of us in the hospital.
Before I could watch the fights, I needed to find out what sort of person has the dedication to choose such a painful career path. Fortunately the day before the event, the Octagon Nation Tour, a mobile museum filled with memorabilia dedicated to the UFC, had two such gladiators on hand signing autographs.
From a distance, current lightweight champion Frankie Edger and Pennsylvania-bred-fighter Charlie Brenneman look imposing enough, but once I actually spoke to them, I discovered them to be, well … pleasant.
For Edger, a native of Toms River, N.J., who received a B.A in political science from Clarion University, the choice to become a fighter was an easy one.
“I think I was always a fighter. I guess it’s just in me; you’re born with it. It was after college that I realized I could do it for a living,” he said.
Brenneman, who lives in East Stroudsburg and once wrestled for Lock Haven University, offered a similar story, but with a twist. His nickname “The Spaniard” comes from the three years he spent teaching Spanish after college.
“After I finished wrestling in college, I was in the normal world and I just had the yearning to compete again,” he said. “ Fighting is the closest thing to wrestling and there is chance at making a living at it. So for me it was a dream that was worth taking the risk.”
Briefly meeting the two men had the desired effect of putting the next day’s event in a new perspective. I no longer saw the fighters entering the octagon as raging, testosterone-filled, man-beasts, bent on destroying (and maybe eating) their opponent. Instead, I saw dedicated athletes, determined to not let their incredible talents go to waste.
When I entered the Wells Fargo Center the next evening, I was ready to see the blood fly.
I arrived early knowing that I have a talent for getting lost. The crowd mainly consisted of pockets of 20- to 30-year-old guys, trying to keep their parking-lot buzz going. I expected this type of crowd. But I did not expect the demographic that showed up as the night went on: namely, gorgeous women. This concentrated collection of high-class women, each with a slick-haired suit on their arm, offered an interesting contrast to the mayhem that was unfolding in the octagon.
The night’s undercard, which featured six fights, kicked off at 6:15 with middleweights Paul Bradley and Rafeal Natal pitted against each other. The fight itself was not that interesting, but the atmosphere of the arena was unlike any other sporting event I had ever attended.
It seemed like everyone in the place was holding their breath as the fighters sized each other up. Suddenly the fighters would come together and there would be the clear smack of a gloved fist hitting flesh. The crowd would roar in response and then the arena would fall silent again, leaving the spotlight open for any drunken fan in the upper deck to scream something clever.
The undercard reached its final bout, a light heavyweight pairing of a tall Swedish fellow named Alexander Gustafsson and 34-year-old Matt Hamill, who amazingly has overcome the handicap of being deaf. Before the fight begins, the stars of the main event — Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz — are shown on the big screen entering the building. The growing Philly crowd, trying not to choose favorites, happily boos them both.
Gustafsson finally broke through Hamill’s defense in the second round and I witnessed my first knockout. It was a bloody affair with the referee having to step in to stop Gustafsson’s steady barrage of elbows and fists to the head of a helpless Hamill.
The night’s comedic entertainment came in the form of the welterweight matchup of Brian Ebersole and Dennis Hallman. The extremely hairy Ebersol entered the octagon first. He inexplicably chose this public event as the time to shave his torso into an upward-pointing arrow. Not a man to be shown up, Hallman entered the octagon wearing a bright blue Speedo and sporting a shock of bleached hair.
The crowd is hysterical. A steady chant of “put some clothes on,” reverberated around the Wells Fargo Center. Later, I read in the USA Today that Hallman wore the Speedo because he had lost a bet with some fellow fighters.
The final bout of the night between proven superstars Ortiz and Evans was pure electricity. Ortiz, who was filling in on short notice for the injured Phil Davis, suddenly was the overwhelming crowd favorite. It doesn’t matter; the chiseled Evans dominated Ortiz in route to a second-round TKO. The highlight of the fight came when Evans picked up the massive Ortiz and body slammed him onto the mat.
As Joe Rogan of “Fear Factor” fame interviewed both fighters, the crowd sent a steady shower of boos down on Ortiz. A group of fans earnestly asked him to retire. He smiled calmly as the established UFC legend doesn’t need to worry about things like job security.
As I rode the filled-to-capacity subway home with the strange combination of cowgirls getting out of the Taylor Swift concert and drunk UFC fans, it was easy to spot the ones who just came from UFC 133. They were still revved up, screaming at the top of their lungs about how Ortiz will be back. They were entertained.
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