Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meet the Fighters of the UFC

I've been a fan of mixed martial arts (MMA) since the 1993 debuts of Pancrase in Japan and later the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the U.S. I was heavily involved in pro wrestling promotion at the time, and our former heavyweight champion Ken Shamrock became the first pro wrestler to compete in MMA. I've been hooked ever since.

Unbelievably, it's taken me all of these years to actually attend my first live event - UFC 106 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. I can't believe I waited so long.

UFC 106 happened to coincide with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) 44. Both events were held just days apart in the same city, so the parent company (Zuffa) decided to bill the event as "Fight Week". For a huge fight fan like me, it was a great opportunity to rub elbows with names I've grown to love over the years. There were tons of scheduled meet-and-greets and autograph signings. But you didn't even need to attend those events. The fighters were EVERYWHERE.
Former WEC Champ Mike Brown UFC Lightweight fighter Aaron Riley
I've never witnessed any major sport where the top athletes are so accessible to the public. Over the course of the weekend, I:
  • Ran into Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (one of the all-time legends) and Junior Dos Santos at Starbucks.
  • Spoke at length with former WEC champ Mike Brown about his fight just 24 hours earlier with Jose Aldo.
  • Trained cardio next to Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and Kendall Grove.
  • Lifted weights with trainer Mark Dellagrotte and "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler.
  • Shared the whirlpool with light heavyweight prospect Luiz Cane.
  • Cut weight in the sauna with Brock Larson, Amir Sadollah, and Josh Koscheck.
  • Bumped into Kevin "The Monster" Randleman, Jason McDonald, Frank Trigg, and Stephan Bonnar at the arena.
  • Talked Koscheck/Johnson fight strategy with Javier Gonzalez from Cung Le's "Universal Strength Headquarters"
  • Conversed with Martin Kampmann, Aaron Riley, Leonard Garcia, Xtreme Couture trainer Shawn Tompkins, the founder of Hitman Fight Gear, as well as SkySkrape and Punkass from Tapout.
I didn't have to stand in line to meet any of these guys. They were just around - at the yogurt shop, in the hotel lobby, on the escalators - and were extremely approachable. I ran into a few of the guys like Martin Kampmann and Mike Brown several times over the weekend and we chatted again just like we were old friends. Maybe it didn't hurt that I had Mariana with me much of the time, but still...

MMA athletes are a unique bunch. They start out fighting on small shows for very little money. Even an undercard fighter on a UFC PPV might only make a couple thousand bucks. These fighters rely on sponsors to help pay for their training. As a result, they tend to behave a little more like politicians than entertainers or athletes. They see their fans as the people who fund their dreams. Many times their sponsors actually are just fans who want to help out. But unlike politicians, you never get the impression that these guys are just feigning politeness. They really are genuinely nice.

I can't imagine going to an NFL game and hanging out with the team. I've stayed at the Loews with NBA players and they were largely unapproachable. Even in pro wrestling the athletes go out of their way to avoid the fans.

But there I was just hours before a UFC PPV sharing laughs with some of the biggest names in the sport. I don't mind saying it was awesome.
UFC Contender Martin Kampmann with the Hitman Fight Girls
And, oh yeah... the fights were cool, too.