Page 2 columnist
Sometimes, you just know things. When the UFC scheduled an Ultimate Fighting Championship card for Sept. 27 in Connecticut -- at the Mohegan Sun Casino, no less -- I knew I would end up going. Didn't know where I would get tickets, didn't know who would make the 100-minute trek from Boston with me ... just knew I was going.
|BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO UFC|
|Here's the UFC in a nutshell: Two guys of similar weights get thrown into an octagon ... five-minute rounds (three rounds in all, five for title fights) ... no shoes, no heavy gloves ... they can win by A) punching, kicking or elbowing their opponent into submission, or B) forcing him to quit with a submission hold ... the referee halts the fight if he feels that A) a cut requires immediate medical attention, or B) somebody can't defend themselves anymore. The beauty of the UFC? Everyone uses different fighting methods, so invariably, a clash of the right styles makes a memorable fight. You have karate guys, submission specialists, technical wrestlers, counter-punchers, pancrase specialists, even guys just hoping to throw more punches than they receive. Nobody takes a night off, everyone is fighting for his life, and there's a more primitive feel to the matches than you get from any other sport. It's the closest we'll ever get in real life to the fight scene in "Escape From New York."|
Of course, the good people at UFC made the decision easier, offering two freebies. Out of the blue. Good ones, no less. So I called my buddy J-Bug on Wednesday night, leading to this exchange:
-- Me: "What are you doing on Friday?"
-- J-Bug (very available): "Um, nothing. Why?"
-- Me: "I have UFC tickets at the Mohegan Sun ... I'm thinking about devoting my entire Friday to some reckless gambling and drinking, followed by some controlled violence. Any interest?"
-- J-Bug: "Can we leave right now?"
Quick interjection: I'm not saying that the UFC is for everyone. In boxing, you might see somebody get knocked out and you might see blood ... in the UFC, you will definitely see somebody get knocked out and you will definitely see blood. You also may endure at least one knockout that leaves you uneasy and uncomfortable afterward, like seeing a sex scene involving Tony Soprano's sister, but worse. Just know that going in. These guys aren't playing around.
As a budding major sport, it works for me because it combines many of my favorite boxing-wrestling traits -- mayhem, theatrics, unintentional comedy, ring girls, championship belts (shouldn't every sport use a championship belt?), and especially the "I don't know what the hell might happen next" factor. Maybe eight out of 10 times, a pay-per-view boxing card lets you down. Not the UFC. Some shows may outshine others, but it always maintains your interest. Throw a UFC party and invite 10 friends some time ... I guarantee that nobody budges for three hours.
How would it work as a spectator sport? J-Bug and I traveled to the Mohegan to find out. We arrived at 3:45 in the afternoon, five hours before the show, more than enough time to get annihilated at a $15 blackjack table. Not only were we getting more 12s and 13s then R Kelly, but the Mohegan's equivalent of Randy Johnson (a dealer named Ramon) was pitching so well, they didn't even have to call in their closer from the Asian Gaming Room to finish us off.
(Note: Ramon tossed a complete game shutout -- 17 Ks, two hits, nobody reached second base -- just a startling performance, and since the place was so crowded, we were locked into an "Either we turn things around with Ramon, or we gamble at a $25 table" situation. Yeah, that always works out well. You know you just had a bad experience at a blackjack table when the dealer is profusely apologizing as you're leaving. And just for the record, I hate the Mohegan Sun -- it's the unluckiest place on the planet. I haven't won there in four years. Don't go there. Go down the road to Foxwoods. Save yourself. The Mohegan is like the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining." It's evil. Stay away. I hope this paragraph is costing them money. Man, this feels good ...)
Needless to say, after that unexpected shellacking, J-Bug and I were ready to see people beat the crap out of each other. Following a healthy dinner at Johnny Rocket's -- bacon cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, vanilla shakes and a complimentary angioplasty -- we entered the Mohegan's new 10,000-seat arena to find our seats. Looking around, I think the Bug put it best: "It's definitely saying a lot when the J-Bug is in the top 10 percent of the gene pool here."
Yikes. You could practically smell the testosterone. Every guy in the building looked like he was waiting for somebody to make eye contact with him, just so he could stalk over and scream, "You lookin' at me? You got a problem?" Sleeveless shirts, gold necklaces, slicked-back hair, swaggering walks ... it was like we had suddenly entered Badda Bing. The entire place was a fight waiting to happen.
We headed toward our seats, careful not to bump anyone along the way. The good people at UFC stuck us in the fourth row, just high enough for a perfect view of the octagon, just far enough away so we wouldn't get splattered with blood. Of course, it also meant we were in the VIP section, which may or may not have also been the Champagne Room. Sweet Jesus. Were these girlfriends or escorts? Frankly, it was too early to tell. Every man in the first few rows had a glazed, giddy "I can't believe I'm with this girl" look, even the guy two rows in front who was wearing a smoking jacket.
One buxom blonde companion commanded everyone's attention, mainly because of her skintight black cocktail dress, topped by an "I know everyone's looking at me" smile and a cowgirl hat decorated with cubic zirconium crystals and sapphires (all she was missing was a long metal pole). The guys next to me were staring at her intensely, frozen, like how my dad's dog Maggie looks whenever somebody eats popcorn. Meanwhile, the girl sitting in front of J-Bug was wearing a strapless dress, looking like she just arrived off the set of "Men In Black, Part 69," prompting the Bug to wonder longingly, "Imagine if she was into slightly overweight guys with no money?"
Hey, you have to hand it to the UFC ... they know their audience, which I'm
guessing is a wealthier, more energetic, more buffed version of a WWE
audience (considering the best seats went for $200 and $100). During warmups,
they blared every strip joint song you've ever heard; at one point, before the show even kicked off, they followed the Guns 'N' Roses classic "Welcome to the Jungle" with that song by Kid Rock that goes "Bawitaba-da-bang-da-dang-diggy-diggy-diggy-said-the-boogie-said-up-
jump-the-boogie" (I think we all felt that way).
I offered J-Bug 100-1 odds that they wouldn't play Ozzy's "CrazyTrain" song at some point during the night. He ignored me, mainly because he was busy ogling the UFC's ring girls (who were hotter than the equator, and apparently wearing wet-naps for outfits). There was a weird buzz in the air -- part WWE, part boxing, part strip joint, part "I hope I don't get beat up," part "I hope I have the chance to beat somebody up." It was a writer's goldmine. I was busy soaking everything in and jotting thoughts down, my notebook a rambling mess. One section reads, verbatim:
- "Far enough away -- won't get splattered with blood. Kind of place you see
someone wearing an eye patch. Cool WWE-type setup -- big screen TV,
expensive entrance ramps, lasers, looks like fireworks. Stripper in front of
us. Bug wants to inquire about potential lap dance. NO BUG! Wow, Bruce Buffer!"
Yup ... it was Bruce Buffer, Michael Buffer's brother, UFC stalwart and the Frank Stallone of ringside announcing. I will always support the UFC, now and forever, simply because somebody made the decision, "Hey, we could get any ring announcer ... let's hire Michael Buffer's brother, just for comedy's sake." Stroke of genius. You know he just sits around all day, wondering how he could top "Let's get ready to rummmmmmmmmm-BUUUUUUUUUUUULLLLLL!", then getting pissed off and throwing things around his living room.
After Bruce's garbled intro, we witnessed a dark match (two beginners "warming up" the crowd, neither of them good enough for TV), followed by UFC veteran Matt Lindland winning a unanimous decision over Ivan Salaverry in the worst kind of UFC match -- not enough punching, too much time spent wrestling on the ground, waaaaaaaaaay too many uncomfortable positions involving a guy on his back with his legs up. Not good times. I mean, really, really bad times.
(If you're looking for "Reasons why the UFC may never make it," start right here: Guys vigorously rolling around on other guys. Never really a crowd-pleaser. They need to encourage more kicking, more punching and less of the other, um, stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Here's where things progressed to the next level. First, the pay-per-view telecast started -- fireworks, lasers, explosions, video montages, Buffer's incoherent screaming, the whole shebang -- just as two separate groups of guys plopped down near us: The first group featured three muscled, beer-guzzling, sarcastic guys who came off the Vin Diesel assembly line (one of them asked if he could smoke inside, decided "Ah, f--- it," lit the cigarette, then explained, "It's a peace pipe, man, we're on a reservation"). The second group featured rowdy Long Islanders whistling at girls and singing at the top of their lungs to Papa Roach's "Last Resort." And group No. 3 featured me and J-Bug bracing for the inevitable melee by calling our closest loved ones, just in case we didn't survive.
Fortunately, everyone got along. The turning point came when someone from Group No. 2 spotted Bruce Buffer in the octagon, then started screaming, "Hey, Buffer... buff this! Ha-ha ha-ha! Buff this, Buffer! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Bufffff-errrrrrrrrrr! BUFF THISSSSS!!!!" That won just about everyone over.
(Note: This was also the point when I turned to Bug and said, "Can we just mail this column to the Pulitzer Committee right now? Do I even need to write it?")
Now we were fired up. Our first pay-per-view match featured Long Islander Phil Baroni against middleweight Dave Menne; Baroni was accompanied by two scantily clad valets, wearing a robe with the Yankees symbol on the back, strutting and sneering as if he were auditioning for the WWE. The crowd couldn't have been sucked in any faster. It wasn't possible. Here was a man who clearly understood his fan base.
So the match started, the fighters danced around for a few seconds, we were already wound up ... and then Baroni caught Menne with an overhand right. Menne stumbled backward. Baroni pounced on him, landing three more punches. Flush. Now Menne was out on his feet, slumped against the octagon wall ... and this is the best and worst part about the UFC, right here, those two or three seconds where one fighter goes for the kill and the referee hasn't quite realized yet that the fight needs to be stopped. Baroni ended up unleashing five more punches, the last one dropping poor Menne in sections, before the referee finally intervened. And we were sitting there cheering the whole thing.
Then we turned to the big screen.
The camera zoomed in on a discombobulated Menne -- face already swelling up, vacant eyes, blood dripping from inside his left eyeball -- and everyone hushed. Yikes. This guy doesn't look good. They quickly brought a stretcher out for him, as one of the dudes behind us gleefully shouted, "There's your ride!" Suddenly, I wasn't sure I wanted to be there anymore. I was bummed out. Some imaginary line had been crossed, one of those, "Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it" lines. As Bug said, "That dude will never be the same."
We weren't the only ones rattled. The entire crowd seemed shell-shocked, especially after watching three people help Menne back to the dressing room, right after Baroni shouted, "I'm the man, I want my f---ing belt!" in his post-fight interview. I've seen boxing beatings before -- hell, I watched Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini kill Duk Koo Kim on live TV 20 years ago -- but this was different: more brutal, more sudden, more jarring. We were about two more punches away from witnessing Baroni kill someone with his bare hands. A little unsettling.
The Bug and I grimly sat through the next two matches -- Gan "The Giant" McGee stopping former heavyweight champ Pedro Rizzo (TKO, cuts), followed by lightweight Cael Uno outlasting Din Thomas (unanimous decision). Nearly 40 minutes passed before I made my first joke since The Beating: I asked Bug if he knew Cael Uno's brother, Pizzeria. When he didn't laugh, I mentioned how Cael was a submission specialist and added, "Sounds like my prom night." Still, no laughter from the Bug. He was busy giving birth to a new Face in the Pantheon of Faces -- the J-Bug's "My mind has been turned to Jell-O by violence" Face. He looked like Nicholson at the end of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I was ready to stick a pillow over his head.
Thankfully, the immortal Bruce Buffer snapped him out of it. Between matches, I noticed something on the floor, picked it up ... and it was an authentic Bruce Buffer trading card! You couldn't make up this stuff. After a round of "I'm putting this on eBay with a reserve bid of $600 or more" and "New, from Topps' 'Black Sheep Brothers In Show Business' Collection"-type jokes, an overwhelmed Bug finally cracked a smile.
"I'm sorry, man," he said. "I just ... I ... I've never seen anything like this."
Right around that time, we noticed that every UFC interview sounds just like an NHL interview, only more macabre: "I just want to go out there and fight my match, and uh, be the better man, and uh, hopefully I'll come out the winner." That kinda stuff. We quickly twisted that to "I just want to go out there, and uh, pummel the hell out of him, and uh, hopefully punch him until he's unconscious, and uh, hopefully his brain will swell enough that he passes out ..." Trust me, this joke never got old.
Meanwhile, lightweights BJ "The Prodigy" Penn and Matt "The Terror" Serra were battling it out in the final undercard (that's another thing the UFC needs to work on, the lame nicknames for every fighter), as everyone rooted for Long Island native Serra. When Penn eked out a lackluster unanimous decision, the pro-Serra crowd went ballistic, booing Penn through his entire post-fight interview. At least the crowd had loosened up after The Beating. A few-hundred thousand f-bombs always has that effect.
And then it happened.
With the telecast running short, they trotted out a "filler" match between Hawaii's Wesley "Cabbage" Correira and Tim Sylvia, two UFC newcomers who looked like rejects from that "Toughman" show on FX. After three straight technical matches involving top fighters, the sudden dropoff in talent was jarring, like they pulled these guys out of a local bar. The "Cabbage" guy was covered in tattoos, with rainbow-colored hair, looking like he hadn't done a situp in five years. And Sylvia was tall and gawky, like a backup center for a Division III hoops team. Neither of them had any semblance of style. They were just throwing bombs. It was practically Amateur Night.
Midway through round one, Sylvia connected with an overhand right, buckling Cabbage's legs. Then he started peppering Cabbage with blows, one after the other, bouncing them off Cabbage's head like raindrops in a thunderstorm. Unable to defend himself, Cabbage crossed his arms up in front of his face, looking like Joe Frazier, but Sylvia's punches kept barging through. We waited for the referee to stop it, but every few seconds, Cabbage threw another wild haymaker, buying himself a few more seconds.
Now the crowd was coming alive. Noticing there were 75 seconds still left in the round, we encouraged Cabbage like he was finishing a triathlon. He continued to assault Sylvia's fists with his head, occasionally throwing a punch himself. You know those HBO "Compubox" numbers they always show? Sylvia unleashed about 12,000 punches in five minutes, 11,979 of them landed ... and still, our boy Cabbage wouldn't go down. With 15 seconds remaining, with Cabbage tripping around the ring like Brian Griese, with Sylvia unable to land one last solid blow, everyone was standing and screaming encouragement. Finally, the horn sounded -- END OF THE ROUND! -- and we practically blew the roof off.
"That was a moment!" I kept screaming to the J-Bug, who had a pulse for the first time in two hours. "That was a moment!"
Cabbage wobbled back to his corner. About 40 doctors jumped in to check on him. Improbably, they decided he could continue, causing us to erupt all over again. This was like every "Rocky" movie we had ever seen. Was this really happening? If Cabbage rallied back to win this thing, it would have been like ... I can't even imagine a comparison. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. After two more minutes of punishment, Cabbage's corner threw in the damn towel. We didn't care. We stood and cheered some more. Sylvia may have notched the victory, but as far as we knew, Cabbage was the toughest guy on the planet. You would have needed a stun gun to take him down.
"I'm telling you, that was a moment," I told the Bug for the 30th time in five minutes. He was busy watching the girl in the cowgirl hat climbing over the seats in front of her, unable to properly bend because her outfit was tighter than Joan Rivers' face.
"This is another moment," Bug said, eyeballs bulging out of his head.
We were still standing and clapping. Cabbage departed from the octagon to appreciative applause, the lovable warrior who captured our hearts. Baroni emerged from backstage, accepting congratulations for his earlier match ("Way to kick his ass, Frank! Nice job!"). A number of other UFC fighters were milling around, waiting for the heavyweight title fight to commence, and UFC groupies were multiplying around them like bugs on a windshield. One of the guys behind us was screaming, "Anth-o-neeeee! Antho-neeeeeee!" to a buddy on the other side of the arena. The Bush song "Machine Head" was blaring from the speakers, the latest from the "Songs from the Spearmint Rhino" soundtrack that the UFC uses. It was quite a scene.
"We can't top that last fight," I told J-Bug. "It will never be topped. Wanna skip the title match and play blackjack?"
Even as I was uttering those words, the Bug started gathering his stuff. We were shifting from one vice to another: Three hours of organized violence was more than enough. All the beatings were starting to blend into one another, like one continuous barrage of punches. Now it was time to lose more money. And we did.
Four days later, the question remains ... was it worth going?
The answer lies on my refrigerator, where my Bruce Buffer trading card has been triumphantly placed, brightening my mornings. Every time I think of that Cabbage guy, I feel like hugging someone. And even though I can't remember what I did 10 days ago, I remember everything about my night at the UFC -- crowds, fights, sounds, smells, everything else -- and I have to say, it was an enjoyable night. Like it or not, I'm officially a UFC fan, and I guess I always knew it would happen.
Sometimes, you just know things.Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.
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