Never before had I watched it. Not in person. Not on television. I frankly didn't have a smidgeon of concern if I ever saw an Ultimate Fighting Championship event.
But there I was in Las Vegas two weeks ago, having returned to my old stamping grounds to cover suspended heavyweight Joe Mesi's hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission's medical advisory board. I arrived a few days early to visit some old friends and to make sure all my old haunts still served their beer cold.
A big UFC pay-per-view show was taking place in the MGM Grand Garden, and NSAC executive director Marc Ratner, having learned of my UFC virginity, suggested I drop by to give the sport a chance. Seeing as how my liver was begging me for a night off, I decided to drop by the Grand Garden to catch some of the action and perhaps gain enough material to write a first-person account of UFC from a hardboiled boxing fan's perspective.
The event I attended was UFC 52.
No. 53 couldn't come soon enough, and I've been hunting for copies of the first 51.
I know there are tons more folks out there like me who've been reluctant to give mixed martial arts an honest look. Time to let down your guard and stop being such a curmudgeon.
The exhilaration of UFC matched that of a Las Vegas megabout, blow for blow. A high-voltage crowd of 14,562 filled the Grand Garden Arena – those are old Mike Tyson numbers – to see a highly anticipated rematch between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture for the light heavyweight championship.
“That energy is pretty amazing,” said Couture, who was weaned on Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. “There's no way to be involved and not feel it.”
Sometimes UFC isn't the best sport to watch live because you can miss the finer points once the fighters end up in a heap, but the action can make boxing look stale by comparison. Had you watched a steady diet of UFC before catching Saturday night's bout between James Toney and John Ruiz, you might turn off boxing forever.
I'm not that guy. Boxing will always be tops in my book. But now I understand UFC's allure.
Boxing, in a strict athletic sense, is pure. The fighters punch each other from the waist up on the ventral side. Anything else is a foul.
UFC is far coarser and more complicated. Fighters use a variety of disciplines such as jiu-jitsu, aikido, sambo and wrestling. For the untrained eye it can be difficult to enjoy the finer points. Sometimes the guy on the bottom is winning. But you don't have to be able to recognize a neck crank, a guillotine or a rear naked choke to feel the drama.
“There's been a resistance to learning or trying to understand it,” said UFC spokesman Jack Taylor. “Traditionalists don't want to believe it or accept it as a sport.”
To me, UFC represented a bit of professional wrestling. It all seemed a little too out there. Two guys wearing Speedos and going at it in an eight-sided cage felt a little too theatrical.
“If you watch it you realize very quickly there's nothing scripted about it, nothing choreographed or staged,” Couture said. “It's very real, very gritty.”
That was clear to me shortly after I located my seat and became enthralled by the undercard bouts.
Matt Lindland, the Greco Roman wrestling silver medalist from the 2000 Olympics, summed up his middleweight victory over jujitsu practitioner Travis Lutter: “He was tying me up and made it hard to hit him. So I decided to choke him instead.”
It sure felt like Lindland's hand was around my trachea during the next match, but it merely was my heart in my throat.
In the opening seconds, welterweight champ Matt Hughes was moments away from losing to Frank Trigg. The referee didn't see Trigg had kneed Hughes in the nether region. As Hughes grabbed his manhood and spit out his mouthpiece to complain, Trigg pounced and began to waylay.
Hughes somehow gathered himself and in wonderfully dramatic fashion bear hugged Trigg around the waist, lifted him off the mat, marched him across the ring like a dummy, slammed him down and administered a rear naked choke.
Trigg tapped out.
I was agog.
Suffice to say, boxers have a rather dismal track record in mixed martial arts competitions. In UFC, a boxer heading into the octagon would be like dropping a goldfish into a meat grinder.
Since “standing and striking,” as UFCers call it, is only one element of the sport, boxers struggle.
“From their perspective it looks easy,” Couture said. “They think about their skill set and say 'I'll just knock this guy out before he puts me on the ground.' A lot of times, when you face somebody who's going to shoot and take you down, you don't realize how difficult that is to stop somebody from doing it.”
UFC continues to grow and will get even bigger as it gains more widespread acceptance across the country. It's sanctioned in Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and New Jersey and at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. It's close to being sanctioned in California.
And for frustrated boxing fans there's plenty to like about UFC's business model. There are only five weight classes, and the whole operation is under one roof. That means the best will fight each other. There are no promoter shenanigans, no ratings politics, no inflated records. Even the greatest fighters have multiple losses. Couture has seven. Liddell has three. Hughes has four.
“Nobody fights bums or dogs in the UFC,” Taylor said.
Amen to that.
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BURNING QUESTIONS: Am I the only one who thinks Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. looks like a frightened 5-year-old who has just been dropped off for his first day of kindergarten?
Whatever happened to Magic Johnson's career as boxing's promotional savior?
Why can't the WBC learn how to spell Lamon Brewster's name correctly?
Sulaiman & Co. have been calling him “Lamont” for years.
TONEY NO PHONEY: The fight wasn't wildly entertaining, but Toney proved he belongs among the heavyweight elite with his decisive triumph over the WBA champ. Ruiz, as much as his style makes me vomit, has always been underrated. Toney toyed with Ruiz all night. The little man wore down the big man and sent him into retirement. Toney would have trouble with Vitali Klitschko's range, but it's not hard to imagine him beating anyone else in the division.
CHIP OFF THE OL' COBB: I guess Larry Holmes hit Randall “Tex” Cobb so hard his kids came out dizzy. That's how unsteady on his feet Josh Cobb looked Friday night in his second pro bout. The 19-year-old heavyweight was huffing and puffing in his ugly TKO-3 loss to Javier Diaz on ESPN2's show from the Union Plaza in Las Vegas. I wonder how many witnesses vowed never again to watch boxing.
HAIL, CAESARS: I don't know of a more beautiful sports setting than outdoor boxing at Caesars Palace. To see the Sweet Science applied under the gloaming, with the famous hotel and its neon sign in the background, is as comforting as a phone call from mom.
QUOTEMARKS: “I always treated everybody with respect, but they didn't treat me the same way. It hurts me to walk away like this. I grew up in boxing. It's sad for me to put it this way, but boxing was the sport I loved. Now it's the sport I hate.” – Ruiz to The Boston Globe after losing to Toney.
“I doubt he has the balls to fight Samuel. If he did, it would give me great pleasure to watch Sam beat the hell out of him.” – Samuel Peter's promoter, Dino Duva, on Toney.
“I am looking to see if he really does have the power to knock me down, to knock me out. We have to go up in the ring and find out. I think I am strong enough to take his punch and we will find out who really is the strongest guy up there.” – Jose Luis Castillo on fighting Diego Corrales on Saturday night.
FAREWELL, JACK: Some newspapers listed his age at 80. The Associated Press said he was 76. Nobody could locate any survivors. Everybody who came into contact with Jack Welsh considered him a friend, but few really knew him. Welsh passed away last week. He died in his sleep shortly after attending ESPN's pay-per-view show at Caesars Palace.
I was one of those boxing writers who thought he knew Jack. He was ubiquitous when it came to boxing, writing for such publications as The Ring, Boxing Monthly, Flash Update and Gaming Today, as well as Showtime's website. He was at ringside, the news conferences, the weigh-ins, the media junkets to places like Big Bear, California. He always had a smile on his face and a story for any occasion. I enjoyed being around him.
But Jack also lived a lonely existence. He was a recovering alcoholic who lived alone and didn't always have enough money to handle his bills. But Jack always had his benefactors – whether they wrote his stories for him back in the day while he was on a bender, or they helped pay the rent in recent years – and there will be a special place reserved for them in the afterlife for their kindness.
I remember the night I met Jack. It was 1994 and I was a cub reporter for the Lorain Morning Journal dispatched to Las Vegas to cover hometown boy Carl “Stuff” Griffith against Oscar De La Hoya. Here I was, in the belly of the beast for the first time, my first trip to Vegas, covering my first major boxing event. Jack must've seen the intimidation on my face because he made it a point to come over and say hello and welcome me to the city that eventually would become my home for five years.
After Roy Jones obliterated Toney in the main event, Jack introduced me to a group of boxing writers who allowed me to tag along for drinks at the Four Kegs on Tropicana Avenue. I sat there with Mike Katz, Ed Schuyler, Royce Feour, Tim Dahlberg, Robert Seltzer, Joe Maxse, Jim Hunter and others I can't recall through the haze. As Jack Welsh had done earlier, they enraptured me with tales of the Sweet Science. The beer and booze came in waves.
I have been a boxing fan, and frequently sloshed, ever since.
Welcome to the business, kid.
And thank you, Jack, for ushering me there.