Blood lust and body slams
The Ultimate Fighting Championship came to Sacramento. Did you get your fix?
There’s always a split-second silence between a moment of violence and our reaction. A fist crashes into a skull, a truck explodes in a village market, a plane slams into a building—time freezes and we can’t reconcile what we’ve seen. Is it both human frailty and instinct revealed? Do we get our kicks? Go numb? Cheer, shiver—even laugh?
At Saturday’s Ultimate Fighting Championship event at Arco Arena, knees collided with jaws, skulls popping like glockenspiels.
The crowd of 15,000 approved each forceful blow. They lusted for blood. When marquee fighters Tito Ortiz and Rashad Evans entered the arena, the anticipation came to a head. Fans were too stoked to even cat-call the ring girls (or “Octagon Girls,” ’cause fighters square-off in an eight-sided ring). Ortiz, arguably the UFC’s biggest name, knows how to work the pack. He approached the Octagon waving the red-white-and-blue, Eminem’s “Mosh” thumping on the PA system. Mid-arrival, he paused to pump-up the masses, vigorously waving the flag in the air. Then Evans made his appearance, joining Ortiz on the main stage. The two fighters tapped gloves and the proverbial foreplay ended. It was time to spill blood.
UFC may not be the most popular sport in the world, but it’s slowly achieving name ID, perhaps in the same way underground and formerly ignominious sports like skateboarding and snowboarding now enjoy mainstream acceptance. This fight had more press than a Schwarzenegger appearance. Joe Rogan of Fear Factor provided color commentary, and bad jokes, for TV. Ortiz’s girlfriend, adult-film actress Jenna Jameson, and her San Fernando Valley entourage were in the house. The UFC even has an official beer (Mickey’s—one-ups Natty Ice, natch).
The UFC is violent and testosterone-infused. It’s extreme. So how did it break into the pop-culture vernacular?
Fistful of dollars
UFC combines elements of boxing, wrestling and martial arts. It’s a legitimate contact sport; this isn’t your Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin wrastlin’ boondoggle. That said, the UFC hasn’t always been recognized as a bona fide athletic competition.
Thank casino moguls the Fertitta brothers and former amateur boxer and Las Vegas trainer Dana White, who purchased the UFC in 2001. Soon thereafter, it evolved from stigmatized melee and target of congressional ire to a sanctioned high-impact sporting mainstay. TV deals, sold-out crowds and all sorts of publicity ensued. Last year’s Pay-Per-View revenues topped $220 million, a record sum for PPV. UFC stars graced the covers of ESPN magazine and Sports Illustrated this past May. Even daily papers like the L.A. Times assign beat reporters to cover bouts. And its popularity only continues to grow. Why? Because it’s bloody and action-packed? Or ’cause fans dream of becoming fighters themselves? “I could totally kick that guy’s ass!” they fantasize.
The thrill of dominating is the juice, the turn-on. This is the UFC’s selling point.
“There’s business and then there’s fighting,” Ortiz explained a couple of days before the fight, “and then there’s business-fighting. That’s what I do.” Ortiz is a master salesman—and peddler. Outside of the Octagon, he sells the fight with panache. He’s a millionaire, calls L.A. home, purchased Oscar De La Hoya’s practice facility, wears made-to-measure suits and bangs porn stars. Rocky meets Ron Jeremy—Ortiz is the fighter that fans love … and love to hate.
And most wanted Evans to whoop his ass on Saturday.
“I’m gleaming. I love it,” the bombastic jawer Evans told SN&R before the fight. “Look at Tito. He’s frowning. He’s really pissed off. He doesn’t even know how to control his feelings now.”
However, when their match began and Ortiz steam rolled Evans into the Octagon wall, his luminosity dimmed. Punches flew. Faces bled. The crowd roared with approval.
Still, this being mixed martial arts, which includes moments of wrestling, the fighters often took to the mat, blows few and far between. It too was exciting, but impatient fans didn’t hesitate to voice their displeasure. The pre-fight masquerading and the lengthy takedowns have their share of homoeroticism—and a few laughs.
“You’re fighters, not lovers!”
“Gotta love the missionary position!”
“You guys gonna make out?”
But all a fighter needs to do is bust out a nasty choke hold to remind you that, well, just think of that scene in Casino when Joe Pesci pops that guy’s eyeball out.
They’re in there to destroy each other.
The crowd wants to cheer. They lust for blood.
While the Ortiz-Evans match was the crème de la crème of the evening, there were in fact other high-profile fights to behold. Leon Tabbs, the UFC’s longstanding cut man, was ringside for all the bouts.
Tabbs was working on the bloodied mug of knocked-out middleweight Nate Marquardt while champion Anderson Silva celebrated his TKO atop the Octagon wall. Silva, who reverse-pinned Marquardt and slapped down a bevy of right-hand punches moments after pounding on his face with a staggering scissor-kick jujitsu move, had the crowd on its feet. He leaped from the wall and paraded his championship belt. Marquardt lay still on his back, Tabbs perched over his bruised face with an ice pack and a slab of frozen metal, called an enswell, pressed against his bloody cheek.
“I’ve been in boxing for over 40 years and I’ve never seen anything take off like this,” Tabbs said later of the UFC, noting the predominately under-40 males at Arco, many of whom had thrown down half-a-grand to see the evening’s card. Tabbs, a gray-haired black man in his 60s sporting rubber gloves with a pack of Q-tips affixed to his wrist, has tended to bruises and lacerations since the UFC’s inception.
“At the first show in Denver back in ’93,” Tabbs recalled, “they had to move the fans in front of the camera to make it look like the event was crowded.”
Now, UFC is an international affair.
“In Brazil, they don’t have too much money,” heavyweight fighter Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira explained in broken English before the match, “so fighting there is not professional in so far as earning money.”
But sprilla’s no longer a problem for Nogueira. After his victory on Saturday over Texan Heath Herring—his first fight, and win, in the UFC—cash should flow like, well, blood. Back stage, everyone congratulated Nogueira on his victory, shouting out props in his native Portuguese. It was like his very own favela entourage in the bowels of Arco.
“We’ll never have what they have here in America, but we’ve got a lot of heart,” Nogueira humbly offered.
Fellow Brazilian Silva concurred. He doesn’t speak English, but when asked of his strongest asset as a fighter, he made firm eye contact, thumped his chest and announced proudly, “My spirit.”
The passion of the fight, the proverbial thrill and agony, also is attractive to fans. Leave it in the Octagon, as they say. Wear your heart on your sleeve—and wear it bloody.
The Arco crowd lapped it all up.
So when Evans body-slammed Ortiz with less than 10 seconds left in the match, and the crowd exploded with unprecedented fervor, the UFC had its money moment. Evans shot from the ground as the final bell sounded, a transcontinental smile tattooed on his face. Was it enough to win? Or was Ortiz’s steady dominance and balanced attack over three rounds sufficient to convince the judges of his dominance?
“I thought Tito had it,” local radio host Dave Carmichael of KHTK 1140 AM’s The Carmichael Dave Show argued after the match. “I thought it was Tito’s decision.”
“I thought it was Evans. He landed a lot more punches.”
When the judges announced their decision, it was met with a chorus of boos from the Arco crowd.
The fight ended in a draw.
Fans may lust for blood, but winning definitely is their God.