Thursday, November 14, 2013

20 Years of the UFC

Let’s cut to the chase.  I am a huge fight fan.  I honestly can’t get enough.  I watch an insane amount of mixed martial arts fights, regardless of if they are in the UFC or one of the many smaller promotions that pop up.  There just isn’t a better individual competition.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the UFC and the anniversary show is stacked with great fights.  As I was thinking about it this week I started to reminisce about some of the great fights, but better than that, the great experiences I’ve had because of the UFC.  I was a sophomore in high school when the first UFC took place merely an hour from my house.  This competition, which was completely different than what it is now, had a buzz that peaked my interest.  Through the years, and in some very dark periods beautifully chronicled in a documentary recently shown on Fox Sports 1, my interest never waned.

In 2005, as the popularity began to rise, I started getting together with some great friends that were starting to get into the sport.  Over the past 9 years, those friendships grew stronger and we always look forward to those fight nights where we can all just get together.  Normal adult life tends to get in the way of frequent get-togethers from our youth, so these nights I hold very dearly; regardless of it is a relaxed time or one of those rare nights I get taunted all night.  I’m a passionate fan, as we all know, and the guys love getting me all riled up…which is fun for me too.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending a few fights live over the years and some of the memories I have are priceless.  The funny thing is the memories of those are rarely about the fights!  That’s not saying I haven’t been to memorable fights.  I’ve been honored to have watched live some of the greatest fights in the history of the UFC.  There were just so many other things that made these events special to me and I want to share those with you.

UFC 57 – February 4, 2006
Main Event: Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell vs. Randy Couture

Best Memory – “It wouldn’t have been the same without you here.”

During one of our fight nights, a group of us decided that we needed to go to Las Vegas to attend our first live event.  When the UFC announced the main event for Super Bowl weekend, we knew this was the show to go to.  I was a fan of Liddell from the first time I saw him fight NoĆ© Hernandez at UFC 17 so there was no better fighter for me to see live.  The only problem was I didn’t have the money at that time to make it happen.  The guys that were planning it did and we were friends, but I wasn’t comfortable asking for help.  Kraig, who was orchestrating the trip, took me aside and offered to help me out and spot me (which I quickly paid back).  It was a really cool move and one I never forgot.  He helped make a dream come true for me!

We flew into Las Vegas the morning of the fights and you could feel the energy the second we walked in the Mandalay Bay Events Center.  The place was filled with fight fans, but more memorable than that, was to see the fighters walking around and so easily accessible.  If you go to an NFL or NBA game, you’re not likely to run into one of the athletes and have them take a second for a picture or autograph.  We had the pleasure of meeting Stephan Bonnar, who was only a few months removed from the fight that pushed the UFC into national consciousness.  It was just a cool environment to be a part of.

I remember standing in the arena at our seats and just soaking in the scene.  The crowd was buzzing and you just knew something special was about to happen.  I can still feel the disappointment of the fans when former heavyweight champion Frank Mir returned from a horrible motorcycle accident, only to be stopped by a much lesser opponent.  I’ll never forget Kraig leaning over to me and saying, “That was the Frank Mir you were talking about?”  I had been hyping Mir for months and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see.  I’ll never forget the primal roar from the crowd when Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell walked out.  I can’t hear “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC or “Intro” by DMX without being whisked away in my mind to that moment.

My favorite memory, though, happened while standing at the merchandise stand.  Kraig and I were waiting in line and talking about the fights we’ve seen so far.  I just expressed my appreciation once again to him for helping me come along on the trip.  I don’t think I had, and maybe still to this day, expressed just how much it meant to me to come.  Some things you just can’t put into words.  I’ll never forget him looking at me and saying, “It wouldn’t have been the same without you here.”  It’s such a small statement, but one that meant so much to me.  Watching fights had been an individual event for me for so long.  There weren’t a lot of people watching, so when I finally had a group that soaked it up and enjoyed the get-togethers as much as I did, it meant something to me.  For him to help me get there and to make such a small but powerful comment to me, is something I still hold very close.

UFC 79 – December 29, 2007
Main Event: Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva; Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes

Best Memory – “Ryan.  It’s Dana.”

My wife Rachel and I had been married in July of that year and had our honeymoon in Las Vegas.  A few months later, I was sitting at work when word broke that the UFC had booked Chuck Liddell against Wanderlei Silva for the end of the year event.  It’s a fight the entire MMA community had been begging to see for about 7 years.  I had to be there.  I e-mailed Rachel at work to propose the idea of going back to Vegas for the fight.  She surprisingly did not object and I booked the trip within minutes.

I’m not sure if a trip could have been more perfect than this one.  While sitting in the airport, Rachel broke the news to me that she no longer wanted to wait 5 years to try for a baby, but was ready whenever I wanted to (We had Marshall 17 months later).  When we arrived to the Hotel at Mandalay Bay, the desk clerk decided to upgrade us to the suite level for no extra charge.  As we walked to the elevators, the three founds of Tapout came walking out.  They owned the room, especially the lead founder Mask, who just had a presence about him.  Once we dropped our luggage off, we quickly ran down to the arena to watch the weigh-ins.  The next few hours were a blur of cheers and encounters with fighters, who were more than gracious to take a minute to take a picture.  Most memorable was Jason “Mayhem” Miller, who was walking alone and unbothered.  I walked over with my hand outstretched to request a picture.  I’ll never forget him looking at my hand, smiling and replying “Brothers don’t shake hands.  Brothers have to hug!”  He gave me a hug, took a picture and went his way.

That night, Rachel and I had tickets to go see Joe Rogan perform standup comedy at the House of Blues.  It was printed very clearly on the tickets that cameras would be confiscated if brought to the venue.  Simply following the rules, we left the camera in the room and headed downstairs.  As we walked out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby, I glanced to the right and walking towards me was none other than “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell!  I was flabbergasted and walked over to talk for a minute.  He could not have been more cordial and polite to take a moment out of his day to talk to me.  I was disappointed, though, because the camera was upstairs and I couldn’t document that memory.  I’m not an autograph guy.  They are impersonal and something so many fans get to sell.  I prefer a picture to save that moment forever.  So not getting a picture with Chuck was kind of a black eye on the event for me.

The fights the next night were spectacular, as Liddell and Silva battled in one of the greatest fights the UFC had ever seen and the epic trilogy of GSP and Hughes came to a close.  What happened earlier in the day, though, is what I remember the most.

Rachel and I had woken up and were just hanging out in the hotel room prior to starting the day of festivities.  She decided to go down the hall and grab some ice while I sat around watching some TV, preparing for the evening.  I was a little surprised a few moments later as I heard Rachel, who is relatively shy, talking in the hallway.  My wife is ultra-sweet but it struck me as odd to hear her carrying on a conversation with a stranger…that is until she called for me by saying, “Ryan.  It’s Dana.”  There’s only one Dana of relevance while we’re in Las Vegas and that is UFC President Dana White.  I jumped out of the chair and sprinted to the door.  Low and behold, Dana White was standing outside of our hotel room.  I asked him to wait there for a moment while I grabbed a shirt, to which he responded by saying he is locked out of his room and had to wait any way.  The pure luck of a free upgrade put us right across the hall from the UFC president!  This completely made up for the lack of picture with Chuck Liddell, as I was able to get a picture with Dana and talk to him for seemingly 10 minutes.  He asked about us coming in from Iowa for the fights and then we just bantered about how excited we were for Liddell and Silva that night.  Talking to him for that brief moment seemed no different than talking to my group of friends about fights.  We shared our excitement and love of the sport.  I could see why the UFC continued to gain in popularity.  When you have a guy as passionate as he is about the sport, it is destined to succeed.  I was a fan before that, but this solidified everything I always felt about the sport and the people of the UFC.  They cared about the fights, just like the rest of us.

UFC 86 – July 5, 2008
Main Event: Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

Best Memory – Rachel’s tears

Rachel and I were preparing for our one year wedding anniversary, which she informed me that the traditional gift for this benchmark is paper.  Wait, what?  Paper?  I could not think of anything that would be significant to give her.  We were discussing it in the car one day when she mentioned that she knew what she wanted to get me, but would need my help.  She surprised me by saying she wanted to go back to Las Vegas for UFC 87.  I excitedly offered to book the trip and away we went!

Let me just interject here that Rachel is not a big fight fan.  She would occasionally watch with me and even latched on to a couple of favorite fighters, Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin.  While that interest has waned over the years (it’s clear she was watching early in our dating to appease me, but now we’re married so she doesn’t have to any more), she really enjoyed our first trip and was excited to go again.  Plus, she would get to see Griffin fight in person, which added to the fun of the event for her.

It was a shared gift, but I still felt I needed to do something for her.  I found out that Rich Franklin was doing a personal appearance at the hotel the day of the fight, so I knew getting her to meet him was a nice bonus.  She blushed, smiled and got her picture with Rich prior to the fights and was on cloud nine.  What happened while we were at the fights couldn’t have been expected.

The main event was intense.  Griffin and Jackson battled for the full 25 minutes and we awaited the decision.  The Vegas crowd was on pins and needles when Bruce Buffer announced, “and…NEW UFC light heavyweight champion, Forrest Griffin!”  The entire arena erupted in cheers and applause.  It was quite the scene.  During the crowd’s reaction I looked over to Rachel to see how excited she was.  I was not expecting it, but Rachel had tears streaming down her face.  She was so happy and excited, possibly overwhelmed but the emotion in the building, that I was just blown away.  It spoke to how emotionally invested people can get into these guys.

Plus, I won $400 by betting on the heavy underdog Griffin, so I was happy too.

UFC 87 – August 9, 2008
Main Event: Georges St-Pierre vs. Jon Fitch

Best Memory – Everything before and after the event

As I look back, this event was fantastic.  We realized how good it was at the time, but looking back, the level of talent we watched was unreal.  We saw an epic five round domination by GSP.  The beast Brock Lesnar was fighting in the state of Minnesota, where he is a local legend from his collegiate wrestling days.  Plus, the UFC debut of future champion and all-time great Jon “Bones” Jones took place.  He was an unknown and raw fighter, but you could see something unique in him.  It was just a stacked event.

The joy of the experience was the trip itself, though.  Mike, Rick, Kraig and I had it all planned out.  I bought the tickets and we prepared to car pool up there.  Unfortunately, Kraig was unaware that his wife had booked a family vacation and had to pull out.  We needed to find someone to fill in, and I immediately thought of my friend Jason.  He was in a tough spot, though, as he didn’t have the funds to make it happen.  Remembering what Kraig had done for me just a couple of years earlier, I wanted to pay it forward to Jason.  He didn’t know when he could pay me back and I told him I didn’t care.  We’re going and we’re going to have a blast.

When we got up to Minneapolis, we decided to grab a drink and hang out since we were early.  We hit up a hotel bar down the street from the Target Center.  Little did we know, this was the fighter hotel!  While we hung out, we noticed a couple of referees sitting around discussing the event.  We had struck the jackpot!  We enjoyed seeing fighters come downstairs and did our best not be too eager to run over and snap a picture.  Wanderlei Silva, who is one of the most terrifying men in the cage, was one of the most polite athletes I’ve ever met.  He took time to take pictures with us and talk a little.  The language barrier was definitely present, but he tried and that’s all you can ask.  He was much more cordial than BJ Penn, who simply threw his hood on and pretended to make a phone call.

We had a great time at the event, talking to those next to us, running into my tattoo artist and enjoying the fights.  There was nothing quite like seeing Brock Lesnar throw a straight right hand into Heath Herring’s face, sending him flying backwards.  The roar of the partial crowd was awesome!  When we hit the road after the event, Mike and Rick jumped in the back to sleep on the way home.  I had a few adult beverages in me so it was up to Jason to drive us home.  We listened to some of the post-fight press conference on the radio and then spent the next 3 hours repeatedly changing music, singing, dancing and essentially driving the guys in the back crazy.  We took a pit stop at a gas station, which resulted in me staggering around the store and buying a plastic Viking helmet.  I’ll never forget the roar of laughter from the car as I came back.  Absolutely awesome.

A little over two years after this event, we suffered the loss of our friend Jason.  Whenever I watch GSP fight, I am taken back to this event and I smile.  The pictures we have and memories can never be replaced.  I’ve grown closer to the guys I watch fights with and I always cherish the memories that we have, whether it was a trip to see an event live or just a get-together at someone’s house for a big fight.

The UFC, for me, is not just about the fights but also about the friendships and experiences I’ve been blessed to have in my life because of them.  It’s only been 20 years of fights and I can’t wait for 20 more.