Monday, March 5, 2007

Couture captures Ultimate Fighting gold, Dana White smiles ear to ear.

By Josh Hachat

COLUMBUS - Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White was exhausted by 2 a.m. Sunday. He had spent most of Saturday night in Nationwide Arena mingling with fans, settling business and taking in what turned out to be a historic evening.

But amidst that exhausted look was a smile that wasn't about to be wiped away.

"This was an amazing, amazing weekend," White said. "We're pretty blown away. I'm just so excited.

"We've done some big events, but, seriously, in the six-year history of our company, I've never seen anything like I've seen tonight. It was amazing. I was so blown away. The response we've had here is incredible."

n one great night at UFC 68 at Nationwide Arena, 43-year-old Randy Couture sent shockwaves through the sport of mixed martial arts, Ohio made itself known as an MMA hotbed and records were shattered.

Couture captured heavyweight gold for the third time in a hall-of-hame career in front of a crowd of 19,044, the largest total not only for the UFC but in North America for an MMA event.

The gate, which ended up at more than $3 million, blew away the single-event record for Nationwide Arena, but the evening didn't come to a climax until just after 12:30 a.m., when Couture's arm was raised after defeating heavy favorite Tim Sylvia.

It wasn't Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, but it was close for a sport that has left boxing in the dust as the premier combat sport. On Saturday, it was Couture who took the sport to a new level.

"This was a huge night," he said. "Breaking all these records, and there's just a few times in your career when things come together like that, and it was just an exceptional night. ... I just see the sport continuing to entrench itself as the combat sport of the future."

White had planned to bring the UFC to the Midwest, but the reception it got in Columbus blew everyone away.

The arena was packed before the first undercard fight - a rarity in combat sports - and it was buzzing almost the entire night. Matt Hamill, a Cincinnati native, said he felt vibrations before walking to the octagon before his fight, while others were just as overwhelmed.

Matt Hughes, an Illinois native who was one of the top draws on the card, said his experience in Ohio topped even his legendary fight with Royce Gracie last May.

"I thought it was great," said Jason Lambert, who scored the other upset of the evening with a victory against Renato Sobral. "Just to see this many fans in one arena was shocking."

Said Cincinnati native Rich Franklin: "It's great for everyone to see it here. It's just really exciting to see all the die-hard fans in the Midwest."

Franklin added it would be a card he'll always remember - because of the crowd for one, but also because of what Couture did.

White was so impressed with the city he guaranteed a return trip to Columbus, along with future shows - perhaps this year - in Cincinnati.

The headliner for a show like that obviously could be Franklin, who would face Anderson Silva in a rematch for the welterweight title.

White said a night like Saturday made it an easy decision to return to Ohio. He also mentioned why he thought the UFC and MMA in general have had such a

meteoric rise.

"This is the most exciting live event you'll ever see," he said. "When we go live, I'm jumping around like a little kid. But these guys always deliver. They're incredible athletes and incredible human beings."


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