Monday, March 5, 2007

UFC 68: Road Report

By Dan Bliss

Live, UFC 68 was certainly an experience. Wildly successful, I would also imagine. The crowd at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus last night was there for three reasons: To see Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin win and, most of all, to see Randy Couture beat the heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia. No one left disappointed, and it was an awfully happy group of people leaving the arena.

The main event was a spectacle unlike any I’ve personally experienced at a sporting event. I knew Couture was popular, but I didn’t know he was that popular. Outside of his corner and any family members that may have made the trip, I don’t think there was a Sylvia fan in the audience. When Couture dropped Sylvia in the opening seconds of the first round, everyone in the crowd was on their feet within seconds. Any doubt that anyone had in Randy Couture vanished at that instant. There was an air of cautious excitement throughout the fight that kept building like a wave as the rounds wore on. The place just erupted in the waning seconds of the fight. I can’t recall a reception like that anywhere.

Everyone knows the UFC is popular right now, but experiencing it live is quite different than reading pay per view buy rates or looking at gate figures. The shear mass of humanity waiting outside for the doors to open in the cold night air was quite the site. Inexplicably, UFC fans do not like coats. It didn’t hurt their enthusiasm, however. The restaurants and bars in the area were bursting at the seams. Once inside, the place was packed. There were six sections in the upper deck blocked off by large screens. I have no doubt they could have filled those seats as well. The crowd was mostly the under 30 or so young adult crowd that I expected to see. There were also a fair number of children in attendance with their parents, which has to be a testament to the mainstream movement of MMA in America. Merchandise sales must have been high. The lines were long and people were walking away with piles of goodies. When attractive young ladies are excited to see that they can buy UFC panties, the company must be on the right track.

It looked to be a fairly educated crowd, but one that was there to see the stars. At least until the headliners fought, the section I was sitting in was extremely silent. Most people were intently watching the fights and would pop when someone tried a submission or made a nice reversal. Sitting in the very last row of the arena, as I was, I could hear instructions from the corners during some of the opening bouts. Still, everyone looked interested in all of the fights.

The rest of the card was largely by the books. The only truly bad contest was Jason Dent vs. Gleison Tibau. Basically a stalemate on the ground for the three rounds that left the crowd restless, with loud chants of “stand them up.” Matt Hamill received a surprisingly loud reaction. Besides the big three, it was by far the biggest reaction of the night. He looked impressive finishing Rex Holman in short order. It may be too soon for Hamill to hang with the elite of the Light Heavyweight division, but the UFC may have a drawing card on their hands. Jamie Varner also looked great in demolishing Jason Gilliam quickly with a choke to open the show. The only surprise before the main event was Jason Lambert’s come from behind win over Renato Sobral. A hell of a turn around and probably the second best fight of the night.

Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin are, without a doubt, superstars. It may have been bolstered a bit by the Midwest connection, but both had thunderous ovations. The reactions paled in comparison to Couture’s, but it seemed quite impressive at the time. Hughes win over Chris Lytle was unspectacular at best. It was still a solid performance, but hardly the most exciting. Franklin, on the other hand, looked like he had regained his old form in a pretty exciting little match. Besides Tim Sylvia, Anderson Silva had to be the least popular man in the building. Perhaps it’s the name. In any event, I’d expect a dynamic similar to Slyvia/Couture should the UFC go ahead and have the rematch in Cincinnati.

From the homeless man I saw disco dancing to the Bee Gees in an Arby’s before the show all the way through the crowning of Randy Couture as heavyweight champion, it was quite an unforgettable evening. The big question about the UFC’s recent success seems to be is this a fad or is it here to stay? I can’t say, but I do know that being there live, it sure doesn’t feel like a flash in the pan.

If business is about sending folks home happy, you could not possibly do any better than UFC 68.

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