Monday, March 12, 2007

You Never Forget Your First Time: The Ultimate Night in Vegas

By Grant Gordon

It's Super Bowl weekend in Sin City. The town is abuzz. Beautiful women are everywhere my head turns. Guys gawk, down drinks and place bets on everything from coin flips to Rex Grossman's fumbles and bumbles. Indianapolis Colts rooters and Chicago Bears fans just like me are in full force. And my mind is miles away from my beloved Bears. The booze, the blackjack and beauties must wait, as well.

It's Super Saturday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's annual day-before-the-big-game pay-per-view. It's UFC 67: All or Nothing at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. It's the first time I'll be watching the UFC –not from the confines of my couch but live and in living color.

When my plane touches down in Las Vegas around noon, I'm thirsty, hungry, nervous, overwhelmed and doing my very best not to show it. In four hours, my life will begin to change forever and one of the greatest nights of my life will begin to take shape.

With the card still hours away, I'm off to get my credentials. Along the way, I see fighters everywhere, all of them approached by fans for pictures and all of them more than happy to do so. The buzz is building, and the fights are coming.

Since the UFC squeezed me in at the last minute, I've got an auxiliary media credential. In other words, I'm sitting in the stands and carrying a $500 ticket that's worth more than the suit holding it.

Slowly 3:30 p.m. rolls around – you tell me how fast Vegas moves when you're trying not to gamble and turn down cocktails left and right. Shortly thereafter, my primary reason to be in Las Vegas and one of the baddest men on the planet walks onto the scene.

Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell is the UFC light heavyweight champion and the most popular and recognizable mixed-martial arts fighter in America. He's there to watch the fights, and I'm there to talk to him for a future story.

Before the interview starts, we walk through the Mandalay Bay from the sports book, where his prior radio interview took place, to a casino lounge. Along the way, fans clamor to him. In the few hours I'm with him at various times through the night, hundreds of people will ask for pictures. He doesn't turn any of them down. He doesn't even hesitate.

Through it all, I'm keeping to myself that I'm just like them. Every time Chuck fights, I'm watching, rooting him on and celebrating his every knockout. I never tell him this of course. In Las Vegas, talking to one of my favorite athletes of all time, I'm trying as hard as possible to be at least quasi-professional. As our interview ends, I ask Chuck what he's got planned after the fights. He's got an after-party at Studio 54 and asks if I'd like to come by. I did not need to check my calendar.

As I make my way to the events center, I realize it's fitting that I'm seeing my first live UFC event among the fans. I'm just like one of them. In the months before, I was gathered around the TV with my friends, listening to Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg call the action. Their voices and our handful of cheers are the only noise in a suburban home tucked away in the middle of Everytown, USA. Not on this night, though.

I remember the first time I saw the Yankees play in Yankee Stadium. I remember the first chance I got to witness my Bears play at Soldier Field. And now, disappearing from the slots, tables and bars is the Mandalay Bay Events Center. As I walk in, I remember being in high school, that's how long ago it was when my dad forked over the cash to watch UFC 2 on pay-per-view more than a decade ago.

That was when my love affair with the sport began. My obsession eventually died away, just like the sport did. But as the resurgence began a few years back, I climbed back aboard the bandwagon. I really never thought it would take me here. But it has.

While millions watch at home, I'm one of nearly 11,000 there in person. Wesley Snipes is there and so too are comedian Kevin James and adult-film icon Jenna Jameson (the girlfriend of former UFC champion Tito Ortiz). Posters from past events adorn the rafters. Everyone who's anyone has fought here, from Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell to Matt Hughes and Ken Shamrock.

The un-televised portion of the card begins with fans scattered through the arena, the Octagon girls getting louder cheers than the fighters. As the undercard carries on, the crowd finally gets a chance to explode. Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" erupts through the arena, the 80s classic eliciting the biggest ovation thus far. Lightweight fighter Tyson Griffin makes his way to the Octagon and it's all I can do not to stand and pump my fist. During the next three rounds, the crowd doesn't stop cheering. Griffin and Frank Edgar are two up-and-coming, twentysomething fighters who bring in undefeated records. They brawl standing, they grapple, they try submissions. The fight ends with Edgar – the underdog and the guy ahead on points – gritting his teeth and doing all he can to hold on until the fight ends with Griffin clamping on a knee bar. Edgar can barely limp, but he can raise his hand in victory.

"That was awesome," UFC co-owner and President Dana White later said in the post fight press conference. "That was the fight of the night." It was two guys doing everything and anything they could to please a crowd and earn a spot and a name for themselves in the UFC. In a fight not even guaranteed TV time, it's the highlight of the pay-per-view card.

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