BOSTON -- One of the fighters on Saturday night's UFC Fight Night bill at TD Garden is a descendent of a two-time NBA champion with the Celtics. Another sparred with and broke the nose of one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombing terrorists. Still another, who hails from a foreign land across the pond, has said he feels right at home in Boston, not least because when he was showering after a workout in Southie the other day, a total stranger came up to him and started speaking Gaelic. And then there's the UFC representative who lambasted the president of the Boston City Council -- "self-righteous clown!" -- in the fine tradition of what used to go down in the chambers at City Hall in the old days.
All of that might seem of no more than parochial interest, but these bits of local color actually shine a bright light on a larger, more universal picture that the UFC has been selling to us for years. Only one of the news-making folks mentioned above, you see, is in the main event, which pits light heavyweights Chael Sonnen and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). Everyone else is either on the undercard or figures into the evening in a wholly different way.
The biggest promotion in mixed martial arts, in its ceaseless effort to distinguish itself from the dysfunctional boxing business, puts its matchmaking muscle toward offering quantity as much as quality to those who plunk down a few hundred bucks to be in the arena or even $55 to watch on a pay-per-view telecast. Whereas big-time boxing shows typically are top-heavy -- fans are lucky to get an appealing co-main event -- the UFC seems driven to fill a fight night to the brim. Why the resolve? Well, you can just picture promotion president Dana White sitting around with his buddies back in the day, watching a boxing PPV and talking and drinking and eating through most of it, then rushing to the fridge to grab a beer just as the main event is getting under way and -- bang! -- it's all over. Damn. We've all been there.
Some nights the UFC still stumbles, from the top of the card down. But this Saturday seems destined for sustained intrigue. The main event is not so relevant to the 205-pound title picture, but it's still a fascinating clash between a former champion and a tough guy who's been on the threshold. The winner could very well be heard from again. If more immediate relevance is what you're after, however, there are several fights to watch, including a pair of bantamweight bouts -- Urijah Faber vs. Yuri Alcantara, Michael McDonald vs. Brad Pickett -- that could produce the pair of combatants for a No. 1 contenders' showdown down the road. The top of the ladder also might be the destination for the survivor of the Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne heavyweight co-main event, although the higher rungs are awfully crowded with big boys at the moment.
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All in all, the 13-fight card has no quit in it, all the way down to the prelims. You might even say it's bottom-heavy. Local guy Joe Lauzon always brings the excitement -- he's won more post-fight performance bonuses than anyone in UFC history other than longtime pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva -- and he was a monster the last time the UFC visited his hometown, in 2010. And then there's Conor McGregor. He isn't from Boston; it just seems that way. The Irishman has fought just once in the UFC, but his quirky effervescence and his run of 12 knockouts in 13 wins have generated a stout keg of hype. The UFC scheduled a public workout this week just for him, unheard of for a prelim fighter. "If there's a spark," Dana White said in explaining the promotional strategy, "I wanna light a fire."
Where better in America to do that with an Irish fighter than in Boston? Where people walk up to you in the shower and speak Gaelic.
Here are some notes on the rest of the folks mentioned up above:
All politics is local
Dana White considers himself a Boston guy. Or at least a New Englander. He was born in Connecticut, lived his early years in Western Massachusetts, spent several summers with his grandparents in Maine. And when he graduated high school he moved to South Boston to pursue his dream of making it in the fight game.
Now he's living the dream, of course, not as a fighter but as the president of the UFC. In 2010, he fulfilled another dream by bringing the fight game -- his fight game -- home to Boston. And now he and the UFC are back ... and it's been a bit of a nightmare.
First, the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission invoked a requirement that all athletes who are not American citizens -- that is, approximately a third of the 26 fighters on the card -- must have Social Security numbers. This had not been enforced during the UFC's first visit back in 2010. The promotion had to scramble but got it done.
Next, the main event was thrust into jeopardy when the athletic commission held a hearing to determine whether Sonnen, who has been cleared for testosterone replacement therapy in other states, should be licensed to fight. There was a complaint about Chael's character lodged by Unite Here, whose Las Vegas culinary union local has long been battling with UFC majority owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in an effort to organize workers at their Nevada casinos. The union shined a light on Sonnen's 2011 felony conviction in a money laundering case stemming from his work as a real estate agent, and also on his xenophobic comments about Brazilian culture in the trash-talking buildup to his fights with Anderson Silva. But the commission nonetheless licensed Sonnen in a unanimous vote.
Crisis averted? Yes, but the next one was coming right behind it. On Tuesday the Boston City Council held a public hearing at which it considered a resolution filed by its president, Stephen J. Murphy, that would ban anyone under age 18 from attending a UFC event. The measure will not come up for a vote until next week at the earliest, however, so Saturday's event at the Garden is safe.
But the UFC's future in Boston is not. "It's a great place to go hang out with my friends and eat," White said of his onetime hometown, "but not a great place to put on fights."
As you might expect, the combustible Dana didn't leave it at that. He had some strong words for Councilor Murphy, with "self-righteous clown" just the start. He accused Murphy of being "in the pocket of the union," perhaps because the councilor's arguments -- citing UFC fighters' hateful rhetoric online, including rape jokes and the like -- come directly out of talking-point memos distributed by Unite Here.
"You realize the Patriots play here; you realize what just happened in football, right?" White told New England Cable News, in reference to the Aaron Hernandez murder case. "Have you ever been to a Yankees-Red Sox game? Have you ever heard the things that are yelled, the things that are said around little kids?"
Murphy's response to that was to say the Patriots "jettisoned Aaron Hernandez immediately upon his latest out-of-the-football-arena transgressions. Dana White and the UFC have done nothing to sanction their athletes who are on YouTube making videos on how to pick up a girl with chloroform and zipties."
Now, it's fair to call the UFC on the carpet for its spotty record on reigning the boorish behavior of some of its athletes. Murphy's example falls flat, though, because the deplorable video he's talking about stars Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who was not re-signed by the UFC when his contract expired. He now fights for Bellator MMA, and neither his signing nor the recent announcement that he'll headline the second-fiddle promotion's debut PPV drew even a peep out of Unite Here.
MMA has rules. The fight over politics and money does not.
Follow the bouncing ball
Fighters are taught to keep their chin tucked when they box. That's fundamentals. So why was Chael Sonnen looking upward so often during his public workout Tuesday afternoon at TD Garden? He wasn't looking up at his workout partner, he later explained, and not at the crowd of fans, either. He was looking up up up. To the rafters, where 17 white-and-green Celtics NBA championship banners hang. "I was trying to figure out," said Sonnen, "which one my uncle was a part of."
Chael's uncle was a 7-footer named Mel Counts, and he actually helped hang not one but two of those banner up there. The center out of Oregon State was Boston's first selection in the 1964 draft, chosen seventh overall, one spot ahead of Willis Reed and three before Paul Silas went off the board. Counts won both of his championships in his first two seasons in the league, although he played sparingly because coach Red Auerbach elected to mostly go with some guy named Bill Russell.
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Counts, who also was part of the gold medal-winning 1964 US Olympic basketball team, would be traded away after those championship seasons and bounce around to five other teams over a 12-season career. During a stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, he spent a couple of seasons backing up another center you might have heard of: Wilt Chamberlain.
So at family picnics Chael, he of the back-to-back challenges of Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, isn't the only one regaling the relatives with tales of being in with the greatest of all time.
Terrorizing the guy
"We had a rough sparring match one time and he tried to knock me out. I knocked him out. I broke his nose."
That's John Howard, who will be returning to the UFC in a middleweight prelim against Urijah Hall after an absence of two years, talking about what at the time seemed like just another day at the Boston gym where he trains. That day now haunts him, though, because the Golden Gloves boxer he was sparring was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who along with his younger brother are suspected of the bombings near the Marathon finish line that killed four spectators and injured hundreds. Four tense days after the bombings, Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police.
Howard wishes he'd done in Tsarnaev while they were duking it out at Wai Kru Gym. But as sickened as he is by what his occasional sparring partner did, Howard does derive a small measure of satisfaction whenever he sees the accused terrorist's face on TV. "Every time I see his picture on the news, because his nose is broken, that was me who did it," said Howard, who won his first four UFC bouts, lost three in a row and was released, then won six of seven in smaller promotions to work his way back to the big show.
In his hometown. For which he has a message:
"Let the Boston people know, yeah, he did that cowardly stuff, but before he did that he got a little Boston beatdown."