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Philadelphia shows fighting spirit

You can see it out the window of the rickety SEPTA car, as you rumble down the R7 line past Joe Frazier's gym and through the hardscrabble neighborhoods of North Philly, where alternating blocks of pristine brownstones and bombed-out vacants make the brick-and-mortar landscape.

It's the palpable fighting spirit of Philadelphia and it's always lent a rough-and-tumble character to this place, one of those provincial cities where sports are a matter of vital cultural importance in a way any true metropolis like New York or L.A. can never comprehend. Long before Frazier, Bernard Hopkins and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia has always been a fight town.

From its long pedigree of fistic luminaries like Tommy Loughran, JackBlackburn, Harold Johnson and "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien to the Legendary Blue Horizon on North Broad Street -- the world's greatest boxing venue according to The Ring magazine -- the roots of the fight game here run deep.

Saturday night marked the next chapter in this time-honored tradition, when the Wachovia Center played host to UFC 101 -- a mere six months after Pennsylvania became the 37th of the 44 states with athletic commissions to legalize mixed-martial-arts events. A sellout crowd of nearly 18,000 fans packed the home of the 76ers and Flyers to see B.J. Penn defend his lightweight belt against Kenny Florian and middleweight champion Anderson Silva build on his legend with a first-round knockout of Forrest Griffin at light heavyweight.

If the card didn't quite live up to the considerable hype, the Philadelphia fans sure did. They packed the place to capacity, bringing a raucous, party-type atmosphere from the lots into the stands, and made for an electric climate. The $3.55 million gate, thought to be a state record for a combat sports card and just a fraction of the pay-per-view haul, certainly didn't underwhelm.

It's safe to assume the first major MMA card in Philly won't be the last.

* * *

You ride the R7 downtown -- one of the eight regional conduits to Center City -- you transfer to the Broad Street subway and shoot down to the sports complex, an archipelago of stadiums which the inimitable A.J. Liebling once described as "a kind of Gobi Desert at the end of all transportation lines." It was two-and-a-half hours before the doors opened and the parking lots outside the Wachovia Center were already popping with a football-style tailgate scene. Thousands of revelers sucked down libations while tossing bean bags into plywood targets or ping pong balls into Silo cups, mostly to a pulsing soundtrack of Tool or Rage Against The Machine.

It was your classic cosmopolitan fight night with a touch of hillbilly: Your deluxe limousines parked next to eight guys drinking cans of beer out of the bed of a Ford F-Series. Along the east side of the building, a live band played to a crowd of several hundred alongside the notable sight of a U.S. Army recruiting tent.

This type of go-hard-or-go-home fanaticism -- a trait common among Philadelphia sports fans and UFC devotees at large -- was common at promotional events throughout fight week. Perhaps the most impressive display came Friday, though, when 2,546 fans packed the north end of Wachovia Center for the weigh-ins, and UFC president Dana White held court with the fans for 75 minutes.

Hundreds of MMA junkies -- many wearing those garish and ornate UFC, Tapout or Affliction shirts -- formed queues behind one of two microphones to ask questions and issue deep, heartfelt expressions of gratitude to the organization's frontman.

Wearing the jersey of Phillies' centerfielder Shane Victorino, the professed MMA fanatic who himself entered local sports folklore this past October, White gave a series of crowd-pleasing responses and made dreams come true. "Can we come down and get a picture with you?" Done. "Will you just shake my hand?" No sweat. "Sign my vanity license plates [Delaware tags UFCFAN and UFCFAN2]?" Absolutely. One well-dressed twentysomething in a suit asked White for a job ("I brought a resume!") and drew playful boos from the crowd, but White told an assistant to "go get that guy's resume." One guys asked a question about hard-to-find DVDs from the UFC's early days. "Where's Tom? Give him your information, I'll send you the entire DVD set." Another example:

POT-BELLIED THIRTYSOMETHING: "Whenever I watch the events I always notice there's always two ring girls and three chairs. Can I sit in that extra chair?For just one event? I drove from Cincinnati."

WHITE: "You're the most observant dude I've ever met in my life. Go get that guy's information."

Blessed with an infectious charisma, While is able to incite raucous applause and spontaneous bursts of anger from the congregation with each response, like a latter-day cross between P.T. Barnum and Richard Dawson's Killian from The Running Man.

The most common question, presumably from fans who'd made the 90-minute trek down I-95: "When is the UFC coming to New York?"

Who cares? Sure, UFC can and will someday draw like gangbusters at Madison Square Garden. But this sport was made for a blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges burg like Philly. From a business standpoint, there's not another city in the country that's within a three-hour drive of more pro sports teams (read: major markets). And culturally, it's a perfect fit for the local sensibilities.

"Philly is known for being one of the biggest fight towns in America if not the biggest fight town in America," White said Saturday. "I'm happy to bring big fights back here."

* * *

Six of the nine preliminary fights leading up to Saturday's two main events wouldn't even make the global pay-per-view telecast, but you'd never know it from a quick glance around the building at 7 p.m., when the occupied seats outnumbered the empty ones. "It's the first time we've ever walked into a fight and there's been 11,000 people there for the first fight of the undercard," White said.

Pat Miletich, one of the defining figures of the UFC's formative years, has compared mixed martial arts to a three-legged stool of striking, submission and wrestling takedown and defense -- with the whole thing collapsing if one leg is weaker than another. Fans in Philly were treated to highlights of each discipline throughout the night, even if the uneven card fell short of the more seasoned fans' lofty expectations.

When Johny Hendricks dropped Amir Sadollah to the canvas with four concussive uppercuts less than a half-minute into the first round of their welterweight bout and fell onto his opponent in a hail of fists, referee Dan Miragliotta quickly jumped in between the fighters. Hendricks celebrated the victory as boos -- the natives' second language -- rained from the stands, more an indictment of the ref's premature intervention.

During the lightweight fight between Aaron Riley and Shane Nelson, the fans peppered some first-round downtime with the requisite E-A-G-L-E-S chants. Two rounds later, a fight in the lower rows of Section 103 further diverted attention from the contestants in the Octagon and drew considerable applause -- doing little to subvert the reputation of Philadelphia fan as knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. (That the fighters were a pair of women did little to short-circuit the stereotype..)

Penn's fourth-round submission victory over Florian by rear-naked choke in the night's climactic lightweight title bout was a crowd-pleaser, a measured technical struggle between one guy looking to take the action to the ground and another more comfortable trading upright strikes. But the night's most electric moment came in the penultimate fight showcasing Silva, the middleweight champion who was unbeaten in his previous nine fights -- a UFC record -- but was moving up to 205 pounds to face light heavyweight champ (and obvious crowd favorite) Forrest Griffin.

Griffin's uninspired song choice -- The Dropkick Murphys' anthemic "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" -- was outdone when the room went dark and the entire space throbbed to the pulsating bass line of DMX's "Ain't No Sunshine." Enter Silva, for my money the UFC's most compelling competitor, one of those freak athletes it seems could play running back for the Eagles as easily as center back for the national soccer team of Brazil, where he's from.

The tension in the Octagon spread through the room during the first minute of the first round, as Silva calmly measured his opponent. (My press-row neighbor likened it to a bomb on the verge of explosion.) Silva couldn't quite capitalize on the ground after recording a flash knockdown but he didn't need to. Midway through the first round, Griffin looked beaten -- like a chess player who hasn't lost any important property, but whose opponent has developed his pieces far more effectively and thus seized control of the action. Next came a second knockdown, nothing too violent, but at this point Griffin was a shot fighter.

The ending came at the 3:23 mark of the first round: Silva averted two punches and, while lunging back, delivered a straight right hand to the jaw which sent Griffin crumbling to the floor. That particular maneuver is considered a cardinal sin in the boxing world -- but it was a trademark of Muhammad Ali.

It was a transcendent moment and, in the aftermath, it was difficult to determine who the boos were directed towards, as Silva climbed and strattled the Octagon in celebration while Griffin bolted from the canvas and vanished down the tunnel in a three-quarters sprint in shame.

He was not seen again the rest of the night.

* * *

The vast majority of the MMA's recognizable names have contracts with UFC directly, so the organization can act as the primary promoter and matchmaker. Without the red tape of boxing, UFC "makes the fights the fans want to see."

That's a lofty ideal in boxing, something made lightyears easier when the entire operation is housed under one roof. "In boxing, a guy could be 30-0 and not fought anyone worth a shit," Chuck Liddell once said. "In the UFC, you can be 4-4 and be a great fighter. Everyone loses, but that's okay. Fans see the fights they want to see."

It's not always foolproof -- Penn-Florian was hardly compelling theater, with cries of "This fight sucks!" heard throughout the later rounds -- but it works more often than it doesn't. Throw in the slick packaging of these events -- which feels like a rock concert as much as a sporting event, from the flashy presentation to decibel level -- and you've got a gold mine in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic.

Fans of mixed martial arts should enjoy these salad days. It took Major League Baseball almost a century before Curt Flood made things a whole lot more difficult for the puppeteers. If the UFC continues this meteoric ascent, its age of widespread free agency could arrive much sooner. Where I sit, from the fan's perspective, UFC is a dream product that I hope these passionate fans never have to wake up from.

And as for the fight connoisseurs in Philadelphia, the wait for the next UFC event won't be nearly as long as the first.

"It's been an amazing experience," said a beaming White at the post-fight presser, "and I can't wait to come back."

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