You can see it out the window of the rickety SEPTA car, as you rumble down the R7 line past
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,
From its long pedigree of fistic luminaries like
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
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.
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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
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
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
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
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
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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.
During the lightweight fight between
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
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
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.
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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,"
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
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."