May 26, 2012

LAS VEGAS — Out of nowhere, as if a mirage here in the Nevada desert, it suddenly appears in front of my eyes: the huge garage door bearing a UFC logo, an iconic scene-setting symbol for so many seasons of The Ultimate Fighter. And when I say “out of nowhere,” I mean it. My cabbie probably thought he was being set up for a mugging when I directed him to turn into this desolate industrial complex a half-mile west of the neon glow of The Strip.

Back when I flagged down the cab and climbed in, I’d told the driver I was headed to the UFC gym. “Which one?” he asked. “There’s the Wanderlei Silva gym. There’s the Randy Couture gym.” He clearly was reasonably versed in MMA, which I suppose is par for the course if you’re taxiing people around the fight capital of the world. But the TUF gym was a new one for him. He’s found his way, though, and when we pull up in front of the familiar garage door and he notices a security crew milling around next to a satellite-equipped TV truck, he turns to me for his fare and says, “Don’t get beat up.”

Good plan. So as I walk past the security guys I refrain from any wisecracks, although I really want to ask someone why a building full of high-level mixed martial artists needs a security detail. Can’t these guys in black T-shirts go protect Penn and Gillette from the Blue Man Group or something?

I’ve come here to witness Friday night’s two semifinals of the The Ultimate Fighter: Live. I’m in town for Saturday’s UFC 146 anyway, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend the evening before the big heavyweight card. It turns out I’m not alone in thinking that way. Between a few other members of the MMA media and a bunch of TV folks, fighters’ friends and assorted hangers-on, about 30 of us are led into the gym and seated octagon-side. As the production crew prepares for lights, camera, action, we sit sipping our complementary bottles of UFC label bottled water -- talk about drinking the Kool-Aid -- and gazing around at the vast walls adorned with larger-than-life portraits of UFC royalty from Royce Gracie to Randy Couture to Anderson Silva.

So what’s it like behind the scenes? I’ve signed a release form, so I can’t reveal any of the darkly scandalous stuff. But I do see Jon Anik, the FX show’s consummate professional of a host, being asked to record a retake of a voice-over at his Spalding Gray desk at cageside after a producer decides the script uses the word “also” one too many times. Also, also, also, I see Herb Dean walk in the gym, wearing his familiar all-black referee garb, and do something I’ve never seen him do in the octagon: reach into his pocket for his cellphone and answer a call. (I’m sure he’ll turn off the cell before the fights begin, and that reminds me to do the same with mine.)

Just before the show goes live, UFC president Dana White comes over to our little section of visitor seating, shakes a few hands and welcomes us all by saying, “Don’t be shy. You can clap, you can cheer, you can scream.” Toto, we’re not in the press box anymore.

I don’t do any cheering once the fighting begins, and most of those seated near me, even the non-media types, are pretty quiet as well. That puts this experience in stark contrast to the usual setting for a UFC fight. Rather than a 20,000-seat arena with a blood-thirsty crowd drowning out the ear-splitting hardcore house music, we’re in a quiet gym. Quiet, that is, all but for the cacophony of encouragement/instruction/cautions/cheers that are incessantly flying at the fighters from their coaches and teammates. Michael Chiesa’s corner is right in front of us, and here’s what we hear from his coach, Urijah Faber, from his other cornermen and from the blue-shirted bleachers of Team Faber. Moveyourhead!throwakick!twomoreminutes! It’s impossible to make sense of any of it.

But after a slow start against James Vick, Chiesa gets a thunderous takedown in the second round, ends up in full mount and explodes on Vick with a swarm of fists until Herb Dean (no cellphone in sight) jumps in and ends it. Or should we say he continues it. By winning the fight, Chiesa extends the most emotionally gripping feel-good/feel-sad story of the reality show’s season. The 24-year-old out of Spokane, Wa., lost his father during the first week of the show, but encouraged by his family back home, he continued on. And now he’s in the final.

Against a teammate.

Al Iaquinta makes it a sweep over Dominick Cruz’s team by taking a clear decision from Vinc Pichel, sending the Faber gang into wild celebration complete with an “ole! ole ole ole!” cheer.

The celebration is mostly for the fight they’ve just witnessed, no doubt, but some measure of these young men’s joint excitement has to be for the fact that they’re all finally moving out of the TUF house. With no phones, no TV, no nothing for weeks, this has been their sensory depravation chamber. Now they’re free to catch up on all the episodes of The Bachelorette that they missed. Or perhaps find some mischief -- knowing full well, of course, that not only Chiessa and Iaquinta but every guy from the show who’s not medically suspended will be fighting Friday night in The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale (10 p.m. ET, FX).

With that in mind, Dana White plays dad, sending the fighters out of the nest with a few words of advice. “Have fun tonight,” he says. “Do what you have to do. But be smart.”

--Jeff Wagenheim

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