Dana White has always nurtured the vigorous growth of the UFC as if he were the manager of a rising rock band loath to rush the act from nightclubs to theaters to arenas to stadiums for fear of muddying its hit sound.
"The one thing that always worried me about doing a stadium," Dana confessed last week, "was losing that experience that the fans get in anywhere from a 10,000- to 20,000-seat arena."
Apparently, White has gotten over his fear of big spaces. "This place is perfect," he said, speaking at a news conference to announce that a staggering 55,000 tickets had been sold for UFC 129 at Toronto's Rogers Centre, home ballpark of MLB's Blue Jays. That means the April 30 event -- which has a distinctly Canadian flavor, with Montrealer Georges St-Pierre defending his welterweight title against Jake Shields, Ontario's own Mark Hominick challenging Jose Aldo for the featherweight belt and Canadians fighting in practically every bout on the card -- will have more than twice the attendance of the previous UFC high, the 23,152 who jammed the Bell Centre in Montreal in December for St-Pierre's beatdown of Josh Koscheck.
What makes the cavernous Rogers Centre so "perfect" for a UFC event? "The way we've laid this out," White said. "We put risers in. There won't be a bad seat in this place. To be able to do a stadium this big and say there won't be a bad seat in the house, we pulled it off. It's going to be great."
Oh, yeah? Prove it. Instead of watching from your usual spot at cageside, Dana, grab one of the $50 seats in, say, Section 530B, which is in the upper deck along the third-base line (the Octagon will be set up in center field). Think you'll be able to distinguish Georges from Jake without consulting one of the big video screens?
I have my doubts. Last August for UFC 118 in Boston, I was seated in the hockey press box at TD Garden, a venue much cozier than the Toronto stadium at just 20,000 seats. From my vantage point above the nosebleed seats, I couldn't tell a kimura from a kimono. Luckily for me, I was writing only about a couple of preliminary fights, not the main event, so I was able to sneak down and find a cageside seat whose rightful owner was a late arrival. Then I went back upstairs and watched the rest of the fights on the big screen. Whenever I looked down to the cage -- which I'm sure was half the distance from me that it will be for those in the Rogers Centre upper deck -- it appeared that two ants were locked in some sort of combat. Or lovemaking. Or something.
I am not being flippant with my seating suggestion for White. He's a man of the people. Whether by handing out free tickets, by never saying no to a fan asking him to pose for a photo or by exhaustively answering practically every tweet that twitters his way, the UFC president has shown time after time that he is deeply committed to the fans of mixed martial arts. The guy clearly recognizes that paying customers are the ones ultimately responsible for the unabated success of his sport -- which sounds like an obvious insight, but some of the bigwigs running other pro sports sure don't seem to grasp it.
So on April 30, White should head up to the nosebleeds and claim his seat. Among his people.
It's surreal enough to be in the New Jersey mausoleum known as the Izod Center for any reason, but it was especially so a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in the Meadowlands watching the indomitable Fedor Emelianenko being dominated by Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. It was my first time watching Fedor fight in person, though, so what did I know?
For Vladimir Voronov, who as Emelianenko's coach has watched many more times as the Russian legend was amassing his decade-long 29-fight winning streak, the lackluster loss obviously was too bizarre an experience to be believed. Naturally, he attributed Fedor's performance to "forbidden psychological technology."
Speaking to the Russian website LifeSports.ru (I found the comments via FightersOnly.com, which translated), Voronov said: "It seems to us that not everything was right, and that certain technologies were used. Not ones that could be seen by the naked eye but psychological technologies that worked on both fighters at a distance. That is why during the fight Fedor was just not like himself. It seemed very strange behavior from Fedor. He stepped into the ring and did everything exactly the opposite of what we practiced before the fight."
Now, I happen to believe in the power of unseen forces. The mind is a complex machine capable of being fueled by things we simply do not understand. So even though it sounds like nothing but unsportsmanlike excuse making, I'm not prepared to ridicule Voronov's theory. But Silva's manager sure is.
"Jeez!! I got caught! I will have to come out with the truth now!" Alex Davis wrote in a sarcastic posting to the MMA Underground forum at mixedmartialarts.com. "I hired a Macumbeiro [Brazilian witch doctor] and we killed a black chicken on the crossroads. After this, over a few beers, I showed the witch doctor Fedor's fights, and he was worried that a chicken wouldn't be enough, so we went out and killed a black goat, just to make sure! Very potent stuff! Really messed Fedor's brain waves up!"
Guess the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board's tests for performance enhancers aren't as sophisticated as they seem.
In the days before the first fight night of the Heavyweight Grand Prix, I had a conversation with Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker about his ambitious tournament and couldn't help but veer off topic for a moment. I'd read somewhere that long before Strikeforce, even before his days as head of North American operations for the K-1 kickboxing organization, Coker had a very cool job. It was just a temp assignment, really, but I had to ask him about it.
It was back when he was studying taekwondo under Ernie Reyes Jr., who was not only a martial arts instructor but also an action film actor. And when Reyes landed a starring role in a 1993 film called Surf Ninjas, Coker traveled to Thailand with his teacher to watch the filming. And immediately was recruited to work in the film. As a stunt double. For Leslie Nielsen.
Surely you can't be serious, Scott.
"Yes, it's true," Coker said, laughing (but neglecting to add the requisite "And don't call me Shirley!" punch line). "Apparently there was no one in that area of Thailand who was big enough to be Nielson's stunt double. So I got hired."
His main stunt was to fall into a water pit. "It was fun," Coker said, "although that water I fell in didn't taste very good."
• Who knows why anyone writes anything on Twitter? It's a 140-character playground for some, a workplace for others, and both for many. So when Forrest Griffin tweeted out of nowhere (grammar, spelling and syntax fixed), "I am the new Tito: bitch about injuries after every fight, win or lose, hold guys down as much as possible, never finish a fight," it was a puzzle as to where he was coming from. He is, after all, a guy who likes to joke.
But Tito Ortiz, who has split two decisions with Griffin, was not laughing. He launched a bitter series of countertweets ridiculing Griffin's KO loss to Anderson Silva and ending with this bit of self-congratulation: "The longest-reigning light heavyweight champ and longest-competing UFC fighter -- Tito Ortiz. My career was tarnished by lies but my name will live forever!"
Guess what happened next: Ortiz bowed out of next month's UFC Fight Night bout against "Little Nog" Nogueira, citing an injury. You can't make this stuff up.
• When Thiago Silva was pulled from his UFC 130 bout with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson because of a positive drug test after his last fight, a lot of folks thought the open slot would best be filled by Rashad Evans, who by the end of May should be healed from the knee injury that forced him out of next month's title shot. This speculation was fueled by reports that Rampage and Rashad, their sophomoric feud not quelled by their fight last May, had slapped each other recently at a Las Vegas nightclub.
But Dana White wasn't interested in Evans-Jackson II. "Who wants to see that [expletive] again?" he said. "Rampage-Rashad, the [expletive] snoozefest?" Instead, Jackson's opponent will be ... "Matt Hamill and Rampage might not talk a bunch of [expletive] about each other before their fight, but when have you not seen Matt Hamill fight? Matt Hamill's going to go in there and try to beat him."
Two things to say about that:
1. I think Hamill is in over his head with Jackson.
2. That's quite a slap at Rashad. Apparently, White is still peeved that Evans sat idle waiting for "Shogun" Rua to heal for their title bout, then was injured himself. Promoter White favors active fighters, both in their bouts themselves and in their career trajectory.
• In the days before the Silva fight, Fedor appeared on the online show The MMA Hour at MMAFighting.com and was asked which fighters he most enjoys watching. He mentioned UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, then fellow Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix combatant Josh Barnett, then went silent.
When interviewer Ariel Helwani pressed him for more names, Fedor explained that he doesn't devote much of his TV time to MMA, saying, "I would prefer to watch cartoons with my daughter than to watch fights."
I can relate, Fedor. I like watching a fight as much as the next guy, but watching Bugs, Popeye and the Flintstones with my 5-year-old girl and her 8-year-old brother is awesome.