Fifty-five thousand. That's how many fans will be packed into the Rogers Centre in Toronto for UFC 129 on Saturday night. It's a crazy number, considering that the fight organization's previous attendance high, set just last December, was not even half of that: 23,152 at Montreal's Bell Centre for UFC 124.
The common denominator: Georges St-Pierre, who will defend his welterweight championship in Saturday's main event against Jake Shields, also was the headliner Dec. 11 in his Quebec hometown, beating up Josh Koscheck to the roars of the big crowd. Maybe GSP is the UFC's cash cow.
Or perhaps it's all about Canadian venues, or maybe Canadian fighters in general. Fighters from north of the border will be competing in all but two of this weekend's dozen bouts.
Notice that I'm throwing out a lot of numbers? Here are some more, from a couple of UFC 129's other featured bouts: 7 and 100, 2 and 47. Allow me to decode: Jose Aldo, who has scored a stoppage in seven of his last eight bouts (and won 11 straight), will defend his featherweight belt against striker Mark Hominick, who'll be a crowd favorite, having grown up in Thamesford, Ontario, about 100 miles from Toronto; and ex-light heavyweight titlist Lyoto Machida, once considered not just unbeatable but unhittable, will be carrying two consecutive losses on his back when he steps in against 47-year-old Randy Couture, the five-time UFC champion and a Hall of Famer, who has announced that this will be his last bout.
Another important number to note: nine, as in 9 p.m. ET. Starting with this event, UFC pay-per-view telecasts will begin an hour earlier, presumably to help people like me meet fight-night writing deadlines. (Thanks, Dana White.) That pushes the Spike telecast of two free fights up to 8 p.m. And the whole event gets under way at 6 ET, with the first five bouts to be shown on the UFC's fan page on Facebook.
Keeping with the theme, here are paint-by-numbers portraits of the main event fighters:
Earlier this month, Shields' training partner at Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Strikeforce welterweight champ Nick Diaz, put himself thorough an unnecessarily difficult fight with challenger Paul Daley by choosing not to take the fight to the ground, where he had a distinct advantage, and instead standing and trading with the power-punching Brit. Diaz ended up beating Daley at his own game, which no doubt was a satisfying point of pride for him.
St-Pierre aims for no such satisfaction. His strategy always is to identify his opponent's weak point and exploit that. So don't expect to see GSP roll on the mat with Shields, a submission grappling virtuoso. Instead, the well-rounded St-Pierre will rely on his striking skills to pick apart Shields, who is pretty ordinary on his feet. St-Pierre, one of the sport's most proficient wrestlers, might take down Shields at some point, but at the first sign of trouble, he'll be back on his feet.
What should we expect out of Shields, then? He'll be persistent in his pursuit of top position on the ground, where he is deadly. But to gain a dominant position on GSP he'll first have to get his hands on the champ, which will be no small task.
St-Pierre is either MMA's pound-for-pound best or a close second, so any time he steps into the Octagon, it's an event worthy of our attention. And when he does so in front of 55,000 people, smashing a UFC attendance record he set in his last fight, it's a sign that this guy is someone special. His fights are more slow burn than explosion, but there's plenty of entertainment value in his dominant performances. And when GSP is stepping in against a guy who hasn't lost since George W. Bush's first term, that's worth watching.
A little bit of barely relevant trivia: Since I've twice mentioned the Shooto middleweight championship, here's a question: Who wore that belt before Shields? It was current UFC champ Anderson Silva, who took it from Hayato Sakurai in August 2001, then vacated the title, which remained vacant until Shields claimed it in July 2004 by beating Ray Cooper. Why is this even remotely relevant to Saturday's fight? Only because if GSP wins, looming next would be a superfight with Silva.
Nine of the evening's 12 bouts pit a Canadian fighter vs. an American. But the fight in which the home country competitor figures to have the biggest crowd support is one in which the opponent is not an American but a Brazilian. Hominick, who was born, grew up and still lives just down an Ontario highway from Toronto, will be going for the featherweight championship against Aldo, a buzzsaw of a fighter. Aldo is billed as a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, though we've seen no evidence of that, since he's punched out everyone in his path. Finally, in with a stout striker like Hominick, Aldo might show off some of his ground skills.
At 47, Couture is finally ready to hang up the gloves. For good this time. "The Natural" did retire from the UFC once before, back in 2006 at the tender age of 42, but there was a divorce and other turmoil in his life at the time. He came back a year later. Now he's insisting that this weekend's fight with Machida is it. He's not about to go Brett Favre on us.
What a storybook ending it would be if Couture were to go out a winner in front of 55,000 witnesses. It might happen, but just as it's amazing that a 47-year-old athlete can perform at an elite level, consider this other example of how numbers lie: Couture enters this fight on a three-bout winning streak, while Machida has lost two in a row. How is that deceptive? Machida's losses came to a pair of former light heavyweight champions, Quinton Jackson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Couture's wins came against big-mouthed boxer James Toney, an
This is going to be a big-time challenge for Couture, who has risen to the occasion before. Does he have one more in him?
Of the 12 bouts on the card, only two do not include a Canadian fighter. One of those is Couture vs. Machida, and no one will leaving their seats during that one. Even if it weren't Couture's Octagon finale, he's always a popular combatant. The other non-Canadian bout: Vladimir Matyushenko vs. Jason Brilz. That's not exactly ho-hum, either. Brilz has lost two of three but started his career 17-1-1, while "The Janitor" is 25-5 and has won four of five, the only loss coming against the runaway diesel known as Jon "Bones" Jones.
Ben Henderson knows what it feels like to be the guy being dunked on by Blake Griffin in the
Both welterweight fights to be shown on Spike (8 p.m. ET) have merit, but Nate Diaz vs. Rory McDonald could be a thriller. The 21-year-old McDonald (10-1), who hails from British Columbia but recently has been training in St-Pierre's home gym in Montreal, is coming off his first loss. But he got the better of a serious fighter, Carlos Condit, for nearly three rounds last June before succumbing to a stoppage with just seven seconds to go. Diaz, who trains with Shields (as well as his brother, Nick, and Strikeforce lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez), is also coming off a loss, by unanimous decision to Dong Hyun Kim in January, but he's tough both on his feet and on the mat and has a Fight of the Night pedigree.
Toronto area welterweight Claude Patrick is 13-1, winner of 12 straight fights, his last two in the UFC. Daniel Roberts is 12-1, his only blemish being a one-punch KO loss to John Howard in his UFC debut last year. These guys can fight. Fire up your computer and watch them do so. Then go to your sister's wall and make a funny comment about the high school picture she just posted.
Several times during the ballpark's and hotel's joint history, room guests have been seen engaging in innocent private moments by a stadium full of lascivious voyeurs. Or maybe it's the other way around. When the ballpark first opened, a risqué couple's hotel hanky panky was shown on the Jumbotron during a Blue Jays game. Couples have been caught doing the same at least two other times, and once a man was spied at his room's picture window having his own little privates party. Now hotel guests must sign an agreement stating they will not engage in any lewd activities ... or at least pull the shades before they do.