I Finally Took the Red Pill

by | August 10, 2009 at 5:32 PM | General, Sports

I went to UFC 101 in Philly on Saturday night with designs on discovering America’s newest “major” sport.

I wanted to be able to tell you that mixed martial arts had arrived. I wanted to be able to tell you that UFC was ready to make the leap into the mainstream. I wanted to be the guy to unleash MMA upon America.

But I can’t do it. After what I witnessed Saturday, I realized I can’t tell anyone that UFC is here for good.

Why?

Because it arrived years ago. I’m way too late.

Forgive my naïveté, MMA fans. I had no idea what I was missing — or, for that matter, how big the sport had already become.

Make no mistake, world: UFC is here, it’s not going anywhere and it’s only going to get bigger.

Walking into the fight Saturday night felt like falling into the rabbit hole. Like finally, after living 33 years in a dream world, I decided to take the red pill. It was as if I was Kanye West on South Park … at last I get the joke.

I arrived at the Wachovia Center early – or, at least what I considered early – and was flabbergasted by the lines just to get into the building. MMA fans, dressed in their jerseys (either “Penn State” shirts or “Dropkick Murphys” Tees), were snaked in a line that wrapped around the arena. My first thought: Are the Octagon Girls giving away free “hugs”?

But no, that’s how loyal and avid MMA fans are. Nobody’s missing first pitch. It doesn’t matter that “first pitch” consisted of five preliminary fights staged before the main card – and live television coverage – began. These fans weren’t missing a clutch (over 11,000 were in attendance for the pre-lims, a UFC record).

And that’s why MMA is so special. That’s what makes it better than boxing. That’s why UFC 101 brought in the largest gate in Pennsylvania fight history in its first incursion into the Keystone State.

Sports fans love sports for one simple reason: The moments.

The moments where we’re wowed. The moments that yank us out of our seats by the back of the shirt. The moments that make you burble, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The greatest thing any sports event can do for its fans is give them one of those moments.

UFC gives you eight of those a night.

At least.

And it’s because you never know what’s going to happen next. A fighter could be dominating a fight, and then take a single misstep into a huge punch and find himself on the canvas. Or get himself out of position on the floor and have to tapout because he suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a rear-naked choke or an arm bar.

As Dana White eloquently put it on CSNPhilly’s “Daily News Live” the other day, “There’s so many different ways to win …and so many different ways to lose. Anything can happen in UFC.”

And it can happen at any time. That what makes the sport great.

Name another American sporting event where getting up to grab a beer – no matter when you decide to make the run – is done at the risk of missing the biggest moment of the night? In what other sport can you look down to grab your dropped phone and miss the knockout of the year?

The sport keeps you constantly on your toes.

And if it doesn’t, if the fight slows down to a waltz (like boxing often does), the crowd boos and the Grand Poobah of the sport publicly tongue-lashes you in front of millions of people.

Do it multiple times and White is liable to blackball you from the sport entirely.

Because while there are plenty of rules in today’s MMA (the sport has come a long way since John McCain labeled it human cockfighting), the one rule that’s etched on the back of every fighter’s eyelids is:

Don’t be boring.

UFC offers substantial bonuses for submission of the night, knockout of the night and fight of the night. At UFC 101, each was worth a cool $60,000.

That’s a pay structure that rewards excitement. It’s why UFC fans love their sport so much. And it’s why fans are more excited for a photo op with Dana White than they are with the UFC Octagon Girls (though, the Octagon Girls are understandably popular too).

White is a cult hero.

And he is so because he runs his league with the rarest, simplest and smartest imperative:

Give fans what they want.

It seems so obvious.

Yet, it’s a concept no other major sport in America seems to grasp. It’s exactly why every time the other major sports look in their rearview mirror, they see UFC fast approaching.

And it’s way closer than it appears.

 

Email me at russakoffrules@comcast.net; follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/leerussakoff.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.