On the first UFC night of my lifetime, in April 2007 in Manchester, England, in the arena lobby, during interviews with English fans, an aspiring mixed-martial artist suddenly lifted his shirt and asked me to punch him in the gut.
While I admired his concrete abdomen and wished deeply to exchange it with mine, I told him I had made a lifelong point of refraining from hitting interview subjects as well as other people.
He pretty much begged me.
I apologized for being such a prude.
He noted his accrued training at a local gym.
I assured him my punch would lack punch anyway.
Then I entered the Manchester Evening News Arena, and while I don't know whether anyone else ever says you never forget your first live experience around mixed-martial arts, I know I say it. It felt like crossing a moat into some dreamy sports Neverland.
A commissioner I had never seen in person, Dana White, appeared at a lectern before the press. A reporter mentioned a disparaging thing somebody had said about UFC. White promptly replied, "---- him." After years spent around the necessary politics of other sports, trying to discern what officials really believed, I kind of relished the candor.
I knew precisely what White believed.
Through the night, British fans who knew of the athletes from shrewd reality TV and from bygone fights spoke with a thorough knowledge, in that way horse racing people speak of horse people or hockey people speak of hockey people: as if everybody in creation knew all the details and nobody needed any primer. The din and energy from a sellout crowd of 14,921 made it seem possibly the most dynamic place in the world at the moment. They announced fighter weights in pounds and stone. At one point during a tepid fight, a fan shouted, "C'mon lads!"
In the headline fight of the night, the former champion Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, a Croatian former special-forces police officer and a Croatian parliamentarian from 2003-07 (Social Democratic Party), had his left ear exposed to Gabriel Gonzaga's right foot, which swept upward and sent Filipovic downward. He conked out for some seconds; the arena went silent; he woke and later I went out into the chilly English spring night with a sensation wholly unexpected.
I felt more alive.
It had been so different from anything else that I wondered: Do UFC fans even like other sports? Do they find everything else sort of unacceptably slow or manufactured? After you've experienced a Dana White, can you handle a Paul Tagliabue or a Roger Goodell? Am I just talking to the wrong people, people who know other sports intricately but draw blanks on UFC stars? As UFC 156 approaches at Mandalay Bay Events Center on Super Bowl Saturday night, evidence suggests the answers go like this: yes, no, why-not and yes.
Even in its historic newness UFC does have, of course, a Super Bowl weekend legacy. With Super Bowl weekend long a big whoop in Las Vegas for reasons you and I might just be able to peg if you give us three guesses, and with Super Bowl weekend staging a game only on Sunday night, a perfectly good Vegas Saturday night sits idle for filling. Then factor in an educated suggestion from Las Vegas Pro MMA Radio host and MMA analyst Larry Pepe, who surmises that even though MMA and boxing still have a sizable overlap in fans, the overlap between MMA and NFL probably is greater.
These are demographics -- young demographics -- who "like the kind of controlled chaos that these sports bring," Pepe said.
The six installments thus far for UFC on Fox echo this. The first, in November 2011, brought an average audience of 5.7 million, while the second, in January 2012, averaged 4.7 million. The fifth and sixth, in December 2012 and January 2013, got 4.4 million and 4.2 million on average, even as the sixth featured a flyweight bout as a headliner (and showcased UFC's knack for generating interest in multiple divisions). The third and fourth, meanwhile, roped in roughly half of those totals, occurring in May and early August of last year, times when they could not benefit from promos during NFL games on Fox.
"I don't think it's any coincidence that 1, 2, 5 and 6 were dramatically higher-rated shows than 3 and 4," Pepe said, and added, "I know it's not perfect evidence, but it's pretty good evidence to me." And as veteran observers including Pepe forecast a dip for UFC on Fox 7, which is slated for April 20 (no NFL in sight), Pepe said, "I don't think it's a sheer numbers thing; I think it's a similarity-of-interest thing."
The NFL and UFC seem to make a neat crossover on the testosterone bridge. Said Pepe, "Both sports share aggression. They share a level of controlled violence that's refereed and overseen, and that is different from other sports." Boxing has some of the same, but generally in a more staccato form than what figures to transpire in the UFC's five-fight main card, which includes headlining featherweights Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar, and heavyweight Alistair Overeem's return against Antonio Silva.
Late Saturday night, the Vegas-minded will adjourn to await a Super Sunday doing whatever people in Las Vegas do on Super Sundays. In terms of popular American controlled aggression, the place to be this weekend obviously would be New Orleans, but its foremost rival probably would be Las Vegas, with its two-pronged display potentially memorable even to those with zero interest in punching anyone in his hard gut.