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Blood, sweat and tears – UFC Fight Night at the O2 Arena

| Special Events, Sport | 04/03/2016

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By Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Go and see the Ultimate Fighting Championship, they said.  You’ll love it.  It’s the hottest ticket in town.  Well, for much of Saturday Fight Night at a packed O2 Arena, I wasn’t sure.  There were too few knockouts.  Too much grappling, too little drama.  Too many irritants with topknots sitting around me making moronic wolf noises for no discernible reason.

Then came the main event: British middleweight Michael Bisping against Brazilian Anderson Silva, regarded by many as the greatest fighter ever to have entered an Octagon.  Despite my scepticism, the pair put on a contest that fans of the sport will never forget: a topsy-turvy five rounds of controversy that continued up to the moment the judges’ decisions were announced.

Finally, I could see what all the fuss was about and maybe – just maybe – I’d consider going again.

Confessions of a UFC virgin

My name is Ian Cater.  I’m 35 and, until recently, I was a UFC virgin.  There, I’ve said it.  I’d previously watched a handful of Ronda Rousey highlights on YouTube, but my motivation hadn’t been entirely sports related.  Or, indeed, virginal.

Ronda Rousey: just because.

Ronda Rousey: just because.

But the time was right.  So on 27th February 2015, I went to the O2 Arena to watch 13 fights take place over a six-hour ‘Fight Night’.

I knew roughly what UFC involved: something that started 23 years ago to determine the most effective form of fighting had hit the big time with lucrative TV deals and clever marketing.  Along the way, purists say it’s lost some of its appeal as – in the interests of safety – fighters are grouped in weight divisions and – in the interests of success – most adopt a homogenised fighting style.

From what I saw, it’s hard to disagree with this critique.  Because, for much of the event, there wasn’t a great deal of excitement.

Ten of the fights – ranging from pocket-sized bantamweights (up to 135lbs) to monstrous heavyweights (up to 265 lbs) – were decided by the judges’ scorecards.  That was partly due to the even nature of the match ups, partly down to the infernal grappling that sucked some life out of almost every contest.

This might sound churlish, as it’s clear these grapples are highly technical and intense for those involved.  But, in truth, it’s a bit awkward watching sweaty men writhe on the floor in a series of clinches, occasionally changing positions and grunting as if going through the motions of hungover sex.  And if you judge me for saying so, you should also judge the fans who fill these moments with strange howls, trips to the bar and sporadic scuffles amongst themselves.

That’s not to say that knockouts are the only thing worth seeing.  It’s hard to think of a more visceral study of man’s isolation than the sight of his entourage leaving the Octagon and locking him in a cage to do battle.  Or to forget the sound of a clean connection to the face, drawing ‘oohs’ from the crowd like a Wimbledon net cord.  Or to account for the differing reactions of each victor, from explosive release to exhausted relief, with Swede David Teymur’s post-bout blubbing a particular treat.  And there were also some surprisingly good house fries.

But these highlights rarely got the crowd off their seats (apart from the fries which – it seemed – the entire arena had queued in front of me for) until the big fight arrived at the end of the evening.

Silva vs. BispingSilva_vs_Bipsing

Anderson Silva, aka The Spider, is a true UFC great after holding the middleweight title for nearly seven years up to 2013.  Now 40, he was fighting in the UK for the first time since 2006 and had considerable support in the arena.

Michael Bisping, ranked one place higher than Silva, wanted a piece of the former champion.  The Count, born in Manchester, declared in the build-up that defeating Silva would represent the high point of his career.

It was clear that this fight would differ from that which had gone before.  The music was louder, the walk-ons more dramatic and the crowd finally found its focus.  Silva won the battle of the entrances, with DMX’s Ain’t No Sunshine creating a moodier vibe than Bisping’s choice of Blur’s Song 2 (which presumably irked two Mancunian brothers in the process).

Then the fight began and here, at last, was genuine entertainment.  Silva was Mohammed Ali, taunting and drawing his opponent on with spaghetti arms and time-defying body swerves.  Some Bisping blows landed, but Silva laughed them off with showy gestures.

It was thrilling – it really was – although sometimes Silva went too far, the crowd urging Bisping to go full Raiders of the Lost Ark and show that force can cut through flashiness.  But whenever his solid attack built up momentum, out would come a telescopic fist or foot to take the sting out of its tail.

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Silva celebrates, but too soon.

Then at the end of Round 3, disaster struck for Bisping.  The Spider’s jab landed, knocking the Englishman’s mouthguard to the floor.  As Bisping motioned to retrieve it, Silva landed with a knee that brought his opponent crashing to the deck.

The referee intervened and Silva – like many in the crowd – thought he’d won, straddling the Octagon’s fence in premature celebration.  When the dust settled, only the round had ended and Bisping could continue after a dose of smelling salts.

The final two rounds were hard to watch as things turned nasty.  Bisping received a kick to the genitals and Silva alleged an eye gouge.  The Spider was out for The Count, leaving his opponent’s face looking like a saucer of cheap ketchup.  At one stage the referee called a timeout, so heavy was the flow.  But Bisping hung on.

When the last round ended, Silva soaked up the applause and I – like many – raced for the exit, confident that he’d be declared the winner.  The Spider barely had a mark on him, whereas Bisping was drenched in blood and staggering around the canvas like Rocky Balboa on ice.  But we know how those movies end.  On a packed tube platform, someone confirmed – to gasps of disbelief – a razor-thin but unanimous judges’ decision in favour of the Englishman.

Bisping: ketchup.

Bisping: ketchup.

That seemed a suitable way to end the evening: UFC had finally drawn me in and then left me baffled, the sporting equivalent of treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen.  And perhaps it worked: maybe I’d go back for more, with a new-found respect for its sporting potential.  I’d just turn up later next time.

Back in the Octagon, respect was flowing along with blood, sweat and tears from the victor’s face.  “I worship this guy,” Bisping said of Silva. “This guy is the greatest martial artist of all-time.  This has been a lifelong quest.  Anderson, thank you.”

For information on UFC events to be held in the UK, go to uk.ufc.com.

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