I had spent two summers in America, and one of my bucket-list items had always been to attend a UFC event in the States.
In 2015 I attended UFC Dublin in the 3Arena. It was the less infamous Dublin card, not featuring the McGrgeor vs. Brandao main event, and it was almost a catalyst for the demise of Irish representation in the UFC.
That night however was memorable for a number of reasons. It was my first in-person experience of an MMA card, first of all. Then you had the spine tingling Aisling Daly walkout to ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries – followed by Neil Seery celebrating to ‘Zombie Nation’ in the Octagon post-fight.
Nonetheless, I had got a taste for it. This time around, things would be different.
I attended the ceremonial weigh-ins the day before UFC 214. It was to be held in the Honda Centre in Anaheim, California. Home of the Anaheim Ducks NHL Franchise.
Outside of the stadium I met an MMA media legend – Ariel Helwani. He was very kind, and subsequently made jokes about how Irish we looked (in particular my ginger haired companion, James). I’d watched his show on MMA Fighting on a weekly basis, and have a huge admiration for the work he does.
Anyways, the weigh-ins were just a teaser for what was to be viewed on the night; as expected. I was hyped. It was a PPV card to start with, but a pretty stacked one.
The day of I remember driving to the Honda Centre and immediately noticing the mass of parked cars and fans in comparison to the weigh-ins the day before. Ceremonial weigh-ins are still a strange concept in my opinion, held during working hours for most people on a Friday. They lock in the rest of us with nothing better to do I suppose.
The crowds started piling in as we took to our seats. We were in the bleachers, but the very front row. The Octagon looked quite miniscule from afar – this was prior to my investment in part-time eye wear two years later.
It was a bizarre experience from the get go. I had watched dozens of cards online, on UFC Fight Pass, on TV etc. The introduction music for the fights blared over the speakers; that high synth sound that played out before they showed the fighters highlight reel.
I had heard that intro music over and over in my own front room and it was strange to hear it so loud and deafening in an arena. The walkouts were less than enthralling for the early fights, not much of a reaction to most, with most of the audience around the cage not in their seats yet.
The first fight I had memory of watching was Aleksandra Albu vs. Kailin Curran – a strawweight bout to conclude the fight pass prelims. It was a very back and forth fight, with Albu ultimately winning 29-28 on all the judge’s scorecards.
During this fight I noticed the crowd popping for particular spots in a fight. Unless you were watching a fight that had a hometown favourite or a clear babyface, most fans were probably watching on with a level of neutrality.
The particular spots in the fight differed in reaction. If a fighter landed a good striking combination, and you knew they had landed hard, there’d be almost an egging on from the fans watching. If a fighter managed to get back to their feet after a ground scramble, the fans would applaud with a respectful clap.
The Pride promotion in Japan were known for their respectfulness towards a fight, showing adoration for the more skilled martial arts moves. I’m not quite sure what UFC fans were known for.
The card progressed at a pace that wasn’t as drawn out as we’ve seen on TV. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime has passed between the early fights and the main event. As a fan, it was easy to pace yourself as the fights continued. We opted to take a snack break during Calvin Kattar vs. Andre Fili.
Most winning fighters had an Octagon interview afterwards, and that could be heard in the stadium too. It was surreal to see Joe Rogan enter the Octagon from the get go. That broadcast team had likely set up camp in the Honda Centre from the early afternoon, and definitely would earn their paycheck when it was all was said and done.
Brian Ortega and Renato Moicano would then mark a somewhat mid-point of the card. The crowd were heavily in favour of fellow statesman Ortega, who seemed to be heading towards the losing column. He managed to sink in a submission in the 3rd round, and that had the best reaction of the night so far.
Aljimain Sterling bested Renan Barao next, a former UFC Bantamweight champion. This was a high stakes fight at the time – but never really captivated the audience. Unless you’re within a certain proximity to the Octagon, it can be quite hard to determine if someone has a choke in or on path to locking something in.
It was mostly grappling dominated from what I can remember, and now I was starting to see why some wrestler-grappler orientated fighters got booed. I still don’t think it’s justified, but many fans are probably not up to scratch with how rounded the MMA game can be.
From afar most of the grappling looked like stalling, but up close they’re likely advancing positions and looking to finish for the most part.
Ricardo Lamas and Jason Knight headlined the portion of the prelims, and it was over pretty quick with an emphatic KO win for Lamas. It was Main Card time. At this point in Ireland, I’d be so relieved to see the Main Card begin. It meant a quicker turnaround between fights and another step closer to getting to bed.
This point was probably my most vivid memory of the night. The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” themed UFC PPV Intro was incredible to watch. They replayed over and over the most infamous knockouts, wins, memories and superstars ever witnessed on a UFC canvass.
It made you feel like you were about to witness an etch in history. It was goosebumps type of stuff. I hope that montage format stays for good.
Then we had “Face the Pain” blare out over the speakers and we were right in the thick of it now. I also have an adoration for “Face the Pain”, as corny as it sounds in 2019. It’s a hype song and it works for a live crowd.
The attention was immediately brought to the cageside with bright lights shining on the broadcast team – likely previewing the upcoming fights. They looked so tiny in the grand scheme of the arena layout. It was another moment were I had to pinch myself, as I had seen it over and over on TV.
Now things felt a little bigger. The arena had become crowded and more and more people had took to their seats. We had a Light-heavyweight showdown between Jimmy Manuwa and Volkan Oezdemir next, likely a #1 contenders fight.
“No Time” Oezdemir took no time in putting away Manuwa, 42 seconds to be exact. It caught the crowd by surprise and got a big pop. Then we had a fans fans fight, the people’s Main Event – Robbie Lawler vs. Donald Cerrone.
Even the more casual of the fans in attendance got themelves up for this one. It was as back and forth as one would have thought, not without its moments. Both were as tough as each other. Many felt Cerrone won the fight, myself included, as Robbie Lawler had his hand raised.
That was my first experience of a crowd reaction to a bad decision. Sometimes the crowd can have a swing on a fight if they cheer for one fighter and their advances. Being in the arena, I understood how that can be a thing.
The third fight from the top was a women’s 145 pound title fight between Cris Cyborg and Tonya Evinger. Cyborg was greeted with a warm welcome during the walkout given her Californian roots. She slowly picked apart Evinger in what was an expected finish victory.
Then we had the Co-Main Event – Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia – for the Welterweight title. It was seen as probably the only opportunity Maia would have at a title shot given his age, and a tough stylistic test for Woodley. A great story.
This fight was pretty comical to look back on. It made a UFC record for the least strikes landed (or thrown, I’m not quite sure) in a title fight in UFC history. It was a chess match. Woodley didn’t want to overextend to risk being taken down by a grappling-wiz, and Maia was content to wait out the striking to find a takedown opportunity.
If I saw this on TV I probably would have enjoyed it more, but even being in the arena I could understand why it was boring. I had watched a lot of their fights prior. I knew the risks involved in title fights in particular.
Most of the fans didn’t share my sympathy as boos rang out across the stadium. There were Mexican waves, lighters being held in the air, ‘boring’ chants. I felt bad for the two fighters in the Octagon, genuinely.
Looking back on it – it creates an interesting discussion. Many of these fans have paid a lot of money to be here, and want to get their money’s worth in seeing the most exciting, thrilling action. But then again fighters are not there to entertain the fans – they compete to win fights, regardless of how entertaining it is.
I’m more sympathetic to the latter argument but I can see where the former is coming from. That night we had witnessed plenty of exciting finishes so I don’t think one dud could be blamed.
The boos continued in the post-fight interview, and to be honest, I couldn’t hear a word of Tyron Woodley’s interview with Joe Rogan. It was deafening. But now, it was time to move on. It was Main Event time.
This was what we had all been waiting for. Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier 2. One of the most riveting rivalries in UFC history. Jones had come off a fresh USADA setback, and Cormier had been tearing things up in his absence.
We may never see these two 205 pound greats fight again, so it definitely felt like a huge occasion. The walkouts were emphatic. We were about to witness one of these fighters arguably become the best Light-Heavyweight of all-time.
The crowd were mixed for the most part, but it was probably 60-40 or 70-30 in favour of Jon Jones, which was crazy to me. Cormier was an Olympic medalist, excellent role model and clean cut guy. Jones was a law breaking, alleged drug cheating bad guy who tried to come off as the opposite.
Maybe the fans saw more of Jones in them than Cormier. When you think of a stereotypical UFC fan you might think of a more sinister character than a good guy. Some of these fans did not like Daniel Cormier. He couldn’t catch a break.
The fight started – and from what I can remember Daniel Cormier was just edging Jon Jones in the first two rounds. It was incredible. It looked like Jones was landing some of the harder strikes, but Cormier was having success with his dirty boxing. He wasn’t giving Jones any room.
The crowd were popping for their every move. A jab felt like a big over-hand right. We had seen plenty of finishes earlier in the night to know that the momentum could change at any moment. It was edge of the seat stuff.
The third round saw Jones come into it more, and then we had it. He landed a huge headkick and followed it up with punches, and the fight was over. Jon Jones was the winner by a TKO victory and the crowd went wild.
I think we would have seen a similar reaction had it gone the other way. This is why we had been here for 4+ hours – to see the Main Event and what the outcome would be. The reaction was almost silencing too, it was an intrinsic reaction just to cheer on the ending.
I can’t remember my exact reaction to the finish but it was something like ‘woah’. Even 25,000 ‘woahs’ would have come across as a loud reaction on TV. Jones had his interview and exited the building. I remember seeing him walk to the back via a path underneath our stand, and seeing his joyous reaction to it all being over.
Cormier, on the other hand, was visibly upset, if not a bit dazed. After the fight, many criticized Joe Rogan for interviewing him after such a devastating knockout – to which he agreed he wouldn’t do again in a hurry. Cormier was in tears. It was a peculiar end to a night of highs and lows, and it ended on a bit of a low if I’m honest.
The sheer spectacle of the entire fight card outweighed my sympathy for Cormier, no question. I had just witnessed one of the better UFC fight cards in recent times and had the opportunity be there in person. It gave you a great buzz being there and seeing all the fights first hand.
But it still opened up my eyes to a lot of things. How the crowd reacts to particular moments, how fights look like to the naked eye, and first and foremost how this is a sport just like anything else. But it’s not just any type of sport.
Seeing Daniel Cormier visibly in tears at the end of the fight was an eye opener to the reality of MMA. These fights that surround themselves with such hype, such promotion; are almost comparable to chapters in these fighters lives. It’s not just a regular season game.
It was the end of a chapter in Cormier’s eyes. The end of a rivalry that could have put him on a higher pedestal, but it just wasn’t meant to be. All sports come with the glory moments and equally the tough times, but I’m not quite sure there’s any sport that has it’s highs and lows like MMA.