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Monday, August 31, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different, Or: Rambling, Unfocused Coverage of UFC 102

Posted by Andrew R Tonry on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 5:48 PM

Falling somewhere between boxing's sport and the commissioner controlled, TV entertainment of WWE, the UFC is a strange beast. It might seem an awkward fit in Portland's bohemian, art-first, hipster-laden interior circle (without fail, every time it's brought up my girlfriend can't help but mention how homo-erotic and clearly stupid it appears). But Saturday's fight, which brought in around $1.9 million, ranked in the top five gate takes in Rose Garden history. And at times it was well louder than any Blazer game I've ever attended—even ones with a buzzer-beater.

The reason the Big Show (UFC #102) finally made it's way to Grumptown is simple: a former Portlander, and legend of the sport, Randy Couture fought in the headlining bout. Couture's been around since the beginning. He's 46 (Fourty-Six) fucking years old.

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Despite the match-up of future Hall of Famers Couture and Brazilian Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira (above), the pairing lacked fire—at least for the casual fan. The two respect one-another immensely. There was nothing personal, and no attempt to sell or hype the fight as anything other than what it was: a study in veteran technicality and skill. No grudge match here—at the press-conference Nogueira and Couture were smiling, and even deferential with one another.

The long evening—fights began around 4:30pm, although the Pay Per View show didn't go live until 7:00pm—featured a number of local fighters. All, except the 27-year-old Evan Dunham from Eugene, were whooped.

But let's just stop right there—if you care about this sort of thing you already know who won and lost. If you don't, the question is: how did it feel sitting ringside in a room full of some 17,000 people screaming at two guys try to knock each-other's teeth out?

Surprisingly enough, it landed softer than you might imagine.

Of course, there were radical moments, like the jet engine sound of the Rose Garden crowd when Couture entered the arena (and during his entire fight, for that matter), or the burst of adrenaline one gets, even as a spectator, when a fight beings.

But for the striking moment of some guy getting punched in the face so hard that his whole body spins in airborne orbit around his head, there's a whole lot of hurry-up-and-wait.

Because really, Pay Per View is the most important customer—they outnumber us, out-pay us, and return even when the next show shifts to Dallas, or Pittsburgh, or wherever. and while all the pre-and post fight commentary, and lead-in trailers were being broadcast, in-house attendees are treated to blaring, often-aggressive, shitty music and little else. You either stand there, or go get another beer.

This becomes more tedious when the fights are short, which many were Saturday. One ended in a record-setting seven seconds. Others were through in 0:21 in 1:35. Certainly a stunning knockout is something to see—assuming you didn't blink. But then again, this illustrates what I see as the Achilles heel of UFC (and Mixed Martial Arts in general): fights often end on a trifle. The better fighter does not always win.

Because of all the quick KO's Saturday—including in the second biggest match-up of the night, Jardine vs. Silva—the PPV broadcast showed an entire fight from earlier in the afternoon before the main event. Again, we're left just twiddling our thumbs.

But when Randy Couture finally made it to the ring for the main event against "Minotauro" Nogueira the Rose Garden blew it's top. It was louder than a plane roaring. If this was volume at a ten, the highest it had been earlier was around three.

And thankfully, rather than the short-fuse firecrackers that dotted much of the under-card, the fight sustained. These guys—who are fucking huge—beat the shit out of each-other throughout all three rounds. A times they just stood face-to-face, trading thuds to the head.

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Nogueira, however, remained in solid control. A number of times he looked to have Couture beat—either stuck in a submission or, once, after a thundering punch that dropped the 46-year-old to his back—but the old man miraculously endured. Many times it seemed the crowds chants of "Randy! Randy! Randy!" provided the juice to continue—either that or a desire not to let them down.

Escaping the close calls, Couture did inflict damage of his own, but the fight ended somewhat abruptly. Three five-minute rounds were all she wrote (only title-fights can go five rounds). But this fight—finally one with sustained life—felt cut short. Surely it had more juice. It didn't seem like either fighter wanted to quit. It needed a more absolute ending, yet settled for a decision. Couture ended up on top, the aggressor when the final bell wrung, but Nogueira clearly controlled the fight and won on points.

It was like watching a game where the cable goes out. Or a movie where the final act is crudely wrapped by a voiceover, rather than played to logical conclusion.

As per the rest of the live experience, some things surprised me. It didn't feel as bloodthirsty as some would have you believe. And, at least where I was sitting, fans, although charged up, were mostly respectful (this may have to do with the absorbent ticket prices, starting at $50, rising quickly to $600).

Even with a seat just two rows back, the awkward construction of the "Octagon" made certain positions in the ring impossible to see. I can't imagine how tough the view from the upper bowl must be—at least for $50. In a lot of ways, this kind of the thing is better suited for TV—complete with cheap beer, instant-replay and multiple angles.

In the end, UFC 102 combined the tough-sell (technique instead of personal rivalry) with an easy-sell (the hometown hero) and got the average of those elements.

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