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The New Main Event

The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to Ultimate Fighting, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape

Posted: Tuesday May 22, 2007 9:11AM; Updated: Friday May 25, 2007 9:39PM
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More than 15,000 watched Thales Leites take down Pete Sell in one of the featured bouts at UFC 69: Shootout, the highest-grossing event ever staged in Houston's Toyota Center.
More than 15,000 watched Thales Leites take down Pete Sell in one of the featured bouts at UFC 69: Shootout, the highest-grossing event ever staged in Houston's Toyota Center.
Greg Nelson/SI

By L. Jon Wertheim

Saturday night was all right for fighting. But the pageantry for the 69th card in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's tough-and-rumble existence began much earlier that week. Long before the fighters unhinged the latch of the steel Octagon on April 7 and fought on a card titled UFC 69: Shootout, thousands of fans had converged on Houston, tribalists on a pilgrimage. The prefight weigh-ins drew massive crowds. The line for the fighters' autograph show wreathed the girth of the Toyota Center, the venue for UFC 69. The downtown bars and restaurants were overrun by fight fans.

Some were your typical badasses, lacking a full complement of teeth, wearing shirts adorned with messages the likes of fight me, i'm irish. But most were like Romeo Nava, 26, an aircraft mechanic from Edinburg, Texas. Nava and two buddies had gotten up at an ungodly hour the morning of the fights and made the five-hour drive through dust-choked towns to get to Houston early. They'd each paid $250 for the seats and considered neither the early wake-up nor the ticket price a sacrifice. In another era three amigos from the guts of Texas would have made such a road trip for an Aerosmith concert or an NFL game. But now ... "pretty much everyone I know is into UFC," says Nava. "You get an adrenaline rush even watching it."

The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), of which Ultimate Fighting Championship is the most popular enterprise, has penetrated the defense of the mainstream and applied a choke hold to that golden 18-to-34 male demographic. The UFC's weekly reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, on Spike TV, often eclipses the television ratings of the NBA and baseball playoffs in that target audience. The names of UFC fighters are some of the most popular entries in Internet search engines come fight time. UFC events do bigger pay-per-view numbers than any pro wrestling event or boxing card this side of Mayweather-De La Hoya. (UFC's 2006 PPV revenues were almost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200 million for WWE.)

All that marketing info was embodied in the UFC 69 prefight tableau. The fighters, managers and other plenipotentiaries stayed at the Hilton, lodging arrangements that were publicized on the UFC's message boards; and so it was that the lobby was thronged with dudes old enough to vote but too young to be president, armed with camera phones and Sharpies, hoping for a memento from the weekend. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Astros a few blocks away, but no one cared -- Pujols, schmujols -- at least so long as, say, Josh Koscheck was in the house. And Koscheck is only a borderline star. From the moment the crowd spotted Randy Couture, the current heavyweight champ, the membrane of admirers around him became so thick that it spilled into the hotel's Easter display. Thereafter he needed to use secret routes to get to his room, at one point cutting through a kitchen.


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