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Posted: Sunday August 9, 2009 2:24AM; Updated: Tuesday August 11, 2009 2:30PM
Bryan Armen Graham Bryan Armen Graham >

Graham, UFC 101 (cont.)

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Six of the nine preliminary fights leading up to Saturday's two main events wouldn't even make the global pay-per-view telecast, but you'd never know it from a quick glance around the building at 7 p.m., when the occupied seats outnumbered the empty ones. "It's the first time we've ever walked into a fight and there's been 11,000 people there for the first fight of the undercard," White said.

Pat Miletich, one of the defining figures of the UFC's formative years, has compared mixed martial arts to a three-legged stool of striking, submission and wrestling takedown and defense -- with the whole thing collapsing if one leg is weaker than another. Fans in Philly were treated to highlights of each discipline throughout the night, even if the uneven card fell short of the more seasoned fans' lofty expectations.

When Johny Hendricks dropped Amir Sadollah to the canvas with four concussive uppercuts less than a half-minute into the first round of their welterweight bout and fell onto his opponent in a hail of fists, referee Dan Miragliotta quickly jumped in between the fighters. Hendricks celebrated the victory as boos -- the natives' second language -- rained from the stands, more an indictment of the ref's premature intervention.

During the lightweight fight between Aaron Riley and Shane Nelson, the fans peppered some first-round downtime with the requisite E-A-G-L-E-S chants. Two rounds later, a fight in the lower rows of Section 103 further diverted attention from the contestants in the Octagon and drew considerable applause -- doing little to subvert the reputation of Philadelphia fan as knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. (That the fighters were a pair of women did little to short-circuit the stereotype..)

Penn's fourth-round submission victory over Florian by rear-naked choke in the night's climactic lightweight title bout was a crowd-pleaser, a measured technical struggle between one guy looking to take the action to the ground and another more comfortable trading upright strikes. But the night's most electric moment came in the penultimate fight showcasing Silva, the middleweight champion who was unbeaten in his previous nine fights -- a UFC record -- but was moving up to 205 pounds to face light heavyweight champ (and obvious crowd favorite) Forrest Griffin.

Griffin's uninspired song choice -- The Dropkick Murphys' anthemic "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" -- was outdone when the room went dark and the entire space throbbed to the pulsating bass line of DMX's "Ain't No Sunshine." Enter Silva, for my money the UFC's most compelling competitor, one of those freak athletes it seems could play running back for the Eagles as easily as center back for the national soccer team of Brazil, where he's from.

The tension in the Octagon spread through the room during the first minute of the first round, as Silva calmly measured his opponent. (My press-row neighbor likened it to a bomb on the verge of explosion.) Silva couldn't quite capitalize on the ground after recording a flash knockdown but he didn't need to. Midway through the first round, Griffin looked beaten -- like a chess player who hasn't lost any important property, but whose opponent has developed his pieces far more effectively and thus seized control of the action. Next came a second knockdown, nothing too violent, but at this point Griffin was a shot fighter.

The ending came at the 3:23 mark of the first round: Silva averted two punches and, while lunging back, delivered a straight right hand to the jaw which sent Griffin crumbling to the floor. That particular maneuver is considered a cardinal sin in the boxing world -- but it was a trademark of Muhammad Ali.

It was a transcendent moment and, in the aftermath, it was difficult to determine who the boos were directed towards, as Silva climbed and strattled the Octagon in celebration while Griffin bolted from the canvas and vanished down the tunnel in a three-quarters sprint in shame.

He was not seen again the rest of the night.

* * *

The vast majority of the MMA's recognizable names have contracts with UFC directly, so the organization can act as the primary promoter and matchmaker. Without the red tape of boxing, UFC "makes the fights the fans want to see."

That's a lofty ideal in boxing, something made lightyears easier when the entire operation is housed under one roof. "In boxing, a guy could be 30-0 and not fought anyone worth a shit," Chuck Liddell once said. "In the UFC, you can be 4-4 and be a great fighter. Everyone loses, but that's okay. Fans see the fights they want to see."

It's not always foolproof -- Penn-Florian was hardly compelling theater, with cries of "This fight sucks!" heard throughout the later rounds -- but it works more often than it doesn't. Throw in the slick packaging of these events -- which feels like a rock concert as much as a sporting event, from the flashy presentation to decibel level -- and you've got a gold mine in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic.

Fans of mixed martial arts should enjoy these salad days. It took Major League Baseball almost a century before Curt Flood made things a whole lot more difficult for the puppeteers. If the UFC continues this meteoric ascent, its age of widespread free agency could arrive much sooner. Where I sit, from the fan's perspective, UFC is a dream product that I hope these passionate fans never have to wake up from.

And as for the fight connoisseurs in Philadelphia, the wait for the next UFC event won't be nearly as long as the first.

"It's been an amazing experience," said a beaming White at the post-fight presser, "and I can't wait to come back."

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