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

Philadelphia shows fighting spirit

Story Highlights

Dana White's magnetic personality thrilled the UFC faithful in Philly

The arena gate totaled $3.55 million, a combat-sports record for the city

Philadelphians embody many characteristics of the UFC's parade of stars

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B.J. Penn's tapout to rear-naked choke at 3:54 of Round 4 clinched his win over Kenny Florian. Penn was fighting trim at 155 pounds.
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- You can see it out the window of the rickety SEPTA car, as you rumble down the R7 line past Joe Frazier's gym and through the hardscrabble neighborhoods of North Philly, where alternating blocks of pristine brownstones and bombed-out vacants make the brick-and-mortar landscape.

It's the palpable fighting spirit of Philadelphia and it's always lent a rough-and-tumble character to this place, one of those provincial cities where sports are a matter of vital cultural importance in a way any true metropolis like New York or L.A. can never comprehend. Long before Frazier, Bernard Hopkins and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia has always been a fight town.

From its long pedigree of fistic luminaries like Tommy Loughran, Jack Blackburn, Harold Johnson and "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien to the Legendary Blue Horizon on North Broad Street -- the world's greatest boxing venue according to The Ring magazine -- the roots of the fight game here run deep.

Saturday night marked the next chapter in this time-honored tradition, when the Wachovia Center played host to UFC 101 -- a mere six months after Pennsylvania became the 37th of the 44 states with athletic commissions to legalize mixed-martial-arts events. A sellout crowd of nearly 18,000 fans packed the home of the 76ers and Flyers to see B.J. Penn defend his lightweight belt against Kenny Florian and middleweight champion Anderson Silva build on his legend with a first-round knockout of Forrest Griffin at light heavyweight.

If the card didn't quite live up to the considerable hype, the Philadelphia fans sure did. They packed the place to capacity, bringing a raucous, party-type atmosphere from the lots into the stands, and made for an electric climate. The $3.55 million gate, thought to be a state record for a combat sports card and just a fraction of the pay-per-view haul, certainly didn't underwhelm.

It's safe to assume the first major MMA card in Philly won't be the last.

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You ride the R7 downtown -- one of the eight regional conduits to Center City -- you transfer to the Broad Street subway and shoot down to the sports complex, an archipelago of stadiums which the inimitable A.J. Liebling once described as "a kind of Gobi Desert at the end of all transportation lines." It was two-and-a-half hours before the doors opened and the parking lots outside the Wachovia Center were already popping with a football-style tailgate scene. Thousands of revelers sucked down libations while tossing bean bags into plywood targets or ping pong balls into Silo cups, mostly to a pulsing soundtrack of Tool or Rage Against The Machine.

It was your classic cosmopolitan fight night with a touch of hillbilly: Your deluxe limousines parked next to eight guys drinking cans of beer out of the bed of a Ford F-Series. Along the east side of the building, a live band played to a crowd of several hundred alongside the notable sight of a U.S. Army recruiting tent.

This type of go-hard-or-go-home fanaticism -- a trait common among Philadelphia sports fans and UFC devotees at large -- was common at promotional events throughout fight week. Perhaps the most impressive display came Friday, though, when 2,546 fans packed the north end of Wachovia Center for the weigh-ins, and UFC president Dana White held court with the fans for 75 minutes.

Hundreds of MMA junkies -- many wearing those garish and ornate UFC, Tapout or Affliction shirts -- formed queues behind one of two microphones to ask questions and issue deep, heartfelt expressions of gratitude to the organization's frontman.

Wearing the jersey of Phillies' centerfielder Shane Victorino, the professed MMA fanatic who himself entered local sports folklore this past October, White gave a series of crowd-pleasing responses and made dreams come true. "Can we come down and get a picture with you?" Done. "Will you just shake my hand?" No sweat. "Sign my vanity license plates [Delaware tags UFCFAN and UFCFAN2]?" Absolutely. One well-dressed twentysomething in a suit asked White for a job ("I brought a resume!") and drew playful boos from the crowd, but White told an assistant to "go get that guy's resume." One guys asked a question about hard-to-find DVDs from the UFC's early days. "Where's Tom? Give him your information, I'll send you the entire DVD set." Another example:

POT-BELLIED THIRTYSOMETHING: "Whenever I watch the events I always notice there's always two ring girls and three chairs. Can I sit in that extra chair? For just one event? I drove from Cincinnati."

WHITE: "You're the most observant dude I've ever met in my life. Go get that guy's information."

Blessed with an infectious charisma, While is able to incite raucous applause and spontaneous bursts of anger from the congregation with each response, like a latter-day cross between P.T. Barnum and Richard Dawson's Killian from The Running Man.

The most common question, presumably from fans who'd made the 90-minute trek down I-95: "When is the UFC coming to New York?"

Who cares? Sure, UFC can and will someday draw like gangbusters at Madison Square Garden. But this sport was made for a blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges burg like Philly. From a business standpoint, there's not another city in the country that's within a three-hour drive of more pro sports teams (read: major markets). And culturally, it's a perfect fit for the local sensibilities.

"Philly is known for being one of the biggest fight towns in America if not the biggest fight town in America," White said Saturday. "I'm happy to bring big fights back here."

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