x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fighters are all ready to rumble

A raucous spectacle of blood, sweat and tears will land in Abu Dhabi for UFC 112, the mixed-martial-arts company's first foray into the Middle East.

James Te Huna, top, and Igor Pokrajac during their UFC light-heavyweight fight at Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia last night.
James Te Huna, top, and Igor Pokrajac during their UFC light-heavyweight fight at Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia last night.

SYDNEY // Many of the nearly 18,000 men, women and children who clamoured into Acer Stadium here yesterday were dressed in shades of black and dark denim. Greeted by booming amplifiers, they could have been attending a Guns N' Roses concert, but they were there for something even less genteel. They were the enthusiastic ticket-holders for UFC 110 the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event to be held in Australia.

In two months' time the raucous spectacle of blood, sweat and tears will land in Abu Dhabi for UFC 112, the mixed-martial-arts company's first foray into the Middle East. Flash Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Government of Abu Dhabi, owns 10 per cent of the UFC. Dana White, the UFC president, promised a show in the UAE on a par with what was seen in Australia's biggest city yesterday. "They can expect what we saw here," he said. "The fighters always deliver."

Most mainstream media, in Australia and elsewhere, have been reluctant to embrace a sport the US presidential candidate John McCain once described as "human cockfighting". Nevertheless, the UFC event in Sydney reportedly sold out in just a few hours, before the fight card had even been announced, and grossed US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m), a record for the venue, according to UFC officials. UFC bouts operate under a set of rules but it may not always seem apparent when elbows, knees and fists fly in a blur of limbs.

"I thought I wouldn't be able to watch when they started hitting each other but by the end I was shouting along," one female journalist whispered with an embarrassed giggle as the arena emptied. In many professional boxing settings the arena is nearly empty until the main event. Not so with the UFC; the crowd here arrived early and the seats were full when the first preliminary event began. Fans armed with cameras and mobile phones lined the walkway to the octagon, the UFC's eight-sided answer to boxing's ring, to tap the fighters' hands or even grab a photograph with them.

White, the UFC boss, later described the audience as well-educated in mixed-martial-arts. He said he expects the same in the UAE in April. He said that when he was last in Abu Dhabi, "people were screaming at me, yelling about the decision with Machida and Shogun", referring to a controversial bout in October. "So they are pretty educated over there because they were pretty angry with me about that fight."

Lights dimmed, and the first competitors came into the arena. Igor Pokrajac of Croatia was serenaded by the not-so-dulcet tones of Guns N' Roses, which ushered him in with Welcome to the Jungle. His opponent, James Te Huna of New Zealand, entered to the strains of Are You Gonna Go My Way? by Lenny Kravitz. With few exceptions, it appears that UFC fighters tattoos, cauliflower ears and all are not averse to some 1980s and 1990s rock music while on their way to work.

Mixed-martial-arts often is described as an amalgam of boxing, wrestling and ju-jitsu and all that was on display during the first bout, won by the New Zealander by knockout in the third round. Most fights on the Sydney bill were scheduled for three five-minute rounds. Only championship bouts run to five. More experienced fighters entered the octagon as the programme processed, and the fighting intensified, as did the number of injuries.

A particularly bloody battle involved Stephan "The American Psycho" Bonnar, a finalist from The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series, and Krzysztof "The Polish Experiment" Soszynski. Bonnar suffered a deep gash from a head wound caused by a clash of heads. Emotions were high. Bonnar, covered in blood, wanted to continue fighting, to the delight of the audience, which seemed more impressed with fighting spirit than results. Losers are applauded with as much ferocity as winners, and standing ovations are the norm.

During the penultimate fight, between the British middleweight Michael "The Count" Bisping and Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva, Bisping was booed and verbally abused by the Australian crowd angry at remarks he had made about his much-revered Brazilian opponent in pre-fight interviews. But when a tearful Silva was declared the winner, Bisping recanted his remarks and apologised to his pregnant partner and to England "for letting you down", winning over the crowd and leaving to applause.

At the post-fight press conference, winners and losers entered the ballroom together, arms in slings, feet swollen, lips cut, eyes bruised. White insisted that the camaraderie and mutual respect visible between fighters as they helped each other out of the octagon is part of the nature of a UFC fighter. "The reality is that these are the best-conditioned athletes in the world and as far as telling them how to be respectful, these guys are all adults," White said.

"Some guys are not going to like each other and they are going to talk, but for the most part they are very respectful and they respect each other." @Email:loatway@thenational.ae