Tuesday 10 May 2011

The End of an Era and the Start of the Next By Paul Dyer

The numbers speak for themselves, 55,724 screaming fans and a total of $12,075,000 (Approx. £7,374,721) in gate receipts. The former more than doubles the previous attendance for any MMA event in North American history and the latter added nearly $5,000,000 to the record for ANY MMA event ever held. UFC 129 was the first stadium show ever held by the UFC in its 18 year history and by far its biggest show ever.
For wrestling fans and boxing fans the attendance figure is big but nothing close to what some attendances have reached in the previous years but for MMA this could well be the start of something incredibly big for the sport. This could be, and I stress could be, a watershed moment in the history of MMA. This event proved a lot of things to a lot of people and with the show being held in Toronto and it’s vicinity to New York state, I’m sure the New York State Athletic Commission were eagerly watching on, and drooling.
Held in the former Skydome, The Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, UFC 129 had a lot going for it before any matches were announced. Toronto is the UFC’s number 1 city in the world for PPV buys and this was the first UFC event held in the newly regulated province. Then you add George St. Pierre to the mix and trust me when I say, people have no idea how popular GSP is Canada. The national sport of Canada is Ice Hockey and the most popular name in hockey is the Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Not only is he Canadian through and through but on the 28th February 2010 he scored the winning goal in overtime to win the Gold Medal at the 21st Winter Olympic Games against the United States. Can you imagine Michael Bisping winning BBC Sports personality of the year in the same year as an England team winning the FIFA World Cup? Nope me neither. The stars lined up perfectly for the last UFC, right guy, right time and a ravenous fan base.
The show itself was a highly polished and much tighter show than the UFC has ever promoted before. Taking elements from the WWE production of this past WrestleMania at the Georgia Dome and undoubtedly Manny Pacquiao’s two title defences at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The UFC came off as major league in every sense of the words, akin to the former Pride Fighting Championships production of their bigger shows. Zuffa more than doubled their average production budget and even brought in an outside consulting agency to provide logistical assistance. But boy was it worth it, you could see the difference and on their very first attempt, they hit a grand slam (sorry I’m in a sports metaphor kind of mood!).
For all the hype going into UFC 129, something that was intentionally lost in the shuffle was the retirement of one of the most important men in the history of MMA in North America. Randy “The Natural” Couture bowed out of the sport after a dramatic and highly entertaining (if you’re a fan of the 1984 gem “The Karate Kid”) knock out by 3rd-dan black belt in Shotokan karate, Lyoto Machida. The crane kick (konkudai) at 1:05 of the second round knocked Couture’s tooth out and his lights out and ended his career competitive career at 19-11.
Randy hadn’t looked good in his previous few fights as age and a busy schedule outside the fight world had taken over. But he came into the fight in very good condition and eager to matchup with someone he considered a puzzle he wanted to test himself against. That turned out to be not enough, as Machida constantly evaded Couture’s jab and was never in danger of being clinched so Couture could dirty box or get a takedown for some ground and pound. If you say to a fan that fighter X has a 19-11 record they would probably contend that the fighter was average with an average record. But that is to discount just what Couture has meant to the fight business the past 14 years.
In 2005 the UFC was dying, losing millions of dollars a year and in desperate need of access to a new audience. Dana White had always wanted to have a weekly fight show, similar to ESPN’s Friday Night Fights but their TV partner, Spike TV, noting the success of Reality TV programming on other networks only wanted a show based on that style of program. UFC relented and “The Ultimate Fighter” was born creating a new audience for the product and making superstars out of the first two coaches, Chuck Liddell and Couture. The UFC never looked back and neither did Couture as he became (along with Liddell) the most popular and biggest draw the UFC had.
Although I never thought Couture was the best technical fighter in the world, he was the best in one area of the fight business that is highly overlooked, fight planning. As proved over the last few years by Über trainer Greg Jackson, a great game plan can be the difference between a win and a loss. Couture’s main strength in the octagon was his amazing ability to take just about anybody down and hold them there while he proceeded to pummel them into bloody messes. Outside of the cage, his ultimate strength was just being Randy Couture. He connected with the audience like no other fighter in UFC history, his soft spoken intelligent manner and the fact that he had defied the logic that at 40+ years of age you shouldn’t be able to still be competitive. He truly became “Captain America” to the viewing audience, a fact highlighted by his 2007 heavyweight title win over 6’8 and 260lbs Tim Sylvia. The show was going to die a death at both the box office and on PPV as Sylvia was considered a boring fighter and his scheduled opponent Brandon Vera had pulled out of the fight, so in his first fight as a heavyweight in 5 years he again defied all excepted logic. The pop that night as Couture was awarded the heavyweight title is among the loudest ever heard in combat sports.
The end of the career of Randy Couture must be met with a celebration of a truly transcendental fighter, one that at a time was truly bigger than the sport they competed in and made it bigger than himself by the time he finished. He must have felt a sense of pride as his final fight was on the grandest stage the UFC had ever been on, knowing that he was a huge part of why they were in Rogers Centre breaking records left and right

Paul Dyer

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