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UFC 161 a smash success

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A sell-out crowd at MTS Centre cheers for light heavyweight main card fighters Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A sell-out crowd at MTS Centre cheers for light heavyweight main card fighters Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans. Photo Store

Dana White spilled an energy drink all over downtown Winnipeg last night and then stood back to watch it bubble and fizz and infect the collective bloodstream of our downtown.

Call it MMA mayhem. Call it UFC ferocity. Call it Winnipeg on steroids and speed.

Loud, bloody, athletic, driven and hot. UFC 161 started out like a night of clubbing in Las Vegas and then spilled down onto the bare concrete of our iceless arena into a biker-party-turned-brawl.

White’s eight-sided travelling circus of violence, rock show and titillation popped its tent inside Winnipeg’s hockey rink and brought more eyes on this city than any previous TV event.

More than 30 million people were expected to watch UFC 161 and a full house at the MTS Centre put down more than $3 million in ticket money to watch 11 fights.

The steep pitch of the 15,000-seat arena had rafter-dwellers hanging down over the octagon like moss from a trellis. Think Romans and Christians and lions broadcast on massive screens with a hard rock/hip-hop soundtrack and the crowd dressed in clothing lines such as 7 For All Mankind and Affliction.

It’s modern culture torqued with vanity and consumerism at its voyeuristic height.

Johnny Cash could have written, "Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer," from his timeless Boy Named Sue while sitting down ringside in Winnipeg last night.

UFC may not represent all of our city’s people but it absolutely has its disciples in our midst and they put down their money in record time. Promoter and UFC president White didn’t even wait for the night’s first bell to clang before declaring he’d be back.

The event set the MTS Centre record for the largest single-day event gate in the building’s 10-year history. UFC holds the same gate record at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Montreal’s Bell Centre and Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome.

With the house at near-capacity for the first of the undercard fights, an impressed White tweeted out, "This arena is so loud already!!! Winnipeg is f---ing AWESOME!!!!!!!! #UFC161."

True North senior vice-president and general manager Kevin Donnelly walked by the local media and declared the night a complete success.

"We’ve hit all our goals. This is our single highest-grossing single-day event. Ever," said Donnelly.

They may have built this rink for hockey but the fight crowd showed no deference for their Jets or any other act that had previously headlined the marquee. They were in full throat early on and came back again and again to howl and whoop and stomp. As loud as a Jets game or a rock show? Every bit.

Winnipeg-born Roland Delorme had his moment in the eye of the storm and knows what Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Neil Young and Eddie Vedder have felt and heard.

"I heard the Rolly! chants. Maybe that’s what gave me that extra push to really get a ‘W.’ I haven’t fought in my hometown for three years so it felt good. This is euphoric for me," said Delorme, who scrapped on the undercard and took a decision over Edwin Figueroa. "It feels like my career has come full circle. I started fighting in Winnipeg at the convention centre way back in the day in front of 1,500 people, now I got to fight in front of 15,000 people at the MTS Centre."

Backstage, there were Octagon Girls applying makeup and spraying on glitter, doctors checking vitals and trainers taping wrists.

Ring wrangler Burt Watson prowled the hallways, slapping his towel against his leg and sticking his head into dressing rooms barking out the call UFC fans never hear but is just as important as Bruce Buffer’s upfront introductions.

"It’s your night, let’s fight, let’s get it right. Don’t leave that sh-- up to the judges," howled Watson, cueing fighters to get off their stools and begin the trek down the tunnel to the octagon.

Romance seemed like the last convention that would sneak its way into this night but after an early fight, Winnipegger Marc-Andre Drolet escorted girlfriend Kathy Spinks into the octagon and took a knee to ask her to marry him.

"Other than me, MMA is the thing he cares the most about. So it was fitting. Of course, I said yes," said Spinks.

Veteran of the Winnipeg fight milieu and former-boxer-turned-city-councillor Dan Vandal has seen it all from inside the ring and out in this town.

"This is the biggest card in turns of gate, TV attention and production this city has ever seen. It’s huge," said Vandal.

Buffer efficiently worked his way through the undercard, introducing fighters in a style slightly more subdued than his pay-per-view strut. But as the fights increased in importance, so did Buffer’s flair. The music grew louder, the crowd lustier and the punches and kicks more powerful.

Finally Buffer got around to his iconic, "It’s time," and not a minute too early.

Winnipeg proved it could handle a worldwide fight card. But by the end, the building and everyone in it were groaning at the seams. Sure, come on back Dana, just not too soon.

We need some recovery time.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

The sold-out MTS Centre was rocking Saturday night as UFC 161 rolled into town. Always a spectacle, the 11 fights fans were treated to did not disappoint.


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Updated on Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 12:46 AM CDT: adds slideshow

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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