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UFC embraces Winnipeg fight fans

Combatants excited about June 15 event

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Up on the big stage, under the big lights, Eddie Wineland raised his tattooed fists as if to jab the camera, then sent them signing autographs instead.

Some days in Wineland's life are like this, the one on Wednesday at the UFC 161 press conference at the Met, full of fans and upturned faces.

At home in Indiana, though, his days look different; the bantamweight fighter has his training, yes. But there are also the 10 days a month he works as a firefighter, just another station brother. Sometimes, Wineland's friends razz him about his UFC fame.

"It's kind of a standing joke. 'If you ever want something done, just have Eddie put it on his Facebook,'" Wineland said. "It's pretty funny."

Winnipeg won't get to see that Wineland though, not the one hauling hoses. Instead, on June 15, they'll see the fighting star, as the 28-year-old takes on interim UFC bantamweight champ Renan Barao -- who is on a whopping 20-fight winning streak -- at the top of the UFC 161 card.

Tickets for the event go on sale at 10 a.m. on Friday through Ticketmaster. The cheapest seats are $50, the top ticket will set fans back $500. That will get them in to see a lot of flesh-pounding, including the first female bout in Canada as Ontarian Alexis Davis takes on Brit fighter Rosi Sexton. Local fighter Roland Delorme will face Edwin Figueroa in a bantamweight contest.

For Davis, it's a homecoming of sorts -- she launched her professional career here in 2007, losing to Sarah Kaufman at UCW 7: Anarchy. Now, after signing with UFC in February, she'll make her debut with MMA's top organization here too.

"The fans in Winnipeg are incredible," she said. "It was incredible to watch the Jets game last night. I haven't fought in Canada in a couple of years, so I'm glad to make my UFC debut with you guys here."

The event makes Winnipeg the fifth Canadian city to host a UFC show -- Montreal, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver have hosted bouts. It will be the most-televised event in Manitoba history, and comes as the organization is pushing to see Canadian interest in MMA grow. Though the high-end tickets come with a hefty price tag for a small market, organizers said they're confident Winnipeggers will snap seats up.

"As a city, Winnipeg punches above its weight," said UFC's Canadian director of operations Tom Wright.

He knows exactly of what he speaks. Wright, who celebrated his 60th birthday in Winnipeg on Wednesday, was the CFL's commissioner between 2002 and 2006 -- fittingly, he plans to take the UFC 161 fighters to a Blue Bombers game.

"I learned a lot (in the CFL)," Wright said. "I learned that in the end, it's the fans that own the sport. It was understanding what the CFL was all about, trumpeting who you are and not what you're not. And I took that kind of perspective to the UFC. Our UFC athletes are very approachable, they're very accessible."

Example: All the fighters at UFC 161 will be staying at the Delta, and Wright said fans are welcome to meet them in the lobby for pictures and autographs. And at the press conference on Wednesday, Barao, Wineland and Davis mingled off the stage and answered queries from the fans.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2013 D7

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