In his new book, "Blood in the Cage, SI writer L. Jon Wertheim examines the furious rise of the UFC and mixed martial arts fighting.
The following excerpt details the pre-fight scene at UFC 82.
A UFC card today must resemble boxing in its 1940s heyday. It is the rare sporting event that feels like just that: an event. And the presence of scalpers is the least of it. A day before the fights, thousands of rabid UFC fans converged on Nationwide Arena to attend the weigh-in. After a brief intro from Joe Rogan and some pro forma waves and blown kisses from the Octagon Girls™-yes, the term is really trademarked by the UFC-the 22 fighters on the card stripped to their short or skivvies, stood on a scale and posed with their opponent for a photo-op. Wearing ratty jeans, a leather jacket and a smirk, Dana White stood behind the fighters. When he smacked them on the back, they released their pose, left the stage and went to rehydrate, adding as much as 10 pounds in water to their frames. This weigh-in could have been quietly conducted in a hotel ballroom, the way boxing has done it for years. Instead, the UFC has shrewdly used this as another means of hardening the bonds between consumer and product.
The day of the fight, there was a current of anticipation. Throughout town, the prevailing question was: "Are you going to the show tonight?" as if UFC 82 were an exclusive ball. Limos and cabs lined the street outside the arena. As the Octagon was being assembled inside and the techies did their last sound checks, the fighters were back at the hotel, engaging in the fool's errand of trying to relax. They meditated. They went through light workouts. They fired up the PlayStation. They drank their own piss. (More on this a little later.)
At 6:30 or so, I made my way to the arena press room. The boys with lacquered hair from the Ohio Athletic Commission were setting up ringside. "We do everything from drug testing to making sure their entrance music doesn't have profane lyrics," one of them explained. Waitresses in the luxury suites were arranging premium booze, and microbrew and novelty martinis. As I foraged at a media buffet that included fresh mozzarella salad and fancy Italian pastries, it was hard not to marvel at how far the entire sport had come since Pat Miletich was fighting on UFC cards held inside crappy armories on the banks of the swamps outside New Orleans.
When the Nationwide Arena doors finally opened to the public at 7:30, a tidal wave of fans-a near-capacity crowd of 16,431, in all-filed in. This isn't boxing, where only the die-hards condescend to watch the preliminary bouts. Before the first fight, most of the seats were filled. The real UFC tribalists were easy to spot, what with their abundant pierces and tats, their UFC hoodies and their angry t-shirts. ("You Say Tomato, I Say Fuck You." "Exercise Your Demons.") But there were just as many young, professional-looking guys in their "go-out shirts" and designer jeans. There were blacks and whites and Hispanics and, no doubt because of Anderson Silva's appearance on the card, a knot of crazy-loud Brazilians. Based on the license plates in the parking lot, they came from all over the Midwest. The tickets weren't cheap, ranging from $60 to $1,000 but the crowd was more diverse than any audience you'd find at an NBA or NFL game.
The fighters themselves were remarkably diverse, too, ranging in age from 21 to 37. There were, as usual, a few local boys on the card, increasingly easy to find now that MMA is sanctioned in most states. But aside from three Ohioans, the card resembled a model U.N. In addition to Silva, the slate of fighters included a Japanese refugee from PRIDE (Yushin Okami), a black Frenchman (Cheick Kongo), an Italian (Alessio Sakara), a Swede (!) who trains in Brazil (David Bielkheden), and a former Olympic wrestler (Dan Henderson, Silva's opponent). There were three well-regarded veterans of The Ultimate Fighter reality show-the impish Chris Leben, the new-agey Diego Sanchez and the swaggering Josh Koschek.
The diversity extended to the fighters' bodies as well. There are some near-universals among UFC fighters: their skin is stained with tattoo ink. They have protruding muscles, especially thighs that defy human proportion. They have short (un-pullable) hair or simply a clean-shaven head. Like human NASCAR-mobiles, they wear shorts slathered with all manner of sponsor-patches, another source of revenue. (Leben's patch for "Condomdepot.net" was particularly memorable.) But their body types are remarkably varied, from the essentially fat-free 155-lb. whip Jorge Gurgel, to the rangy Jon Fitch to Heath Herring, a burly Texan who looks like a beef-fed lineman right out of Friday Night Lights. In short, inasmuch as the Octagon is a sort of terrarium, it contains a remarkable range of species.
Rounding out this menagerie was Luke "The Silent Assassin" Cummo, far and away the most unique fighter, I would meet while working on this project. A former cab driver, Cummo discovered martial arts while living on Long Island and became a protégé of Matt Serra. As Cummo ascended the MMA ladder, appearing on the reality show and eventually earning a four-fight UFC contract, he didn't succumb to convention. When I first met Cummo at a UFC fight in Houston, he explained that he eats only "Life Food for a sustainable future," a diet that forbids beans, grains and animal products. A typical meal for Cummo is a bowl of soup containing onions, garlic, buckwheat, and sunflower seeds.
When Cummo won his fight that night in Houston and was interviewed in the Octagon by Joe Rogan, he blurted out, "All politicians are puppets and the only way to make a difference in the world is the way you live your life!" This didn't play too well in the heart of Texas, and Cummo left the stage to boos. Strangely enough, when UFC reps handed reporters a sheet of Cummo's post-fight quotes, there was no mention of corrupt politicians. Cummo's remarks were condensed and distilled to the following verbal oatmeal: "Even though I got the win there is always room for improvement, I got taken down so I need to work on my defense…I'm now going to hit the gym and prepare for my challenge here in the UFC."
In Ohio, I saw Cummo outside his locker room and remarked that he looked decidedly smaller than his opponent, Luigi Fioravanti, an Iraqi war veteran. Perhaps that was because while Fioravanti was adding mass-gulping water and gorging on steak the day after the weigh-in-Cummo had had nothing to eat all day. Not only that, without a trace of self-consciousness, Cummo explained that he had "purified" himself by practicing "urine recycling." Come again? "I drink my own urine. I had my last meal last night and then I continually drink my urine. Eventually when I poop-you know, when I do No.2-all that comes out is urine. Then I know my digestive system is completely empty. At first I used to put some honey in it, heat it up and drink it like a tea. But now I just drink it fresh. That's when it's most delicious."
PHOTO: By Brekken