The Sure Thing

Anderson Silva was the safest bet in sports. Until he wasn't.
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Silence.

Followed by hysterics.

That’s what it sounded like when it happened.

However, 30 minutes before the first fight, my buddies and I huddled in a corner of the MGM Grand’s bustling sportsbook planning parlays and how much money to place on Anderson Silva beating Chris Weidman in the main event of UFC 162. When you make risky bets from the undercard, hedging with as sure a bet as someone who has never lost in the UFC and, more importantly, made his opponents look like fools for even thinking there was a chance seemed like a sure thing.

But by now, you should know what “it” was, how it happened and that we lost our shirts trying to predict it.

***

When DMX’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” started blaring over the arena’s speakers the tension in the room became palpable. Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman's entourage each took about ten minutes to reach the octagon, and from the moment the two combatants decided to forgo the ceremonial touching of gloves, we knew this was going to be a fight. And there is nothing like being at a fight.

There are matches, where two technicians grapple to see who has spent the most time practicing, like Demian Maia vs. Jason MacDonald from UFC 87. Then there are brawls, where two big bruisers attempt to knock each other’s heads off for their own edification (Don Frye vs Yoshihiro Takayama.)

This was a fight.

This is the grown up version of two people meeting at the flagpole in high school: trying to beat someone up and look good while doing it. All the lead in pre-fight talk, weigh-ins, press conferences, open workouts, etc. were like waiting for school to get out. Our hearts were in our throats and for those of us like me -- one of the few in attendance without allegiance to either fighter -- we spent the time before the bell soaking in everything going on around us in anticipation of the show.

It started off slowly, with the requisite feeling out period teasing the crowd like a top waiting to fall. The first to make solid contact was Weidman, who took down the Brazilian as uneducated patrons (read: Weidman supporters) screamed at the top of their lungs when the Hofstra grad went for a submission early. Even if “The Spider” was never in any danger, the Brazilians shouted their traditional “Whoomp, there it is” chant when their fighter popped upright, as if they were letting those there to support Weidman know that despite their notions the contrary, this was business as usual.

Then something remarkable happened. As round one came to a close, Anderson Silva lost control of his emotions for what feels like the first time in history and the 12,000 or so in attendance went quiet. Momentum is so important, and the pendulum was swinging the way everyone thought it would. Until two minutes into round two.

***

The hype for the fight had made itself. All the UFC marketing department ended up having to do was get every fighter on the roster to give their picks on who would win, knowing many would chose the younger Weidman. Silva wisely didn’t talk Weidman down in the lead up to the bout, instead praising his talents. This, for some, planted the seeds of doubt for his first loss in 17 bouts. To them, it sounded throughout the process as if he had already conceded defeat, or at the very least, come to terms with the possibility.

Further turning up the heat on UFC 162 was the week-long celebration of the organization putting on the show. “Fight Week” serves as the anchor on Zuffa’s, the company that owns and operates the Ultimate Fighting Championship, pay-per-view schedule, like WWE’s Wrestlemania AXXESS. Except instead of fanboys and children, it’s filled with attractive girls and people who are in shape or really trying to look like it, creating a vortex of pool parties, club appearances, a two-day Fan Expo, and every name in the world of fighting converges upon Las Vegas for the biggest card of the year.

And it’s an experience for which MMA fans seem more than willing to pay, with ticket prices starting at $125 and working their way up to $1250 per seat for the fight alone and nearly every other part of the weekend costing even more. With 12,399 in attendance this lead to a gate of 4.862 million, that’s a serious amount of bank into which my motley crew each made a $250 (plus ludicrous service fees) deposit. On top of this fight, we talked ourselves into getting tickets to the Fan Expo -- imagine a martial arts swap meet, crossed with fighting seminars and autograph session -- that was well worth the $50 price of admission.

Our home base of Southern California meant that it was just 3 and a half hours via car to Sin City or -- if you’re “somebody” -- a hop, skip, and a jump from the local airport. Needless to say, my two buddies and I drove. Three bachelors who work at a restaurant and grocery store meant this trip was a splurge, but a small price to pay to be in person for the most expected/surprising knockout in MMA history, right?

When we finally arrived in Paradise, NV. we saw a sight synonymous with the UFC and what it stands for -- other than shirts with foil print: the Octagon, front and center in the MGM Grand's lobby. A physical testament to how the UFC had grown from a “fight club” into a major U.S. sport, but one we had to move past the temptation of pictures in front of, so that we could get to an exclusive Q&A with UFC'S “public” man in charge, Dana White.

We strolled into the Expo mouths agape. Booths of every MMA brand imaginable were in rows with lines wound in between as fans waited patiently for chance to meet premier fighters like Jon Jones and Georges St. Pierre, standing next to fighters on the midcard waiting to be noticed by the sport’s purists. If there’s one thing to be loved about the sport, it’s the steep drop off of recognition an up and coming fighter has in comparison to the few famous (and infamous) faces of the sport. Those who are new to the game are regular folk and seem to be as enamored with the enormity of the event just as we are.

Following a surprisingly long wait in line to meet Michael Bisping, a fist bump from Dana White and a stern rebuke by Jon Jones for a picture, it was time for the most important reason I had made the trek to the desert, a meeting with Fuel TV Director of Publicity John Stouffer to see the weigh-ins, so I bailed on my friends and made my way with John. While this may seem like the name drop of the century, the time I got to spend with Stouffer from the sidelines involved watching Chael Sonnen respond to obscenities hurled at him from fans, so it seemed newsworthy.

***

When I wasn’t talking shop or checking out the fan expo, most of my time in anticipation of the fight was spent on The Strip. It was there I noticed that the invading hordes of MMA fans seemed split 50/50 for the two men in the main event, how easy it was to pick out for whom almost every individual was rooting.

Weidman fans were more boisterous and noticeably more asinine, in that bro-tacular kind of way, not surprising considering they had nothing to lose in picking the contender and everything to gain in being able to say “I told you so.” Meanwhile, the Brazilian contingent confidently strolled around in “Anderson Knows” shirts, speaking Portuguese amongst themselves. There was noticeable tension between the two camps and it made for the environment of a lifetime when finally entering the arena.

Even those of us unattached chose which side we were on the moment we entered the Grand Garden Arena, with Brazilian or U.S. flags being handed out to everyone in attendance. By forcing their hands to make a public declaration, the audience was flung into siding with either the unbeatable, overconfident, foreigner champion or the young undefeated guy from New York with a U.S.A. tattoo on his back.

The result was more "U.S.A" chants than a Hacksaw Jim Duggan match. Brazilians own MMA and play that specific type of bad guy very well after years of practice on the futbol pitch, a role Anderson Silva embraced with open arms with arms at his sides. He may not have outed himself as the bad guy prior, but his actions during the match did the talking.

Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones, Jr., Michaels Jordan and Tyson have done the same thing. Utilizing who they are and what they have previously achieved to strike fear in who standing on the other side. All have also failed in doing so at some point.

***

The first place I noticed the similarity in comfort level of Silva and Weidman was with John at the weigh-ins. Both seemed anxious, as the final staredown became less face off and more of an appearance on the arena’s kiss cam. Everything was top notch production wise, the UFC pulled no punches all weekend. It doesn’t hurt that the Fertitta brothers -- who along with running Zuffa, own half of Las Vegas under the label Station Casinos -- are able to advertise up and down the strip. Stouffer pointed out that no one draws the attention that Silva does and people had flocked to the free weigh-ins instead of enjoying the Expo they had payed $50 plus dollars for.

What Weidman took advantage of was the fact that none of that mattered. He was patient, he didn’t fling himself at Silva the way The Spider wanted, and as a result Silva was rattled. This is why the showboating and egging on became excessive, frantic and quite frankly, desperate. Weidman didn’t fear Silva and you could feel it.

There were fleeting moments where Silva looked as if he had everything under control. Just as he did using same gameplan against Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin. But then it happened. All the chants and witty comments stopped. One fateful punch on the square of Silva's chin.

Silence.

Followed by hysterics.

The crowd turned on Silva immediately. That 50/50 split became drastically one sided as those who had been cheering Silva immediately tried to save face by frantically searching for U.S. towels left underneath seats. For the moment, Weidman and Silva were equal. I stood in disbelief, observing those around me. I wasn't dreaming, nor was I wasted. "Anderson lost?" I said aloud. I was brought back to reality by Chris Tucker-esque shouts from Friday, behind me: "HE JUST GOT KNOCKED THE FUCK OUT! FUCK BRAZIL! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

I had prepared myself for Anderson Silva no longer being Middleweight Champion of the world, but not in that fashion. The shockwaves could be felt everywhere. The varying emotions were evident on everyone’s face. Referee Herb Dean was so engrossed he looked like incompetent Steve Mazzagatti. Down went the champion and up came the possibilities for new matchups and a new middleweight landscape. More importantly, the “G.O.A.T.” has something to fight for: defeating the blemish on his record, the guy he couldn’t beat - Chris Weidman.

Leaving the arena was almost as engrossing as the fight itself. Those who had cheered Weidman were euphoric, antagonistic and annoying. Anyone they saw that had been supporting Silva was the enemy and someone they felt the need to demean. The nationalism of the Fourth of July, paired with liquid courage made for a feisty atmosphere. One that I dread, mainly because of the connotations that it brings towards fans of the brutalistic sport. It became an issue of country, when in reality the fighters could have been from anywhere. The real story was David defeating Goliath.

Sure, Silva gracefully exited stage left and allowed Chris Weidman to go celebrate with his Hofstra buddies at Surrender nightclub. Sure, Silva said he was done fighting for the strap, but of course Anderson is back scheduled to fight for the title, with a chances he will be successful. But things will be different next time. Weidman the champion, Silva the one with something to prove to himself, for his country and about his reputation.

Or at least it should feel like that.

***

I returned to my room drained from what I had just experienced first hand. Had I attended some bar with a five dollar cover charge and watched from a bar stool as, I don’t think the range of emotions I was experiencing would be as far reaching. I felt for SIlva, and I was proud of Weidman. My phone was blowing up with “did you see that shit? You just witnessed history!” texts. Twitter was a Jekyll and Hyde of excuses, shock, and anger. One second confident Silva backers were tweeting in 140 characters how things were going just as they had thought. Then moments following the punch to the chin of Silva, came one word responses.

This is sports in a nutshell. Invoking emotions from those interested in the fighters, promotion or sport. We pledge allegiance to those we like for personal reasons or the way they carry themselves. Those who adore Silva were disrespected by the way he fought in the Octagon. Not exactly what you would expect from someone who bows to his opponent. Those of us there, know what we saw, but it doesn’t mean the loss cannot be rectified. Sports are best played in series, and the opportunity for a “best of three” between Silva-Weidman is the best situation possible for all those involved. Patrons, fighters, businessmen. Everybody.

I keep each ticket stub from the event I’ve ever attended in a shoe box beneath my bed. Of course, most of the stubs are forgotten once they enter the box and the memories are no different, because who remembers a California -- or was it Anaheim, or Los Angeles of Anaheim? -- Angels regular season game pitched by Mark Langston when they've been to 100 others? It takes a special event with cataclysmic results to stick. The UFC, plus Las Vegas, multiplied by a knockout of the "greatest mixed martial artist of all time" Anderson Silva makes for something I will remember until I die. Stub or no stub.


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