Walking into the Cox Convention Center for UFC Fight Night, I didn’t know what to expect. Oh, I’d seen mixed martial arts before. I’d watched the no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners combat sport that has taken the nation by storm. I’d witnessed the bloody noses and the swollen eyes, the elbows to the head and the knees to the face.
But never like this. Never in person. I wasn’t alone. The Ultimate Fighting Championship last came to Oklahoma in 1994. The league was in its infancy then, a shadow of the sports tour de force that it has become. While the UFC has a huge following in Oklahoma City — the television numbers tell us so — most of the 7,500 people in attendance Wednesday night had never had a chance to witness the sport live. Count Kyle Weaver in that group. The Oklahoma City Thunder playe had watched a few bouts on TV, but sitting on the floor level with several of his teammates, he marveled at the scene. "It’s so different in person,” Weaver said. Thunder newbie James Harden was so impressed that he shot a line to his Twitter account. "This UFC fighting is no joke!!!” he said. The scene is part prize fight, part rock concert, part fashion show. The first bout on the card was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. I figured it’d be the fighters and us chickens in the arena for those early matches. But at a quarter of four, the concourses teemed with folks. Men in TapOut T-shirts sipped beers. Women in clubbin’-worthy outfits bought souvenirs. Don’t these people have jobs? Apparently not when the UFC is in town. "I’m thrilled with the crowd,” Dana White said as he sat octagon-side. "Four o’clock in the afternoon, it’s not shabby.” White is the man who has turned mixed martial arts into a phenomenon. I don’t agree with everything the UFC president has done — his homophobic, misogynistic video rant a few months ago was inexcusable — but the growth of the league under his leadership has been impressive. League revenues are up almost 40 percent this year, and in this economy, that’s no small feat. Part of it is UFC’s multimedia reach with television exposure and internet saturation, but that hasn’t come at the expense of the live shows. More MMA coverage