I had a seat about 10 feet from the Octagon for Saturday night's UFC 84 show, and what I'll take away from it, more than anything else, is the sound. Punches land to faces with thuds. Kicks land to sides with thwacks. The Octagon itself turns into a drum when a fighter is slammed to the canvas.
I'll also remember the sheer noise of it all: The fighters' entrance music, the music played between fights, the introductions and the post-fight interviews were all pumped into the MGM Grand Garden Arena at earsplitting decibels. At 31, I must be older than the target UFC demographic, because I spent much of the night thinking the music was too loud. The guy next to me in press row wore earplugs.
My own reactions to the sounds aside, UFC 84 was terrific night of fights. A few other thoughts are below.
B.J. Penn destroys Sean Sherk.
The main event lived up to its billing, at least for one of the fighters involved. Lightweight champion B.J. Penn absolutely dominated former champ Sean Sherk, making very clear that he's the best in the division and raising questions about how much of Sherk's previous success was a result of steroid use.
Penn battered, bruised and bloodied Sherk's face through the first two rounds, and then at the end of the third he knocked Sherk to the ground with a knee and bashed him several times with strikes. The bell saved Sherk from a knockout, but Sherk couldn't get up to walk to his corner, so the fight was stopped.
In a surprise move, Penn (who has taunted Sherk for weeks leading up to this fight) hugged Sherk after the fight, kissed him on the forehead, and told him he respected him. But that gesture aside, it was a humiliating loss for Sherk, who was stripped of the lightweight title belt last year because of a positive steroid test and subsequent suspension. Sherk never even looked competitive, he was taunted relentlessly by the fans, and he'll have a long way to go before anyone considers him a title contender.
Penn might not be a lightweight for long.
The most likely next step for Penn will be to defend his lightweight title against the winner of the Roger Huerta-Kennly Florian fight at UFC 87. But Penn hinted in his post-fight interview that he might instead move up to welterweight to fight champion Georges St. Pierre.
"You want B.J. Penn to fight GSP?" Penn asked. When the crowd roared, he said, "I think we have our answer."
More than any other fighter in mixed martial arts, Penn has shown an ability to move up and down in weight class and fight effectively. But I hope he stays at lightweight – he showed tonight that 155 pounds is where he's at his best.
The fans love Tito Ortiz, the former light heavyweight champion whose loss to Lyoto Machida was billed as his last fight in the Octagon. The chants of "Tito! Tito!" were louder even than the cheers for Penn.
Ortiz entered the Octagon to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," clearly suggesting that that's what he had done during his tenure working for UFC President Dana White. Ortiz was introduced first, and he entered the Octagon waving both an American flag and a Mexican flag while wearing a shirt reading, "I did it my way."
Unfortunately, he didn't do much his way once the fight started. The fans who were so boisterous at the start of the first round seemed by the third to be resigned to the fact that Ortiz would lose. Even Ortiz's girlfriend, Jenna Jameson, who sat about 20 feet from me, wore a look of resignation on her face in the third round, although she was upbeat when she talked to me afterward. Ortiz gave it one last submission attempt in the final minute of his final UFC fight, but Machida slipped free and won 30-27 on all three judges' cards. (Donald Trump, seated behind Jameson, tried to console her after the decision was announced.)
"I'm here for another three or four more years," Ortiz said after the fight. "Maybe not in the UFC, but I'll be fighting for a long time."
So where will we see Ortiz next? My money is on EliteXC offering him an attractive financial package, possibly planning a Kimbo Slice fight down the road. But while such a signing would give EliteXC one of UFC's most popular fighters, it would not give EliteXC one of UFC's best. Ortiz in EliteXC would be like Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey: Still popular, no longer great.
Machida: a great fighter lacking star power.
Once the fight started, Machida (who wears a gi into the Octagon as a tip of the cap to his karate background) was just too quick for Ortiz. But Machida backs away a lot, which doesn't make for particularly fun fights to watch. Yes, he always has a strategy while he's backing away, biding his time for just the right moment to attack, but the fact is that UFC is in the business of attracting fans, and until Machida becomes a more exciting fighter, he's going to have a hard time getting a title shot.
In a classy move, Ortiz gestured to the audience and told them to stop booing Machida after the fight. But the fans will never cheer Machida the way they do Ortiz, because his fighting style, while effective, is not crowd-pleasing.
We finally saw the Wanderlei Silva we've been waiting for.
Silva was once considered among the best fighters in the world, but he entered UFC 84 on a three-fight losing streak, leading many observers (myself included) to think he was past his prime and not as well suited to fighting in the Octagon as he was to fighting in Pride's ring.
But Saturday night Silva turned in an absolutely dominant performance, destroying Keith Jardine in just 36 seconds, winning the Knockout of the Night award.
"It was a big surprise because he's a very tough guy," Silva said of Jardine afterward.
After the show, the buzz at the MGM Grand was that Silva might drop 20 pounds and fight his countryman, middleweight champion Anderson Silva, later this year. That would be a great fight.
Goran Reljic: Star in the Making
Reljic, a Croat who entered the Octagon for the first time after going 7-0 fighting in small promotions, delivered several devastating high kicks on his way to a second-round TKO over Wilson Gouveia. Reljic said afterward that he was motivated by a perceived disrespect from Gouveia.
"The bad blood between me and Wilson started when he started talking bad about me on a Brazilian web site," Reljic said after the fight, which was declared the Fight of the Night. It's good to know that a Croatian fighter monitors Brazilian web sites to see if anyone is dissing him. Future opponents would be wise not to make Reljic mad.
Not all UFC fans are guys in their 20s.
Yes, that's still the target demographic for UFC, and it's the demographic that makes UFC attractive to blue-chip advertisers like Bud Light and Harley Davidson. But there's a lot more than just young men in the crowd.
For starters, the number of female fans is impressive. Some of the ladies in the audience were dragged there by their significant others, no doubt, but most of the female fans I saw seemed knowledgeable about the sport and genuinely happy to be watching it. And there were even some groups of young women without any men in sight.
Also among the fans: A few celebrities. In addition to Jameson and Trump, I spotted Shaquille O'Neal, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, David Spade and Jamie Pressly. That's not quite as star-studded a cast as you'll usually see at a big boxing match, but it's a sign that UFC fights are viewed as a good place to be seen. Entertaining shows like Saturday night's are the reason for that.