STOCKHOLM -- Some nights in this sport feel more or less interchangeable. The Vegas nights. The cable TV cards. UFC a hundred-and-something. Even after being there live you have to go back and look it up to remember who fought who and when.
This was not one of those nights. That much should have been clear when I showed up almost two hours early and was confronted with a mass of humanity picking its way carefully through the slush and ice that were left over from a sudden spring snowfall.
In these situations, it’s important to identify what I like to call ‘problem walkers.’ They’re the ones whose inability to consistently and predictably put one foot in front of the other will drive you insane. You know the people I’m talking about. Women in heels, who must treat every step on the ice as if they are navigating across a field of hot lava. Men who seem to care just a little too much about the hem of their pants. Drunks and those rapidly on their way to becoming drunks. All are obstacles to navigate around before you even see the entrance.
Somewhere in all this mess were the real stars of the pre-fight festivities outside The Globe: the scalpers.
Word spread quickly that this event -- UFC on FUEL TV 2 to those back home in North America; ‘UFC Sweden’ to the locals -- had sold out around three hours after going on sale. But even in a country with more socialist leanings, cutthroat capitalism manages to rear its head when supply and demand converge in this special way.
One man I talked to paid twice the face value of his ticket -- around $700 total -- just to be in attendance when the UFC debuted in Sweden. Was it worth it?
"For my son, yes," he said. As for himself, he was hard-pressed to think of any form of entertainment that was worth such a price. Any form except for seeing his son so happy, he added.
And the crowd that packed The Globe -- a unique venue that feels like the inside of some futuristic undersea lair -- was indeed a happy crowd. Much like the crowd in Rio last August, the Swedes packed the expansive arena from the first fight on, singing songs and launching into chants to support their local favorites, but also letting foreigners like Norway’s Simeon Thoresen know that regional rivalries meant a little more on fight night than they had at the more polite weigh-in affair the day before.
The biggest star on the prelim portion of the card was undoubtedly Reza Madadi -- an Iranian-born immigrant to Sweden who came out waving the blue and gold to a standing ovation. Madadi didn’t have an easy night of work in front of him against Yoislandy Izquierdo. The Cuban outstruck him in the first round, and proved difficult to take down and keep down.
But when, early in the second round, Madadi grabbed onto a guillotine choke and squeezed it until Izquierdo was forced to tap, the inside of the Globe exploded with cheers. Madadi might have been a prelim fighter, but in Sweden he was at least a co-main event in many fans’ minds. The reaction to his win in Stockholm was not so different from the reaction to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s win in Rio de Janeiro. If you’d come from another planet and were seeing MMA for the first time, you would have easily arrived at the conclusion that Madadi was one of this sport’s biggest stars.
It wasn’t such a great night for all the Swedish fighters, however. Besam Yousef got himself choked into submission by a fighter from Norway, where MMA still isn’t and (according to many here) may never be legal. Papy Abedi fell to a similar fate against American James Head, who shoved him over in unsportsmanlike fashion after the submission (thankfully Europeans already expect us to act like jerks, so our national reputation is at least unchanged by that display). Magnus Cedenblad got off to a good start against Montreal’s Francis Carmont, but might have worn himself out looking for the finish in the first round and then got mauled en route to a submission finish in the second.
That left it all up to Alexander Gustafsson to end the night on a high note for the Swedish fans, and he didn’t disappoint. After Thiago Silva was met with scattered boos on his way to the cage, Gustafsson was greeted with a solid wall of cheers as he made his way onto the arena floor.
Later, at the post-fight press conference, he would claim that he wasn’t feeling any extra pressure fighting in front of his hometown crowd. It was UFC president Dana White who responded by saying what we all were thinking: "I think he’s full of [expletive]. I think there was a ton of pressure of him."
To his credit, the big Swede didn’t show it. After dropping Silva with strikes early and nearly putting him away in the first round, Gustafsson looked as relaxed as ever as he danced away from the Brazilian’s attacks and picked him apart from the outside. The crowd soaked up every minute of it, alternating between chants of ‘Alex! Alex!’ (pronounced here: Awl-icks) and what my Swedish seatmate on press row insisted was a very clear instruction to "hit him in the mouth."
Gustafsson obliged, and you almost got the sense that it was a gift to his home country that he didn’t end the fight with that early salvo in the first. Not that they -- and, of course, he -- wouldn’t have enjoyed that. But this way they got to enjoy the show a little longer, to revel in the pure joy of seeing one of their own dominate on the sport’s biggest stage. When it was over and the fighters stood awaiting the decision, you could tell just by the way Silva stared at the floor through swollen, bloodied eyes that this would be an easy call for the judges.
After the fight, Gustafsson was back to being the modest man of few words that he’d been all week. Instead of pounding his chest and claiming the spotlight in the post-fight presser, he seemed to shrink from the attention, as if he’d rather go unnoticed altogether. Outside, the Swedish crowd streamed onto the streets and into the subway, with one question on the lips of the local fans and media: when can we do this again?
That’s the big problem -- to the extent that it is a problem -- with opening up thriving new markets for big time MMA. It’s a refreshing shot of enthusiasm to come to a new place and see this sport through their eyes, with their glowing appreciation for something they usually never get to see up close. But as the UFC heads to new locales, it must necessarily ignore some of the old ones. When will the UFC come to Scotland, a reporter with a thick Scottish accent asked White at the presser. How about Poland and France and Italy?
Yes, White assures them. We’re coming. We’re going to "take this thing everywhere." The same line we’ve been hearing for years. Little by little, it’s come true. It’s given us memorable nights like this one inside The Globe, where the Swedes showed us how to properly appreciate this madness that we sometimes take for granted on those Vegas nights, those UFC a hundred-and-somethings. In return, hopefully we can remember to properly appreciate them for that.