When new UFC Lightweight champion and Milwaukee native Anthony Pettis locked the previous champion, Benson Henderson, in an arm bar Saturday night, the entire BMO Harris Bradley Center started screaming for victory. In the next few seconds, the arena went deathly silent, as the two men broke apart, not giving anything away as to what had just happened.
All of a sudden, Pettis jumped on top of the cage, referee Herb Dean waived his arms over his head, and the entire arena went ballistic. Like, Jake Thomas hits a three-pointer and gets fouled against Syracuse ballistic. Hometown hero Pettis had just won the title, and the entire arena wanted to celebrate with him.
The pure intensity of that moment shows just how far the UFC has come to establishing its legitimacy in the sports world.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship began as an underground, rule-less and brutal sport in 1993. The first event, held in Denver, featured an eight-man tournament during which the finalists would have to fight three times in one night, regardless of injuries or fatigue. Mixed martial arts legend Royce Gracie made a name for himself that night, submitting three consecutive fighters with his jiu-jitsu.
But the violent, brutal nature of the sport was nearly its undoing. According to a 1999 Slate.com article, Arizona Senator John McCain called it “human cockfighting,” and tried to ban it nationwide.
That’s when Dana White and the Fertitta brothers stepped in and bought the UFC for just $2 million. The rest, as they say, was history. The UFC became a regulated organization, with commissions popping up all over the world, and its popularity has skyrocketed. Many people are projecting that the year-end rematch between greatest-of-all-time Anderson Silva and the only man to beat him in the UFC, Chris Weidman, will be purchased on pay-per-view in more than 1 million homes worldwide. For perspective, the very first UFC had 86,000 purchases, and UFC 159, a huge event from earlier this year featuring Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen, had about 550,000 buys, according to grapplearts.com and mma.manifesto.com.
That rabid fandom was evident at the Bradley Center on Saturday night, as 9,178 screaming fans blew out their lungs supporting the local products on the card. They went crazy when undercard Milwaukee native Chico Camus landed an up-kick from his back with 45 seconds to go in his war with Kyung Ho Kang and earned a decision victory.
The place nearly came unglued when Kenosha’s Ben Rothwell started doing his best B.J. Raji shake-dance in the third round of his fight and proceeded to smash through Brandon Vera for a knockout win.
And when Pettis cinched his submission and began pounding his chest while straddling the padded octagon, the entire arena burst into pandemonium, with beer flying everywhere and chants of “Pettis! Pettis!” erupting from the stands.
Many people still regard it as violent and brutish. Yet, for those who truly appreciate what MMA and the UFC have to offer, an event like Saturday’s provides the best of opportunities to stand up and cheer.