Bob Ryan

Ultimately, this sport is a big hit

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 29, 2010

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Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as UFC 118, came to Boston for the first time last night.

It was a big night for Big Cheese Dana White, whose background includes significant time in South Boston. The sport was only recently legalized in the Commonwealth, and this territory was regarded as almost the Last Frontier for UFC, which has soared in popularity, thanks to both White’s zeal and his marketing savvy. Clearly, he has struck a chord. His enterprise is estimated by Forbes to be worth in excess of $1 billion and White has become a very wealthy man.

Last night’s card represented the largest dollar gross of any event in TD Garden during this calendar year. Tickets were scaled from $75 to $600. For many in attendance, this was undoubtedly a dream scenario, seeing their beloved UFC up close and personal after watching all those matches on television.

Among those in attendance: Shaquille O’Neal. This was not his first time at the dance, however.

“I’ve been to about 30,’’ he confided.

Tom Brady was also ensconced in a high-roller seat, a row in front of the Dropkick Murphys. Their rousing “For Boston’’ was the song of choice for local boy Kenny Florian, who turned in an extremely lackluster effort against Gray Maynard in a lightweight bout.

White makes the cards himself, and he was disappointed in Florian’s passive approach. “Those hands should be flying,’’ White said as Florian began the third round after spending too much of the first two on his back. “But Kenny’s got nothing tonight.’’

“I personally love the city of Boston,’’ White said as he surveyed the packed house. “I was looking forward to coming here, and the way I’ve been treated this week has exceeded all my expectations. As far as the card is concerned, we’ve put all the bells and whistles in place. Now it’s up to the fighters.’’

One fighter who put a smile on White’s face was veteran Randy Couture. The much-decorated heavyweight upheld the honor of UFC by taking out boxing champ James “Lights Out’’ Toney in the first round.

Toney never landed a punch, finding himself on his back, helpless to defend Couture’s combination of punching power and martial-arts skills.

The big hook for UFC, if I understand things correctly, is that it is an all-encompassing form of combat. The bell rings and you assume a boxing stance. But UFC also combines wrestling and a wide assortment of martial arts. So a great deal of time in some matches is spent with the combatants groping around on the floor.

Fans paying several hundred dollars have clearly not come for the wrestling. Heavy boos rained down in three of the first four matches, which, admittedly, were, as one wag put it, the “batting practice’’ portion of the evening. Those matches were bor-ing.

Things livened up when local favorite Joe Lauzon bounded into the Octagon to fight Gabe Ruediger. Lauzon was all over his foe, wrapping up the bout in 2:01 with a submission hold. The crowd would have liked that performance even if Lauzon hadn’t come from Bridgewater.

“Lauzon was tremendous,’’ White said. “The guy he fought was undefeated in his last seven fights and had just beaten a guy that was undefeated. And Lauzon made it look easy.’’

Oh, yes, the Octagon. They don’t just fight in a ring; they fight in a cage known as the Octagon. A cage lends an air of danger and, yes, savagery. It’s a very clever concept, actually.

UFC has borrowed very heavily from wrestling, and why not? Vince McMahon hit upon a winning formula with music and pageantry, and story lines, and there is no reason why it wouldn’t transfer nicely to UFC. There has to be a great carryover fandom. Why would someone settle for the phoniness and absolute idiocy of the wrestling show when you can see better athletes engaged in legitimate combat and still get all of the trappings the WWE has to offer?

Another big bonus is ring announcer Bruce Buffer. I like him a lot better than his celebrated brother Michael. I’d pay cash money for him to announce the bride and groom at the next wedding I attend.

These guys are athletes. Make no mistake about that. A boxing round lasts three minutes. These rounds last five. They do need to be trained in multiple disciplines. No one can ever say these guys aren’t superb athletes, but that doesn’t mean the sport they practice is the prettiest thing to watch.

Now you can’t say everything goes. They did away with eye-gouging some time back. But kneeing and elbowing are prime tactics, and, c’mon, what’s so artistic about that? If you love a flat-out barroom brawl, replete with wrestling, kicking, kneeing, elbowing and, yep, punching, then this may be the sport for you. But to some, a little of that goes a long way. Frankly, after watching an evening of UFC, up close and personal, I came away with a better appreciation of boxing.

By the way, don’t let anyone kid you. Some of the fans may get off on the submission holds that can end bouts, but the biggest cheers come when fists are flailing with these flimsy gloves and blood starts flowing. Any time the ring physician examined a boxer who had been cut and there was the slightest hint he might stop the bout, the boos began. Nope, the punching is what matters most, and the show-stopper comes when a man gets on top of his opponent and starts punching his face in.

Dana White is obviously doing something right. The full houses nationwide and the hefty pay-per-views have made UFC a big deal. But it’s like a lot of other things in life: it’s not for everybody.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at