UFC London: Blood, sweat and backstage brawls – my night at the UFC

They come for the brand and stay for every single punch, kick, wayward elbow, subtle choke and knee when the UFC’s carnival of brutal promise arrives in town.

On Saturday at the O2 the seats were flooded with the eager long before the beam landed in the octagon and men and women stripped for combat. The fans fill the place like they are poured in from high-altitude holes, swarming, eager, wide-eyed and desperate for a night of their beloved sport. They watch a slick machine between fights, seem to know every nuance of the complexities in jujitsu during the wrestling sections and ooh and argh like kids being directed at a circus. Yes, it is a good night.

Late on Saturday The Count, a fighter called Michael Bisping from Clitheroe, was introduced from octagonside (not sure that is a word yet) when it was announced that he would be inducted to the UFC Hall of Fame this summer in Las Vegas. The Count is the only British fighter to win a UFC world title, he holds a lot of other records, and he rose to cheers, his eyes moist, he bowed to his faithful and the noise increased as he mouthed “thank yous”.

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A sold-out crowd, nearly 20,000 fans, celebrating the savage services of a British fighting veteran and Bisping – he fought 6 hours, five minutes and 33 seconds in the UFC octagon – will never get the respect he is due.

I saw his UFC debut in 2007, wrote about it for The Independent. “He changed the face of the UFC in Britain, he did that on his own – he is a legend,” I was told. He will always be Big Mike to me, brave, fearless, theatrical and eternally grateful for his ability to absorb and inflict pain. Incidentally, only one man has ever fought for longer in the UFC octagon than Bisping. The UFC call Big Mike UFC royalty and I like that a lot.


UFC London in pictures: Darren Till vs Jorge Masvidal





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In many ways Saturday’s fight night was a long, bloody homage to Bisping and his hard-earned influence. There were 13 fights in total and 13 British fighters in the octagon, including Molly McCann, who became the first English woman to win a UFC fight. I couldn’t interview her after because she was having a bruised orbital bone examined.

This is not a sport for the squeamish but hundreds of children were there with eager parents; the merchandise stalls were heaving before and after, the late tubes packed with bag-carrying converts, mostly sober and all with screaming wide eyes. This is a truly devoted flock, my friend.

On Saturday night men won and lost on points after three five-minute rounds, circling warily, missing with punches from their tiny mitts and grappling for holds that end fights when both tumble to the canvas. It is ugly at times, slow at times, cagey at times and the crowd – this is the oddest thing to an outsider – accept the lulls. It’s the brand, they know something will come and that is why they come.

The crowd got their fix when there was was a sudden and nasty end to the nominal main event and Liverpool’s Darren Till was dropped in round two of five and then, when unconscious, hit when he was down. It is legal under UFC rules, the only rule that makes me feel uncomfortable. He never stirred after the one, two, three.

Till had fought for a UFC world title in his last fight; the UFC does not bring back favourites in mismatches and has never cared about unbeaten records. On Saturday six fights were televised on BT and just one of the 12 fighters was unbeaten. That is a statistic that would never exist in the boxing world, where the hopeless faith in remaining unbeaten is bordering on psychotic.

Till will be back and Jorge Masvidal, the man who knocked him out, found his own tiny scrap of redemption when he finished the fight. “He’s a stud, man. I hit him with some bombs,” Jorge said. By the way, Masvidal had lost 13 times and won 32 fights before meeting Till. He has had his demons, problems and own heartbreaks to overcome. A few minutes later, still backstage, he broke from another interview to exchange punches with Leon Edwards. Earlier in the night Edwards, who is the same weight as Masvidal, had won his fight. They had, as they say, previous. I love this stuff, sorry.

The UFC will investigate the incident. Edwards was cut and the police were on post-midnight duty visiting hotel rooms gathering testimony from weary men. Masvidal was awarded $100,000 in bonuses and that added prize might be now be under threat. The scuffle was a handy piece of pantomime to finish a night when Big Mike was honoured, Molly made history and just under 20,000 loved every single kick, chop, knee, punch, choke and desperate grapple. The brand is god, but the fighters aren’t too bad.

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