UFC 129 is history in making for mixed martial arts
Hall of Famer Randy (The Natural) Couture remembers his first taste of the UFC and marvels at what has transpired in the 14 years since UFC 13.
"To go from weighing in at the Holiday Inn with fighters and their seconds, literally, in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, to what you're going to see on Friday is a remarkable journey," the 47-year-old MMA icon said Wednesday in Toronto on the eve of his final fight.
Friday's weigh-in for UFC 129 will be held in the Ricoh Coliseum — which could easily accommodate the UFC 13 crowd — with Saturday's show and its UFC-record 55,000 spectators set for the super-sized Rogers Centre.
Mixed martial arts may still not be for everyone. But as Couture notes, the sport has come a long way.
"For a long time, we were kind of the stepchildren, like 'Oh my God you're one of those cagefighters' and they'd take a big step back like somehow you were dangerous or a criminal," he said. "Certainly, that landscape has changed considerable, thanks to [UFC owners] Zuffa and the hard work they've done with their staff."
Saturday's crowd will be "55,000 cool people that enjoy watching professional athletes compete," UFC president Dana White said.
On Wednesday, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre of Montreal, featherweight title-holder Jose Aldo, former light-heavyweight champion Lyoto (The Dragon) Machida and featherweight contender Mark Hominick of Thamesford, Ont., wore suits to the pre-fight media conference looking more like they made a living on the fashion runway than in a cage.
Hominick accessorized with a Hamilton Tiger-Cats cap, part of a new sponsorship deal with the CFL team. Welterweight title contender Jake Shields also showcased his sponsor, wearing a Tapout T-shirt.
And Couture, who has his own clothing line, opted for a casual military-style jacket and baseball cap.
'Making a good living'
Top MMA fighters may not make the jumbo purses of superstar boxers like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, but they do OK.
Middleweight champion Anderson Silva made more than $2 million US for his last title defence. St-Pierre will do even better this time.
"Now it's pretty good," St-Pierre said. "It's a young sport, it's not like boxing."
The 29-year-old from Montreal recalls making $1,300 Cdn for his January 2002 debut against Ivan Menjivar, who is also fighting on Saturday's card. Shields made $200 US for his pro debut in 1999.
The UFC's official fight bonuses for Saturday's card will likely be six figures or close to it.
"I'm making a good living, but not rich yet," said the 32-year-old Shields, who drives a sleek BMW M6.
"So, of course, I want to make more. But it is in the process of going up."
The UFC will probably emerge the biggest winner. The show has already produced a record gate of $11 million C and White expects healthy pay-per-view numbers.
"Georges St-Pierre is a huge star everywhere, not just here in Canada," he said.
The show will be watched by fans in 145 countries.
Shields, who came to the UFC later in his career and has just one UFC fight under his belt, has marvelled at the media demands ahead of Saturday's showdown.
"It's been non-stop," he said. "Film crews have been at my training camp.
"Constant interviews. I've had to turn down at least 10 interviews a day."
'Up for the challenge'
St-Pierre and Shields have shown nothing but respect for each other in the pre-fight buildup and St-Pierre bowed as he shook hands with his rival after the news conference. But there was still intensity as the two locked eyes for the cameras and there was no farewell handshake when the two separated.
St-Pierre (21-2) is a 5-1 favourite.
"He's great," Shields said. "I have to be greater on that night and I feel up for the challenge."
St-Pierre has consistently dismissed the odds, saying Shields, a dangerous grappler who has won titles in Strikeforce and other organizations, is his greatest challenge to date.
"Jake Shields is a champion, so this belt right here doesn't belong to me," he said, pointing to the shiny belt in front of him.
"The way I see this fight is this belt is going to be in the middle and Jake and I will fight and the winner will take it."
Shields (26-4-1) is riding a 15-fight win streak that dates back to 2005. St-Pierre (21-2) has won his last eight fights and has not lost a round since August 2007.
The Toronto show will be the UFC's sixth in Canada — there have been four in Montreal and one in Vancouver — and the ticket sales show that the wait to get the sport sanctioned in Ontario was well worth it.
White was positively giddy after bounding up the steps for the pre-news conference at the Direct Energy Centre.
"Finally, finally here," he beamed.