For most free Ultimate Fighting Championship events, I’ve always watched the network broadcasts from the comfort of my sectional couch and 60” HD TV. The events are free, plus it’s easy to multitask, check emails and talk smack, especially during the slower action with fights that aren’t all that high stakes to begin with. The new ESPN+ model is going to require some adjustment, as I don’t necessarily want to fork over $50 at a sports bar, don’t want to watch four hours of fighting on my five inch iPhone screen, and am still too dumb to figure out how to get it from my phone to the TV. I finally just sucked it up and purchased one of those Apple TV things, so we’ll see if that does the trick.
But in any case, for the big pay-per-view events like UFC 236, there’s always been just one option. I round up anyone who’s game, and we plunk ourselves down at the main bar at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Encinitas, California… an short trip from home and back. For the same $60 it would cost to order the event at home, I can down three 22-ounce beers and devour a mountain of lathered up wings. Oh, and I get to watch a $60 PPV event for free, live and with hundreds of other like-minded fans, barflies, and poor random families that stopped by for a Saturday meal with the kids and found themselves smack in the center of a sports lunatic asylum.
In any case, this has been my modus operandi, and I’ve been pretty faithful to it with no regrets for years now. Until last Saturday night.
The two main feature bouts, Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum and Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway, were so unbelievably good -- and complex -- that I sat at the bar wishing I was back in my house. Don’t get me wrong; the energy of the place was out of this world. It was crazy, but in a kind of weird way. This was not considered a major event; there were two interim (i.e. make believe) title on the line, and the event lacked major star power. No Conor McGregors, Jon Jones or Brock Lesnars here. Just four dudes that really came to scrap. And because of it, the crowd was smaller than it might otherwise be, and most people including myself were just really looking for some good Saturday entertainment.
By the time the Adesanya-Gastelum fight turned completely insane -- somewhere around the middle of the second round -- you could feel a different energy emerging throughout both the bar and restaurant. Bartenders stopped what they were doing to turn around and watch. People were screaming from all directions at 18 different TVs. And those lost and confused dads who randomly stumbled in with their families for dinner suddenly started ignoring their wives and turning their heads around to check out all the commotion. And of course all the true fight fans were high fiving each other after each round and running to the restroom faster than Usain Bolt, in order to try and make it back before the next round’s bell.
While all this created a loud, frenetic scene, it also made it hard to really concentrate on a pair of fights people will be talking about for years. Yeah, the bar manager pumped up Joe Rogan & Co, but even at the high decibel level the audio was set to, the buzz of the bar easily drowned out anyone’s ability to listen to the commentary. And for two fights as good as these, you really wanted to understand everything that was going on.
As much as I did enjoy the event out, when I got home and watched the two headlining fights back on my phone -- with commentary from Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan -- I appreciated what went down so much more. Especially with the Gastelum fight, having a commentator like Cormier explain the subtleties of trying to penetrate the reach of a much longer opponent was terrific. And hearing Rogan, who’s seen 1,000 fights and done commentary in some form or another for 22 years -- since UFC 12 way back in 1997 -- put these fights in their proper perspective, really added needed context I couldn’t quite get from Really Drunk Loud Guy next to me at the bar. So as exciting as the event was out in public, for this one the way to consume it was on that scratched up, tiny five inch phone in the privacy of my living room. How do you consume your MMA? Do you prefer to see it out with friends, alone where you can take in all the commentary, or like me, now maybe situationally, depending on the event? With an event as good as this one, the more attention you can pay to all the action, the more enjoyable the fights were.
Disclaimer: There is one exception to all of the above. I was lucky enough to attend UFC 229 live in Las Vegas, and there was absolutely nowhere in the universe you’d have rather been than inside that arena. Well, at least until the brawl broke out and 20,000 of us had no idea what was going on or if we were all going to get sucked into the Irish/Dagestani vortex. But that story is for a different time…