Saturday, June 6, the Ultimate Fighting Championship
(UFC) returns to New Orleans for the first time since 2011 with a 12-match lineup at the Smoothie King Center. Many contemporary sports and competitions have about them a whiff of the gladiatorial, but none can match the rawness of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a catch-all name for the hybrid twenty-first-century fighting discipline developed (and, excitingly, still developing) in the crucible of unarmed combat.
Since pro boxing's collapse beneath the weight of its own corruption, MMA has risen as the format wherein the timelessly intriguing question "who's tougher?" can be most satisfyingly settled. By incorporating kicks, amateur wrestling and a panoply of martial arts (notably judo and jiu-jitsu), MMA also offers a far more varied fight than boxing does, even if many matches conclude with the fighters knotted on the ground, so tightly interwoven that one must rely on camera closeups to understand where the advantage lies.
UFC is the premier MMA league, a worldwide company which offers not only the very best fighters but the glossiest and most sophisticated production values. The fight card coming to New Orleans has been considerably reshuffled since its original announcement, but still offers a rare chance to experience, live, some of the world's top fighters plying their craft against one another.
The men — this is an all-male lineup — fight in a fenced-in octagon. This fencing, part of MMA's roots in "cage fighting," is an example of the persistent tension between gritty tradition and advertiser-friendly presentation as the sport of MMA (and particularly UFC) seeks more mainstream legitimacy — an ambition largely fulfilled over the last decade with UFC fighters taking the covers of Sports Illustrated
, appearing on late-night talk shows and making cameos in TV and film.
While watching an MMA event on television is interesting enough, there is nothing like actually being present for what is undeniably blood sport. This is the most ancient, the most primeval form of competition, and being in the crowd for it is as thrilling now as it was 2,000 years ago.
The main event is a middleweight match that could be considered a shot at redemption for both participants. Dan Henderson is a living UFC legend still fighting at age 44; this will be his 44th UFC match. He's lost five of his last six fights, albeit against some of the greatest talents in his weight class. Henderson is formidable, but does he still have what it takes? He'll face the ginger goliath Tim Boetsch, aka "The Barbarian," ranked #13 in his class, who's looking to recover from a mixed recent record, most recently a disappointing loss in January. Both of these men have everything to lose. This dynamic of desperation guarantees they will hold absolutely nothing back; on the other hand, since this match is scheduled for five rounds, they'll need to pace themselves to go the distance. Both men have the experience, toughness and motivation to make this fight memorable.
The co-main event pairs two distinctive heavyweights, the unpredictable and eccentric #12-ranked Matt Mitrione against the promotion's #10, veteran bruiser Ben Rothwell. The well-rounded Rothwell is renowned for his vertical hammer strike, a downward close-quarters swing using the side of the fist which he's nicknamed the Rothifier. Mitrione, who claims "a camouflage belt in awesome" says his favorite striking technique is simply "the punch in the face."
There are also some hometown boys booked to fight. The colorful featherweight Dustin "Diamond" Poirier hails from Carencro, near Lafayette, and will face Hawaiian grappler Yancy Medeiros. Diamond, who says he was born a fighter, claims before his pro career he "collected aluminum cans and picked pecans" and "beat up everyone in my trailer park." His mix of street fighting and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will be an interesting match for Medeiros' amateur wrestling background.
Lower on the card is a New Orleans vs. Baton Rouge heavyweight match: the Crescent City's own Derrick Lewis, aka "The Black Beast," will face "The Savage" Shawn Jordan, a former LSU fullback born in El Paso but fighting out of Baton Rouge. "Derrick’s a big, hard-hitting guy," Jordan told UFC interviewers, but "we fought before...and I won." While Jordan is given the edge in pure athleticism, Lewis, a former tow truck driver who wins most of his fights by knockout, has a reach advantage and a never-give-up attitude. If it comes down to heart, Lewis will be hard to beat.
Those attending in person will also get two non-televised preliminary bouts, including one in which undefeated middleweight Ricardo Abreu, a jiu-jitsu black belt who's secured four of his five victories within the first round, will take on relative newcomer Jake Collier. This will be Collier's second-ever UFC match, and Collier, four years younger than Abreu and 6'3" to Abreu's 6 feet, has a great opportunity here to make a name for himself.
Tickets for the event, beginning at $50, can be bought online or in person at the Smoothie King Center box office.