UFC 129 was always going to be a historic event.
As the first UFC fight card to take place in the province of Ontario, you knew going in that Dana White and company were going to break out the big guns. Canadian fans had emerged as an unexpectedly ravenous audience that had previously packed the Bell Centre in Montreal for a pair of pay-view-view events which, at the time, held down the gold and silver medal positions on the podium in terms of single-event attendance.
Venturing to Canada’s largest metropolitan area for the first time, the UFC upped the ante, announcing the April 30, 2011 fight card would take place at Rogers Centre, the cavernous, retractable-roof home of the Toronto Blue Jays that people of a certain age will always refer to by its original name — the SkyDome. The venue would be tailored to hold upwards of 50,000 fans, more than double the amount that had turned out for consecutive record-setting events in Montreal the previous two years, and the fight card would ensure that everyone in attendance would be treated to an outstanding night of action inside the Octagon.
Headlined by a welterweight championship clash between reigning champion and French-Canadian superstar Georges St-Pierre defending his title against former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields, the 12-fight lineup for UFC 129 was an intoxicating mix of all-action fighters, Canadian talents, and veteran superstars in high-profile pairings, including Randy Couture facing Lyoto Machida in the final bout of his Hall of Fame career.
While Couture’s swan song and St-Pierre’s highly anticipated clash with Shields stood as the most talked about pairings on the card, the co-main event carried a tremendous amount of intrigue mixed with a little classic sports movie potential, as featherweight champion Jose Aldo was set to make his UFC debut in a title fight opposite Canadian challenger Mark Hominick.
A respected veteran who trained under the highly respected Shawn Tompkins, UFC 129 was a homecoming of sorts for the London, Ontario-based Hominick, as it marked the first time in his decade-long career that he was able to compete in his home province. On top of that, Hominick and his wife were expecting their first child and their due date fell on fight night.
I had looked forward to the event from the moment it was announced. Having spent nearly two-thirds of my life living no more than 90 minutes away from Toronto, this was a chance to return to my home province, visit with family and friends, and then cover an historic event at a venue I’d been to on a number of occasions to watch the Blue Jays play, and once for a Raptors game during the team’s early days.
As the event approached, I had a picture in my head of what it would look like, how it would feel, the way things would play out, and even though I had crafted a beautiful image and memorable evening in my mind, what transpired still blew me away and exceeded expectations.
When you’re watching an event from a packed stadium on television, it’s hard to get a real understanding of just how big the venue is and exactly how many people are there taking in the action. It always just looks like a continuous wall of people, and while you know the numbers are staggering, it never fully registers because we’re all used to seeing massive stadiums packed to the rafters.
Looking out into the empty Rogers Centre on the morning of the event, I was taken aback by the size of the venue and the video screens that had been installed above the Octagon and throughout the stadium to give fans a better view of the action. As the production crew went through its rehearsals in the morning, the sounds echoed in the emptiness, with the test runs of the special entrances that would accompany the final six fighters to the cage later that evening giving me goosebumps every single time. You would think I would get used to it given that each entrance was timed out and practiced multiple times, but watching the graphics dance on the screen as the musical accompaniments kicked in made the hair on the back of my neck stand up time after time, even though I knew what was coming.
As the first bout of the night drew closer and the doors were opened, it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a special evening.
The joint was packed long before Pablo Garza and Yves Jabouin became the answers to a trivia question, and the record-setting crowd greeted them with the kind of cheers that don’t often accompany the first fight of the night. For the remainder of the evening, it was nearly impossible to speak to the person sitting next to you as the excited outbursts of the transfixed audience travelled in waves throughout the building, rippling throughout the crowd, swirling through the rafters where the Blue Jays’ championship banners hang.
Garza kicked off the night with a first-round submission win, attacking Jabouin with a flying triangle choke late in the opening round, adjusting as the Montreal-based featherweight tried to defend.
John Makdessi made an early case for taking home the Knockout of the Night bonus, channeling Shonie Carter and planting Kyle Watson on the canvas with a picture-perfect spinning backfist just over a minute into the third round of their lightweight battle.
Canadian veterans Jason MacDonald and Ivan Menjivar each wasted little time registering victories on home soil, with the former submitting Ryan Jensen in 97 seconds and the latter dispatching Charlie Valencia with a torrent of strikes seven seconds quicker in the very next fight.
Jake Ellenberger’s first-round knockout win over Sean Pierson brought the noise levels down to a dull roar, as the partisan crowd hoped the former Toronto police officer would pick up the biggest win of his career on his home turf. Although it was the local favorite getting put on the deck, the educated, appreciative crowd still had to give it up for Ellenberger, who felled Pierson with a swift left hand in the center of the Octagon to secure his fourth straight UFC victory.
The volume got cranked right back up to 11 in the very next bout as rising Canadian star Rory MacDonald walked into the cage and tossed Nathan Diaz from pillar to post for 15 minutes, getting back into the win column following his heartbreaking hometown loss at UFC 115 the previous summer while re-affirming his position as the heir apparent to St-Pierre in the welterweight division.
With the preliminary card wrapped up, the familiar strains of “Baba O’Riley” began to play, the video screens lighting up with recognizable faces, memorable moments, and an avalanche of highlights building to a crescendo that feels special no matter how many times you experience it.
Benson Henderson kicked off the main card with a clean sweep of the scorecards in his bout against Canadian grappler Mark Bocek. It was the first Octagon appearance for the former WEC champion and the initial victory in a run that would carry “Smooth” to the UFC lightweight title less than a year later and continued with three successful title defenses before his nemesis Anthony Pettis would once again knock him from the throne.
Veteran Vladimir Matyushenko added to the collection of impressive performances and quick finishes that evening in the second main card bout, as “The Janitor” mopped the floor with Jason Brilz in just 20 seconds, setting the stage for trio of marquee bouts that closed out the show.
The increased pageantry of the walkouts for Machida and Couture gave the contest the special feel it deserved, with the crowd in full throat as each of the former champions made their way to the Octagon. After a first round where Machida’s speed and striking advantages were on full display, “The Dragon” sent Couture into retirement with a highlight reel knockout straight out of The Karate Kid.
A minute into the middle stanza, Machida feinted a kick with his back leg by twisting his hip, getting a read of Couture’s defensive movements. Two seconds later, he unleashed a jumping front kick that split the legend’s guard and landed flush, sending Couture crashing to the canvas. Replays would show the kick also sent one of the departing veteran’s teeth into the front row. Couture spoke with Joe Rogan in the cage following the loss, praising Machida’s performance and confirming that it would be his final appearance as the crowd in Toronto showered him with applause.
And then the lights dimmed and a red Maple leaf appeared on the screens, swaying ever so gently in the digital breeze. Snow began to fall around it as Skylar Grey cooed the intro to “Coming Home” as Hominick began his jog to the Octagon.
Sitting in the press booth high above the cage, tears welled up in my eyes as the totality of the moment — the synergy of the song, the opportunity before Hominick, and event serving as my own return to my home province after a number of years away — caught up to me.
I snapped back to attention when “Run This Town” started bumping through the speakers, signaling Aldo’s arrival. It was only the third time the Brazilian champion had used what has become his signature walkout track and it was once again fitting, as he was venturing into hostile territory to defend his title and letting it be known in advance who was in charge.
Five minutes into the bout, it was clear that Aldo was the better man — his speed and precision leaving Hominick to deal with a cut under his right eye and a noticeable lump developing on his forehead. Three more rounds of Aldo being the dynamic, dominant fighter that he was sent the Canadian challenger back to the corner at the end of the fourth with a busted up mug and a hematoma on his forehead, but Hominick’s spirit was never broken.
He put himself in harm’s way by pressing forward to close the distance to begin the fifth and eventually got the fading Brazilian champion to the canvas. The crowd erupted as her postured up and rained down blows, their cheers sustaining Hominick’s last-ditch effort to find a finish and produce a fairytale ending, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Aldo weathered the attack, joined Hominick for his customary post-fight pushups, and swept the scorecards to retain his title, but even in defeat, it was clearly a magical night for the Ontario native.
Somehow, the energy in the building still climbed as Shields and St-Pierre made their way to the Octagon for the championship main event. It’s hard to explain the connection Canadians had to the welterweight champion to anyone who has never experienced an individual athlete or single team come to represent their entire nation, but that’s what it was for those of us north of the border when “GSP” stood atop the 170-pound weight class.
Not only did Canada sneak up on the world outside the nation, but we had an elite talent representing us on the biggest stage as well, lording over the most talent-rich division in the sport and carrying himself with a style, grace, and humility that made every one of us proud to watch him compete and cheer him on; even those of us who routinely picked against him.
The fight was St-Pierre’s closest since returning to the top of the welterweight division, as an accidental eye poke impaired his vision and gave Shields an opportunity to have some success and win a couple rounds on two of the three scorecards, something none of St-Pierre’s previous six opponents were unable to do.
In the end, St-Pierre prevailed, and the persistent din of cheers slowly started to fade, though the night was far from over. The post-fight press conference featured questions about an oft-discussed super fight between St-Pierre and middleweight champion Anderson Silva that never came to fruition and plenty of high praise for the city of Toronto, the fans who packed the Rogers Centre, and the 12 sets of fighters who made UFC 129 one of the most incredible nights in UFC history.
It was probably somewhere between three and four in the morning when I finally exited the building and walked back to my hotel. It felt like Sonic the Hedgehog was racing through my nervous system, rocketing around, collecting gold rings. Nearly 20 hours after arriving at the venue, the adrenaline was still pumping and my mind was trying to make sense of the grand spectacle I’d just witnessed and what it all meant.
The record-setting attendance figure from that evening has since been surpassed, first when the UFC ventured to Tele2 Arena in Stockholm, Sweden in January 2015 and then on each of the two occasions the Octagon has touched down in Melbourne, the site of UFC 193 and UFC 243.
There have been higher profile fight cards since then, as well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be in attendance at a couple of them, including the night the Irish invaded the MGM Grand Garden Arena at UFC 189 and again five months later when Conor McGregor captured the featherweight title at UFC 194.
Both of those nights were magical yet felt very different than UFC 129 for me.
Maybe it’s because the event had brought me back home, to a place I had been numerous times in the past for something entirely new, something I was closer to than any of the other sporting events I’d watched there before.
Maybe it’s because city buzzed with energy throughout the week and the event marked the first time I felt like I truly belonged in this business, even though I was nervous as hell the entire week meeting competitors I’d only ever seen on TV, and mingling with writers and reporters whose work I had admired from afar for a number of years, long before I started my own journey in the field.
Or maybe it’s because the building was at capacity before the first pair of fighters walked to the cage and the atmosphere alone was enough to make the night special, only to have the athletes go out and deliver fight after fight.
UFC 129 was always going to be an historic event.
The fact that it turned out to be one of the greatest events in UFC history as well is what makes it so special all these years later.