By Thomas Cunningham - Even though I’ve never been a big sports guy, MMA has always appealed to me – two individuals competing is simultaneously skilled, strategic and cerebral and simple, primal and personal. Thanks to the UFC and the rapid rise in popularity of MMA in the last few years, you can really get to know these fighters. You can root for or against them as much for their personality and heart as their skill as athletes. It offers a fan an emotional and personal connection that team sports don't.
By Thomas Cunningham
Even though I’ve never been a big sports guy, MMA has always appealed to me – two individuals competing is simultaneously skilled, strategic and cerebral and simple, primal and personal. Thanks to the UFC and the rapid rise in popularity of MMA in the last few years, you can really get to know these fighters. You can root for or against them as much for their personality and heart as their skill as athletes. It offers a fan an emotional and personal connection that team sports don't.
I wouldn't drive to Las Vegas to meet a bunch of professional athletes who I feel no connection with, but I know every time Phil Baroni walks his dog and I imagine I could talk Sex Pistols over a beer with Dan Hardy. So the idea of the UFC Fan Expo like was awesome -- maybe it's my working-class nature, but I want to make a connection with people I like and admire for their accomplishments. Luckily, MMA and the expo are the perfect match for this philosophy.
I arrived at Mandalay Bay around 11:30, got my badge and wristband and headed inside the expo. My first thought was: "Whoa..." It was huge and already pretty crowded, with people everywhere. There were some lines that were so long I couldn't even discern who or what was at the end of them. Eventually I started to get the lay of the land: bathrooms; the main doors; grappling tournament; sodas; etc.
No Lines, Good Times?
As I got a pic at the Jaco booth, Ryan Loco introduced me to Anthony Njokuani, who was standing there the whole time. I shook his hand and felt kinda dumb that I didn't even register that he was there. But it was cool and I thought that's how it should be. Fate (in the form of Ryan Loco) introduced me to a fighter.
That’s when I decided that I wasn't going to wait on lines all weekend. Sure, that probably meant no chance of saying what's-up to GSP, but I'd live. No, I'd do more than live -- I'd thrive. “F LINES!” would be my internal battle cry. Lines just aren’t my style and you must admit, if it were, this would be a very boring article. "Waited on line for an hour and met Randy Couture. I said 'Hey Randy, you rule!' He thanked me and signed my Scorpion King 2 DVD. Then I got on line to meet Anderson Silva..."
So the rule I came up with was: If I saw a fighter and there was a line (more than five people) I'd snap a pic best I could and move on. I saw Eddie Bravo and Matt Mitrione. Good old Meathead. I like that big lug - but there was a crowd so I moved on. Then I passed the Xyience booth and saw Dan Hardy. I have a bit of a hetero man-crush on Dan. Apparently I’m not alone. Dan's line was pretty long and as much as it pained me, I was going to stick to my guns and not stand in it.
Wandering around, waiting for fate to throw another celebrity my way, I happened upon the "Dana White look-a-like Contest" hosted by Stephan Bonnar and judged by the Octagon Girls, and watched for a bit. The guy who won really was a dead ringer.
I had just spotted Jake Shields when an insane commotion nearby caught my attention—turns out it was THE Anderson Silva! I snapped a pretty good pic over the heads of clamoring Spider fans and moved on. So far, fate was dragging its feet and I started to doubt my plan when I turned around and saw Chael Sonnen. He had just sat down at a booth and there were only like two people there. Hello fate!
I got a pic with Chael and he signed a UFC Undisputed 2010 flyer for me. I asked him, "Do you think you could beat Anderson in a dance contest?"
"No! No way. I saw him dance in a club once and he's really good," Chael said.
I laughed and said "Oh. I only saw him dance at UFC 112."
As I wandered toward the Jaco booth to find Ryan, I spotted Cain Velasquez, Miguel Torres, Bruce Buffer, Forrest Griffin (who had a massive line), Frank Mir, Ben "Smooth" Henderson, Clay Guida, Jens Pulver, Brendan Schaub & Roy Nelson, Bas Rutten, Leonard Garcia and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. Cowboy ran off, leaving only a couple of people around, so I got my pic with the man who stood toe to toe with the Korean Zombie! Sweet! Then I noticed Randy Couture was at a booth with less people, enabling me to get a great pic of him.
Despite how awesome of a day it was, my inner fanboy still really wanted to meet two people: Phil Baroni and Jens Pulver. I made it my mission to find them on Saturday, day two of the expo.
As I was getting ready to leave, I saw Baroni tweet that he was on his way - YES! Fate, we got a date! (Ben Henderson/Jamie Varner reference.) And of course, Dan Hardy. I put on a shirt that said "I hate Spilled Bag of Ice,” inspired by Hardy's "I hate Dan Hardy" shirt from the UFC 111 weigh-in and Joe Rogan’s UFC 109 freakout when a corner accidentally spilled ice.
I walked into the Expo feeling like man on a collision course with awesomeness - until I saw that the place was twice as crowded as Friday. I also noticed that Dan Hardy's line was even longer than on Friday. Still, fate does not cower. Hey, there's Jon Fitch, Gabe Gonzaga, Ariel Helwani, that Connor kid who went to prom with Arianny, Jeff Monson! I also got a pic with UFC veteran Din Thomas since not many people seemed to recognize him. Super nice dude.
Then I turned a corner and saw Mister Lil Evil, Jens Pulver. I'm pretty sure Jens could stop that BP oil disaster with his charm and charisma alone. He was mentoring some young kids, giving words of advice and encouragement and just being generally the most awesome mofo on Earth. I told him I couldn’t wait to see his documentary "Driven” and got a GREAT pic with him before letting him get back to being the ambassador of awesomeosity.
Next up, I tracked down Baroni and talked to him about the ongoing joke about him walking his dog on Twitter. Luckily Phil thought it was amusing and took a pic with me. Good dude. One of a kind.
Fate was giving me gold today. I spotted Mark Coleman. I saw a gracious Renzo Gracie rear-naked choke a kid in a wheelchair... for a photo, guys.
The Final Goal
I was getting kinda tired and hungry but there was still one thing I hadn’t accomplished. I walked by the Xyience booth where Matt Serra and Dan Hardy were signing. The line was still long, but I noticed Dan stand up and grab his backpack. I headed towards the doors where I guessed Dan was heading.
"Yeah, I stole the idea from you."
Well, it wasn't going to end better than that. It was time to go get a burrito.
Thomas Cunningham is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. Watching and reading about MMA is his favorite way to procrastinate when he should be writing.