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Fight Night: The UFC comes to Saskatchewan

First Person Exploits into the Unknown

So here is the big news: I went to the fights.

The long-awaited first Ultimate Fighting Championship event was held in Saskatchewan over the Aug. 23 weekend. Needless to say, fans of the sport of mixed martial arts were excited, and so was I – although, in my case, I am still new to it all. I’m still trying to catch on about who the big names are in the UFC, whereas my knowledge of the CFL spans decades. 

In any event, I wanted to see how Saskatchewan was reacting to this new sporting arrival, so I went to Saskatoon to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Or, for that matter, if there was any fuss in the land of Saskatchewan Roughriders football.

Actually, the real reason I went was because I was fed up with the lack of coverage this UFC event had been getting from most of the local media. The sports radio stations in particular ignored the UFC all week, and instead spent their time doing their usual obsessing about the Roughriders. I couldn’t believe it! 

So that’s the main reason I went – to put my money where my mouth was and make up for all the non-coverage you were not getting elsewhere. 

(As it turned out, attendance at Fight Night would end up being only 7,200, so the lack of buzz in advance of the event turned out to be a precursor, unfortunately.)  

By way of background – you may remember that some time ago I wrote a column in which I called for more pro sports options in Saskatchewan.  

The stories we kept on hearing for the past couple of years were (a) that the UFC was interested in Saskatchewan, and (b) the Edmonton Rush were moving their National Lacrosse League franchise to Saskatoon. 

My reaction to these rumors was always “get on with it, already.” I was sick of hearing all this talk go on with nothing concrete actually happening. 

While UFC Canada’s interest in Saskatchewan seemed serious, I never really associated the UFC with Saskatchewan. To me, it was always associated with the bright lights and glamour of the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas.

In January, I took my usual winter getaway vacation to Vegas. My trip took place the same week as the big UFC 183 event between Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz for the middleweight title. That fight was at MGM Grand Garden Arena and it was going to be a really big deal.

I went to the MGM Grand in mid-week where the UFC fighters were holding open workouts. I gawked at the Octagon that was set up in the lobby area of the hotel, and saw Anderson Silva working out for the multitude of camera people and onlookers who were there in the casino. People were taking pictures and taping the whole thing.   

Silva ultimately won the fight to retain his title. A few days later came word that both main event fighters flunked their drug tests. Silva ended up suspended for a year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after all this. 

Still, I had come away impressed by the spectacle. I thought to myself how much fun it would be if Saskatchewan hosted a UFC event – as long as Silva wasn’t involved in it.  

Finally, in the spring, the province’s fight commission was finally up and running, and this summer the announcement was made: UFC Fight Night 74, on Sunday, Aug. 23, with the main event Max Holloway versus Charles Oliveira.

Two undefeated contenders in the featherweight division – a division electrified this year by the swift rise of Conor McGregor to the title. Plus, the undercard was full of fights involving Canadians.

Obviously I wasn’t going to miss out on seeing some of the free UFC-related activities going on in Saskatoon. 

On Saturday afternoon I went down to the UFC Fan Experience tour that was being held in front of the SaskTel Centre, right in the parking lot. It took place over a span of three days and Saskatoon was its fourth stop in Canada this year. 

It was free to the public, which was good for me because even though I am “media,” I also had no media credentials. So my initial job was to make sure I had the okay to take pictures there. 

There was a whole host of activities going on there, including opportunities for the fans to experience what goes into an MMA workout, as well as a chance to get a picture taken with a UFC title belt.

The Fight Network was on the scene and they had a TV crew filming its on-air people from the area live.

An area was set up for autographs. When I arrived there was a big lineup of people to get autographs from UFC ring girl Chrissy Blair. Both Blair and Vanessa Hanson were the ring girls for this Fight Night event.        

Later in the day, SaskTel Centre opened its doors to the fans for a free question-and-answer session with some of its fighters. The session was hosted by Jon Anik, who hosts the UFC on Fox Sports 1, and he showed up wearing a big green Roughriders shirt. 

Tyron Woodley and Cody Garbrandt were the fighters who took part in that Q and A session. I noticed the audience was mainly a younger crowd, mostly under 40 – not the kind of audience you would find at a hockey game. When they took to the microphones, quite a few of them expressed their appreciation to the UFC for finally coming to Saskatoon, and I was struck by how knowledgeable the fans were when they posed questions.

One question posed to Woodley was about his upcoming fight with Johny Hendricks, and he replied “there is no ‘after the Johny Hendricks fight.’” His focus was totally on beating him on Oct. 3 at UFC 192 in Houston.

The weigh-ins were also open to the public and those were a pretty big deal, with the fighters weighing in on a scale and then posing in the “stare-down” with their opponents.  

The main drama from that session involved Valerie Letourneau, the Canadian fighting in the female strawweight division against the rising contender Maryna Moroz. 

She weighed in at 117 pounds – one pound over weight – and was given one hour to shed the one pound. I don’t know how she managed, but she did eventually make weight.   

After that was over, I headed out from the SaskTel Centre to the Dakota Dunes Casino on Whitecap Dakota First Nation south of the city, for another big MMA-themed event. 

This time it was the personal appearance of an MMA legend – Randy Couture, the legendary former UFC Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight title holder and one of the stars in The Expendables movies. 

It was meant to get started around 6:30 p.m. but the whole thing was delayed because, ahem, Couture needed to eat first. 

While we waited outside, the fans in line threw footballs at a bucket attempting to win a prize package where they would get to watch the fights with Couture inside the casino the following night. I noticed at least one person managed to win.  

Finally, Couture walked through the casino doors to a big ovation from the fans outside. Greeting Couture on his arrival was a big black Randy Couture Monster Truck with the Saskatchewan Rush logo on it, with a likeness of Couture’s head sticking out of the top of it.

I guess this event signified something else – the fact that it wasn’t just one pro sport coming to Saskatoon, but two. 

The Rush had announced their move from Edmonton over the summer, just weeks after winning the National Lacrosse League championship. Several members of the Rush organization including team president Lee Genier were at the event.

The club’s association with Randy Couture had gone way back to their days in Edmonton. They brought Couture in and he ended up cross-training some of the Rush players in MMA techniques, and he came up to Edmonton for a game. 

He said the lacrosse players he met “had that same warrior spirit that I learned in wrestling and that carried me into mixed martial arts.”

Afterwards, the club built a huge monster truck in Couture’s likeness. At Dakota Dunes on Saturday, Couture said this was the first time he had actually seen it in person.  

It makes a lot of sense for the Saskatchewan Rush to try and get some mileage out of this first UFC event in Saskatoon. I imagine plenty of UFC fans would be interested in pro lacrosse – another non-traditional sport known for its action and fast pace.    

It was an interesting night for Couture and especially for his fans at Dakota Dunes. I read on Twitter that Couture hit the craps table later. 

By all rights, that evening at Dakota Dunes should have been the end of my story about fight weekend.

I didn’t have fight tickets to UFC Fight Night and, frankly, I was expecting it to be sold out. Besides, I was working the next day covering events for the paper. 

But late in the afternoon on Sunday, I realized I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see this event live. 

That’s right, I caved. I bought a ticket to the fight. 

So I got to see for myself what SaskTel Centre looked like as a UFC fight venue. It really was sensory overload with the volume turned way up. The place was LOUD.

It was a particularly impressive sight seeing the legendary Octagon all lit up in the middle of the arena floor below.

There were memorable moments at Fight Night 74, like seeing Frankie Perez knock out Sam Stout in the first minute, and then promptly announce his retirement from the UFC right then and there!

There was Patrick Cote’s stunning third-round TKO of Josh Burkman in his fight, which brought the crowd to its feet.

As for the main event – what is there to say? All of us in the stands were anticipating five exciting rounds of MMA action, but just a minute and a half into the first round and after a few hits from Holloway, Oliveira fell to the canvas. 

Holloway started running around and celebrating, meanwhile the fight fans were standing around in disbelief. 

We were all stunned and looking at each other, going “what the hell happened?!” 

Oliveira lay there immobile on his back and after being surrounded by medics for several minutes, he was carried out on a stretcher. Later we found out Oliveira had torn his esophagus. 

So the end of the fight was a bit of a downer.

For me, though, the highlight of the whole night was just before the Main Event with legendary UFC announcer Bruce Buffer saying the words “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada” in connection to a UFC event going live across the world. “It’s tiiiiiiime!”

For that one moment, I was really proud of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. We had really made it to the big time.