The Ultimate Fighting Championship has carved out a market in regional Australia, but not to the degree I’d hoped.
Heading south out of Eden on a road trip taking the coastal route to Melbourne. It’s early afternoon on Sunday, March 6, and the preliminaries are already underway in Vegas. I stop first in Lakes Entrance, phoning around the various sports and bowls clubs to see if anyone will be running the UFC196 pay-per-view.
“Nah mate,” someone at the Lakes Sports & Community Club tells me. “No-one in Lakes Entrance will be showing it. Too expensive.”
Back on the road, next stop Bairnsdale. A club full of pokies and TAB facilities directs me to the RSL, but they too have opted not to purchase the fight. My last hope is Sale, so I push my little Polo hard to cover the final 70 kilometres in this desperate search for the UFC.
When I arrive at the Sale Greyhound Club, the main card is already underway, and the upstairs function room is packed out with scores of MMA fans. The barman serves me a beer, taking quick glances at the Anderson-Lawlor fight. It’s the first time the club has run a UFC pay-per-view event, the barman explains. “Make sure you ‘Like’ this event on our Facebook page,” he urges me. “That’ll let the boss know to keep doing these in future.”
The sport’s ever-growing popularity would be hard for a club owner to ignore, with UFC193 in Melbourne attracting a record crowd. Even so, the club has taken a sizeable gamble today. On top of the pay-per-view licensing fees to Fox Sports, which would run a fair way into four figures, the club also installed a new projector and screen in the function room specifically to show the UFC.
But the gamble, it seems, has paid off.
“Oh yes, a great turnout today,” a bar manager says. “We will be doing more of these sorts of events, no doubt about it.”
The large crowd is mostly comprised of the UFC’s core demographic, young males in ballcaps and black hoodies. Some have brought along their girlfriends, who’ve dressed up a little for a proxy night at the MGM Grand – a nice dress, a little eyeliner, a flash of cleavage. There’s also a few outliers, like the old bloke quietly sipping tea from a foam cup, and the mother trying to keep her toddler entertained with an iPad. Mostly though it’s a day for the boys, who “ooh” and “ahh” at each crack of a checked leg kick and thump of a stuffed takedown attempt.
The barman’s voice comes over the PA. “Ah guys, just letting you know we’ve got a few platters of hot food sitting up here at the bar for you, so come and help yourselves.”
There’s a rush to the bar, and a guy sporting various shades of buzzcut and a black Eire polo shirt gleefully returns to his seat with a handful of dim-sims and spring rolls.
“Free food!” he smiles, a trace of Ireland in his accent. “That’s pretty fucking alright, hey?”
The Villante-Latifi fight wraps up, another decision for the judges. “Should’ve been a knockout,” a young Aboriginal guy complains after the Villante-Latifi fight. Technically speaking, he gets his wish soon enough. The women’s bantamweight belt fight is next, with Meisha Tate taking on divisive champion Holly Holm. “The Preacher’s Daughter” assassinated Tate’s longstanding adversary, Ronda Rousey, with a brutal headkick at UFC193. The shockwaves ripped Tate off the bench for another title shot, but she’s a heavy underdog in the betting odds. No UFC champion is ever cemented in place, however, and after several rounds of heavy trading, Tate eventually wrestles Holm into a savage rear naked choke. The champ gives a final, desperate spasm before she falls unconscious and relinquishes the belt. There is a patter of claps at the Sale Greyhound Club, then an exodus to the bar for more beer and food.
The guy in the Eire shirt grows excited as the fanfare leading into the Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz fight kicks into overdrive. “Woo! Here we go, baby!”
Having secured the featherweight belt with a lightning-quick knockout in January, McGregor has taken a gamble of his own today, stepping up a weight grade to take on Nate Diaz in a quest to hold two belts simultaneously. Diaz puts up an immediate roadblock, however. The men trade hard in the first round, and Diaz sustains a cut above his eye, but hammers McGregor onto the canvas with a takedown that he twists into a merciless rear naked choke. McGregor grimaces in pain, and taps out.
In the post fight interview, commentator Joe Rogan tells Diaz, “You just shook up the world.”
“I’m not surprised, motherfuckers,” Diaz replies, which draws a laugh from the Greyhound Club patrons, though Eire shirt is quiet and dejected. The fights now over, patrons spill out of the function room and onto the pavilion for a few more beers in the late afternoon sun, ready for the greyhound races to jump. The barman moves about the function room, resetting chairs and clearing the empty glasses. He’s an MMA fighter himself, dominant in wrestling, and missed out on attending UFC193 because he was competing in a semi-pro fight in Perth that weekend.
“I’ve been watching the UFC since the early days, back before it became mainstream,” he says, admitting that he once contemplated taking a shot at the UFC. “I used to watch those old fights and think, ‘I could do this.’ But at the time it didn’t seem like a real life, a career.”
Now in his mid-30s, and having suffered a bad knee injury, the barman is resigned to touring the domestic MMA circuit, and admiring the glory of the UFC through satellite TV. Still, he’s happy to see the sport becoming so prolific and popular, noting the various MMA and “jits” (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) gyms that have opened in the region.
Outside, the greyhound races have commenced. Before each race, the dogs are paraded along the track to the sounds of the Baja Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” When they are locked inside their starting line boxes, the music switches to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” It will indeed be a good night for some patrons – the guy in the black Eire shirt included, who backs a long-odds dog that runs into third place.
“Hey you, Number 4!” he shouts at the dog as it’s led back to the kennels. “Hey you, yeah you! Thanks!”
Moments later, a schooner glass topples from his table and shatters on the concrete. Shouts of “Taxi!” echo around the pavilion. The excitement of a victory after Conor McGregor’s tapout is perhaps too much to handle. Or maybe it’s just the steady intake of cheap Carlton Draught. At any rate, it’s been a big day for the underdogs. From Meisha Tate to Number 4, the magnanimous barman to Eire shirt guy, the Sale Greyhound Club has put on a winning show.