On Sunday, August 14, the UFC made its Milwaukee, Wisconsin debut in spectacular fashion, courtesy of UFC on Versus 5: Lytle vs. Hardy. Although it took a while for the premier mixed martial arts promotion to finally land in the Badger State, I can assure you that the local MMA community has been abuzz about the prospect of a live UFC event for quite some time now. Especially with the surge in popularity of Duke Roufus’ gym Roufusport in Milwaukee and all the young talent it has brought forth – “Showtime” Anthony Pettis (13-2), “Dannyboy” Dan Downes (8-2), and “New Breed” Erik Koch (12-1) just to name a few – Milwaukee was ready for the UFC. Much to the delight of fans in in Milwaukee and worldwide, the UFC delivered in a big way with its most recent effort, bringing to the cage some of the best up-and-comers that the organization has to offer as well as some of its respected veterans, including a main event between British slugger “The Outlaw” Dan Hardy (23-10) and heavy-handed “Lights Out” Chris Lytle (31-18-5).
Like any MMA nut I attended the UFC on Versus 5 weigh-ins on Saturday where I was fortunate enough to meet “The Carpenter” Clay Guida (29-11), who posed for a photo with my fiancé and I before his Q&A with UFC color commentator Mike Goldberg, more affectionately known to fans as “Goldie”, who also took the time to take a picture with us. That day was something I had been waiting a long time for, and it felt like a dream. I had watched the events’ weigh-ins time and time again on my computer, but it can’t even be described how much more intense they are in person. The anticipation of the crowd was a prominent presence outside the Harley Davidson Museum. Goldberg’s commentator partner in crime Joe Rogan’s voice and subsequent cheers from the audience rang out over the grounds while he announced the names of the fighters as they stepped on the scale, then commenced shiver-inducing staredowns with their foe. The icing on the cake came in the form of running into and taking a photo with one of the men who made the festivities possible, UFC President Dana White. If Saturday’s weigh-ins experience was any indication of what the fight card the following day would be like, I knew that I was in for an unforgettable weekend.
The next day it wasn’t easy watching the clock tick away at the hours and minutes until showtime. Spending much of the morning and early afternoon watching UFC Ultimate Comebacks helped some, but also made it more difficult by building anticipation for the fights to come. As I entered Milwaukee’s Bradley Center at about 3pm, I experienced one of the most exhilarating feelings I had ever known – it was TIME! We scrambled to find our seats, settling in once we found them, though soon after we found ourselves wandering around the arena. Bumping into famed UFC cutman “Stitch” Jacob Duran and MMA referee Herb Dean made the realization that the UFC was finally in my hometown all the more real.
We settled back in our seats, which were right by the fighters’ entrance. I couldn’t help but think about the excitement of being just feet away from each competitor as they made their way to the Octagon. I was able to see the cage perfectly – it doesn’t get any better than this. The arena lights overhead dimmed and the lights around the Octagon illuminated more brightly. I felt at home.
The crowd began to roar as the first walk-out songs of the night blared over the loudspeakers and the fighters followed the path to cage to meet their fate for the evening. I made my way to the guardrail to get high-fives from the fighters as they walked in then darted back to my seat so as not to miss any of the action – with a fight card including the likes of WEC veteran “Last Call” Danny Castillo (10-4), submission specialist “Magrinho” Cole Miller (17-6), TUF alum “Bruce Leroy” Alex Caceres (6-5), well-rounded middleweight “Short Fuse” Ed Herman (17-8), Elite XC veteran “KO” Kyle Noke (19-5-1), WEC transplant Joseph Benavidez (12-2), and hard-hitting bantamweight Eddie Wineland (17-8-1), there was plenty of action to go around on the preliminary card alone.
UFC on Versus 5′s main card kicked off with TUF 7 alum Amir Sadollah (5-3) taking on “Bang” Duane Ludwig (21-11). I was surprised to see Sadollah looking like a mere glimpse of his usual self. He lacked aggression and his cardio was struggling. Ludwig though definitely looked improved in his striking and was beating Amir in what he had most recently become known for: Muay Thai.
“Cowboy” Donald Cerrone (15-4) put a whoopin’ on Charles Oliveira (14-2), plain and simple. He executed the more successful game plan, bum rushing the young prospect with various strikes including some vicious leg kicks. The fight didn’t last long enough for me to make a trip to the concession stand even if I had wanted to. Cerrone is a force to be reckoned with in the UFC’s lightweight division, and judging by the reaction of the crowd around me, very few doubt that.
The atmosphere in the Bradley Center grew increasingly electric as “Smooth” Ben Henderson (13-2) and top prospect “The Mongoose” Jim Miller (20-3) took the cage for the co-main event. Henderson was a beast and looked better than ever. He was faster and stronger than Miller and dominated him the entire fight, contrary to my prior expectations for the bout, which involved Miller KO’ing the WEC veteran. Didn’t happen – Miller got manhandled. Regardless of the outcome, the match-up was an entertaining one that elevated the roars coming from the crowd.
Chris Lytle earned every single penny of his $130,000 in bonuses for his main event fight against Dan Hardy. The back-and-forth brawl was one of the most exciting I’ve seen in recent memory. Hardy came out strategy in tow, using dynamic striking to tag the MMA veteran. Lytle answered back with a bounty of solid blows of his own. I doubt a single person in the audience stayed in their seats during this fight. It was pretty obvious when Hardy took down Lytle at the end of the Round 3 that he was trying to leave a lasting impression on the judges, but still, I was dumbfounded. Lytle went out on a glorious win, and it was awesome to see – even more so to see it in person.
It seemed as though almost every fight could have been awarded “Fight of the Night”. The crowd went wild for every fight and every fighter who landed a punch or scored points with a takedown . At one point I was screaming at my fiancé that was sitting next to me, “Can you believe how loud this place is?” Fans stomped, clapped, and screamed in approval of the show being put on before us. Not a sound of discontent was heard in the arena until the end of the main event when Joe Rogan spoke with Chris Lytle about his impending retirement, at which time fans booed out of heartbreak for seeing a true warrior of the sport hang up his gloves for good. Heavy hearts aside, fans were appreciative of Lytle in his typical fashion putting it all on the line for the sake of a good show. I think I can speak for the MMA fans of Milwaukee when I say that it was an honor for our city to host the last fight of Chris Lytle’s storied career.
Shortly after filing out of the arena and into my car, I found myself replaying every single fight in my head and hoping that it won’t be too long before the world’s premiere MMA organization returns to Milwaukee. That’s a day that I will definitely look forward to.