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UFC 186 competitor TJ Dillashaw (right) throws a punch. (lowkickmma.com)

From the cheap seats: UFC open day

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Ifind it strange being in a room with multiple people who can easily beat me up. Especially when some of those people are only 5’3.”

And that is the position I was in for two hours at the Bell Centre on Feb. 25 for the UFC 186 open media session. I got my press pass at the door, got a coffee and sandwich at the complementary buffet, and entered the surreal world of the most popular organization of mixed martial arts (MMA). I was immediately struck by how accessible and willing to talk the athletes were. They all exuded a mixture of humility and confidence. They gave refreshingly candid opinions as opposed to the recycled platitudes we hear in so many mainstream sports.

They did not shy away from difficult questions about UFC legend Anderson Silva’s positive steroids test and doping in MMA. Everyone questioned agreed that steroids should be banned and drug cheats should be punished. However, some of the fighters were more empathetic towards steroid users than others. That side was represented by Demetrius “DJ” Johnson (the five-footer who could beat me up), who said that he believes that steroids do not totally invalidate a fighter’s achievements.

“Anderson Silva did some amazing things in the octogon whether he was on [performance enhancing drugs] or not,” Johnson said. “He still has to train. Yes he did cheat, but he still has to put the work in the gym […] and go into the octagon and knock this person out.”

Despite the sympathy, Johnson was adamant that he did not believe in steroid use, and that he was not tempted to use it. On the other side, TJ Dillashaw–defending UFC Bantamweight champion–was far more emphatic about steroids as cheating and a blight on the industry. 

Johnson also did not baulk at criticizing the exuberant and visionary UFC commissioner Dana White for allowing WWE wrestler CM Punk to join the company without a substantial background in MMA. 

“Next time I see [White] I am going to ask him, ‘How are you going to sign CM Punk to the best MMA organization,’” Dillashaw said. “I would not sign him. I would pay top dollar to get the best talent over someone like CM Punk […] who has never had one amateur fight or spar.”

With regards to UFC in Canada, Montreal veteran fighter Patrick Cote, who will face Joe Riggs at UFC 186, believed better grassroots development was needed to continue producing quality Canadian fighters.

“We have a lot of young fighters and prospects [who] want to fight but there is [no] serious organization to develop those young guys,” Cote explained.

Ever since MMA was legalized across Canada in 2010, the sport has blossomed. Canada has hosted the most UFC events outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The first UFC event in Toronto sold  out with 55,000 tickets. This has been aided by the presence of the wildly popular superstar Georges St. Pierre, who would probably be elected as Premier of Quebec if he ran. Quebecers, and Canadians at large, have taken to UFC at an alarming rate.

“First and foremost, Canadians are sport fans […] so I think that we are a great sports nation and this is a great sport,” Head of UFC Canada Tom Wright explained. “Second is that we are as multicultural a country as you would find anywhere on the planet and […] our sport is as multicultural as any.”

Despite its status as a second-tier sport in Canada behind the usual suspects such as hockey, basketball, and football, MMA is truly awe-inspiring. Its athletes are probably in the best shape of any athletes on the planet–all muscle, coiled power, and fluid limbs. 

The open media day made the UFC seem very egalitarian. The athletes unabashadly shared their opinions. Wright seemed to connect personally with the fighters. This is an organization that seems to want to make the paying public a part of their world. I was sold. I got a star-struck photo with Cote. I even managed to make it through the session without taking a beating.

UFC 186 takes place on April 25  at the Bell Centre.

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